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Five Favorite Fictional Houses from Children's Literature: A Booklights Reissue

This post was originally published at Booklights on October 19, 2009.

Five Favorite Fictional Houses from Children's Literature

Lots of people responded positively to my recent post about favorite fictional towns from children's literature [here I'm referring to people who responded to the original Booklights post]. A number of people commented and Twittered to share their favorites. Carol Rasco (from RIF) mentioned Misselthwaite Manor from The Secret Garden. And I thought "great suggestion, that's one of my favorite houses from children's literature." And that, naturally enough, led me to thinking about my other favorite fictional houses. In the interest of fairness (or at least of not being overly repetitive), I've excluded any authors who I previous mentioned in my favorite fictional towns or favorite fictional rooms posts. And yes, that excludes Hogwarts, because I've already mentioned Hogsmeade, and Green Gables, because I've already mentioned Avonlea, and the many great houses created by Elizabeth Enright and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. There are still lots of wonderful houses to choose from. In each case, I've decided to let the author describe the house in question. After all, they can do this far better than I could.

Secret Garden.jpg1. Misselthwaite Manor from The Secret Garden (with thanks to Carol Rasco) by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

"Not but that it's a grand big place in a gloomy way, and Mr. Craven's proud of it in his way--and that gloomy enough, too. The house is six hundred years old and it's on the edge of the moor, and there's near a hundred rooms in it, though most of them's shut up and locked. And there's pictures and fine old furniture and things that's been there for ages, and there's a big park round it and gardens and tree with branches trailing to the ground--some of them." (Chapter 2, Mistress Mary Quite Contrary, description by Mrs. Medlock)

2. The Hall family's house in Concord, MA from Jane Langton's The Diamond in the Window (reviewed here).

"All of the other houses on the street were neat square white buildings with dark shutters and simple pitched roofs. Out from among them mushroomed the Halls' house like an exotic tropical plant in a field of New England daisies. It was a great wooden Gothic Byzantine structure, truly in need of painting. Big as it was, it looked airy and light, as though the wind might pick it up and carry it away. Screened porches ballooned and billowed out of it all around, and domes and towers puffer up at the top as though they were filled with air." (Chapter Two, The Hidden Chamber)

Hobbit.jpg3. Bag End, Bilbo's house (later Frodo's house) from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.

"It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats -- the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill -- The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it -- and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another." (Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party, The Hobbit)

LionWitchWardrobe.jpg4. The Professor's house from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

"It was the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places. The first few doors they tried led only into spare bedrooms, as everyone had expected that they would; but soon they came to a very long room full of pictures and there they found a suit of armor; and after that was a room all hung with green, with a harp in one corner; and then came three steps down and five steps up, and then a kind of little upstairs hall and a door that led out onto a balcony, and then a whole series of rooms that led into each other and were lined with books--most of them very old books and some bigger than a Bible in a church." (Chapter One, Lucy Looks Into a Wardrobe)

LittleHouseBigWoods.jpg5. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. (This house is technically not fictional, but since the series is generally shelved as fiction, I'm going to allow it.)

"Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them." (Page 1-2)

I think it's telling that all five of the passages quoted above are from the first chapter or two. These houses play a central part in the books in question. In thinking about these houses (and the ones from my other posts), it's clear that my favorite fictional houses fall into two basic categories: big houses with lots of corridors and cupolas and hidden surprises, and homes that evoke a cozy, safe feeling. How about you? What do you look for in a favorite fictional house? Do you crave turrets and long passageways to explore? Or do you care more about finding a cozy nest?

This post was originally published at Booklights on October 19, 2009. Since Booklights has ended, I am republishing selected posts here, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, with permission from PBS Parents. Booklights was funded by the PBS Kids Raising Readers initiative. All rights reserved.


Five Favorite Fictional Towns from Children's Literature: A Booklights Reissue

This post was originally published at Booklights on September 28, 2009.

Five Favorite Fictional Towns from Children's Literature

Charlie.jpgLast fall, inspired by a post at Charlotte's Library, I wrote about my Five Favorite Fictional Rooms from Children's Literature. That post remains one of my favorites, because it makes me happy just thinking about these favorite fictional rooms (like the chocolate room from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

This weekend, I got to thinking about some of favorite fictional towns from children's literature. These are towns described so perfectly on the page that they feel real. Town that stand out in my memory, and that my childhood self would have loved to visit. Some of my favorites are realistic towns. The only magic that you'll find there is the magic of community. Others are clearly fantastic, from a town for wizards to an underground city to a city in the clouds. But they're all special, in one way or another. Here are my personal top five fictional towns from children's literature, with a couple of honorable mentions at the end.

anneshirleyboxedset.jpg#1: Avonlea, Price Edward Island, Canada. Avonlea is home, of course, of Anne Shirley of Green Gables. Avonlea is a fictional community, albeit one closely based on the towns of L. M. Montgomery's childhood (or so Wikipedia says). Avonlea features Green Gables, Mrs. Rachel Lynde's farm, the school where Anne was first pupil then teacher, and Marilla's church. Avonlea really shines in Anne of Avonlea, as you might expect. Remember the village improvement society, and their mishap with the wrong color paint? I think that my fondness for Avonlea is a side effect of my general fondness for Anne, Marilla, Matthew, Diana, and, of course, Gilbert. When I started thinking about favorite towns from literature, Avonlea was the first to come to mind.

#2: Gone-Away from Elizabeth Enright's Gone-Away Lake books. I wrote about the second Gone-Away book, Return to Gone-Away, recently at Booklights, and also reviewed it here. Gone-Away is a former summer community, located on the shores of a lake degenerated into a swamp, populated by two elderly residents. Here is the reader's first glimpse of Gone-Away: "They both climbed up on the little hulk and looked out over the tops of the reeds, a sea of reeds, beyond which, and around, grew the dark woods. But that was not all. Portia and Julian drew in a breath of surprise at exactly the same instant, because at the northeast end of the swamp, between the reeds and the woods, and quite near to them, they saw a row of wrecked old houses. There were perhaps a dozen of them; all large and shabby, though once they must have been quite elaborate, adorned as they were with balconies, turrets, widows' walks, and lacy wooden trimming. But now the balconies were sagging and the turrets tipsy; the shutters were crooked or gone, and large sections of wooden trimming had broken off. There was a tree sticking out of one of the windows, not into it but out of it. And everything was as still as death." (Chapter 2, Gone-Away Lake). Of course the children learn that Gone-Away is far less forbidding than it first appears. Gone-Away epitomizes summer for me. It will always have a special place in my heart.

All Harry Potter books.jpg#3: Hogsmeade from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Hogsmeade is a magic-filled town, located adjacent to Hogwarts. It includes the Three Broomsticks pub, Honeydukes sweetshop, Madam Puddifoot's tearoom, and, of course, the Shrieking Shack. Hogswarts students aren't allowed to visit Hogwarts until their third year, and even then they need permission from a parent or guardian (a sore spot indeed for a boy with toxic guardians). Millions of children around the world would go to the same lengths Harry does, if it meant that they could drink some butterbeer, or pick up magic tricks at Zonko's joke shop. Happily, they'll have a chance to visit a theme park version of Hogsmeade at Universal Studios next spring. I'm sure that's going to be a huge hit. Though me, I always picture Hogsmeade in the snow.

#4: Ember from Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember (with an honorable mention for Sparks, location of the second book in the series). Ember is an underground city, built as a last-ditch effort to protect humanity from a nuclear holocaust. The people living in Ember don't know that there ever was an outside world, and are completely dependent on light bulbs. Here's the opening description of Ember: "In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark. The only light came from great flood lamps mounted on the buildings and at the top of poles in the middle of the larger squares. When the lights were on, they cast a yellowish glow over the streets; people walking by threw long shadows that shortened and then stretched out again. When the lights were off, as they were between nine at night and six in the morning, the city was so dark that people might as well have been wearing blindfolds." (Chapter 1, The City of Ember) Who could read that, and not want to know more about Ember?

BelowTheRoot.jpg#5: Green Sky from the Green Sky Trilogy by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Green Sky is a city build high up in the branches of an enormous forest. The people there wear "shubas", which are garments with wide, wing-like panels. The shubas allow them to glide gently downward in Green Sky's heavy atmosphere (they use ladders and stairways to climb back up). Here's a hint of what Green Sky is like: "He stood on the narrow grundbranch, looking down hundreds of feet, through vast open spaces softly lit by filtering rays of greenish light, bordered and intersected by enormous branches, festooned with curtains of graceful Wissenvine. Shaking out the wing panels of his shuba, the long silken robe worn by all except the youngest infants, he launched himself downward into space." (Chapter 1, Below the Root) I've never forgotten Green Sky, first encountered when I was probably 10 years old. I reviewed the Green Sky Trilogy here.

And finally, here are a few honorable mentions: L. Frank Baum's Emerald City, Astrid Lindgren's Noisy Village, and Laini Taylor's Dreamdark. My fondness for these fictional towns is a testament to the power of literature.

How about you? What are your favorite fictional towns from children's literature? (See the comments on the original post for some great responses.)

This post was originally published at Booklights on September 28, 2009. Since Booklights has ended, I am republishing selected posts here, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, with permission from PBS Parents. Booklights was funded by the PBS Kids Raising Readers initiative. All rights reserved.


A Must-Read Post on How Reading Aloud Made Read Aloud Dad a Better Father

RADLogo Every once in a while a post comes along that reminds me of why I'm doing this whole blogging thing in the first place. Today, I found such a post at Read Aloud Dad. Read Aloud Dad, father to young twins, shares the story of how reading aloud made him a better father.

He explains that he wasn't comfortable talking with his kids when they were too young to communicate back. He talks about how he left the talking part to his (already overworked) wife. And he talks about how everything changed for his family once he took over the nightly reading sessions. Once he became "Read Aloud Dad."

He explains: "Children's books almost magically opened up the channels of communication. They broke down all the walls." He reviews other benefits that have come from his commitment to reading aloud, and closes with advice for other dads who would like to see this magic happen in their own homes.

I wish that I had a way to share this post with every dad or mom who feels uncomfortable talking with their pre-verbal children. To share it with all the people who think "oh, well, my child isn't old enough to read to yet." By opening up, by sharing his own limitations and struggles, Read Aloud Dad makes a powerful, completely non-judgmental, case for reading aloud to kids. That is what blogging can do.

Go read it! I hope that this post brightens your day, as it did mine.


Revisiting Old Friends: A Booklights Reissue

This post was originally published at Booklights on August 17, 2009. It is one of my very favorite posts from Booklights, about the joys of revisiting books that have become, through repeat reads, old friends.

Revisiting Old Friends

21WXW4GJCQL._SL500_AA140_.jpgLast week Susan wrote about the gift of reading a wonderful book for the first time. She asked readers: "What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?". This post inspired a host of thoughtful and (sometimes) nostalgic responses. The next day, Pam wrote about three of her favorite summer books and asked readers to share their favorites. These posts, in part (along with a post by Charlotte from Charlotte's Library), inspired me to re-read one of my own favorite books, one that is for me the very essence of summer: Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright. I previously listed Return to Gone-Away as one of my favorite children's books, and just reviewed it here. Re-reading Return to Gone-Away last week made me think about something that is, in a way, a mirror image Susan's post. It made me think about the joy that comes from re-reading an old favorite, one in which each character and scene are already familiar.

ForgottenDoor.jpgI was only a few pages in to my re-read of Return to Gone-Away when it literally brought tears to my eyes. It wasn't the content of the book that made me weepy-eyed. It's that I was so happy to be back reading this particular book that my emotions just bubbled over. I can only think of a few books that evoke tears from me, just from being themselves. Return to Gone-Away is one of them. Two others are The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key and Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson (my all-time favorite book, published for adults). (You can read about some of my other favorite re-reads here.)

I love everything about these cherished books. I love the language, especially when I read particular sentences that I remember verbatim. I love the characters, and the way that they remind me anew of the things that make them special. I love re-visiting my younger self, remembering earlier reads of the same book. I literally give these books a little pat on the cover when I see them on my bedside table - I'm unable to rein in my affection. And why should I? These are the books that made me who I am.

When I read new books, I generally require a considerable amount of plot. The more complex and suspenseful, the better. But I'm reminded by Return to Gone-Away that the books I already love, the books that I read over and over again, don't need suspense at all. The re-reading experience, for me, is all about revisiting beloved characters and settings. It's about visiting old friends. It's about a personal connection between me and the particular book. I don't want the opportunity to read these particular books again as if it was the first time (as Susan discussed). Part of what makes these particular books special for me is the incremental appreciation I've built up over dozens of readings.

I like smiling when Mrs. Blake says, on page 1 of Return to Gone-Away "We'll have to think of a new name for that house right away", because I already know the outcome. I like already knowing whether or not Julian will find the missing safe, and whether or not the rope in the old dumbwaiter will break. I like shaking my head on page 9, because Foster's behavior is just so typically Foster.

This affection for particular books is more than just taking comfort in familiarity (though that's part of it). I don't think that you can just pick any old random book off the shelf, and re-read it once a year for 20 years, and have the book become meaningful to you (though that would be an interesting experiment). I think that there has to be something already in the book that makes you want to re-read it every year. Something that connects you to the book. For those books, the ones that you love enough to revisit throughout your lifetime, the connection just gets stronger every year.

This isn't to say that I disagree with Susan about the wonders of reading a great book for the first time. I envy every single person who hasn't read The Hunger Games yet, because they still have it ahead of them. And I know that sometimes childhood favorites don't hold up at all. But I also think (and I'll bet that Susan will agree) that there's something very special about re-reading a favorite book, one that is loved, in part, because it's so familiar.

HarryPotter1.jpgI'd like to believe that everyone has books like these, books that they can turn to for comfort reading on bleak days. Books that remind them of where they came from, and what mattered to them when they were younger. Parents, what books will bring tears to your children's eyes when they're 40, because they're so happy to be back reading the books again? Will it be Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? The Penderwicks? The Lord of the Rings? Clementine? Will the teens who have read Twilight seven times already re-read it as they get older? Will reading Twilight when they are 60 help them to recapture that feeling of falling in love with a book at 12? I hope so. Because me, I feel blessed to have my favorite books as part of my life. What do all of you say?

This post was originally published at Booklights on August 17, 2009. Since Booklights has ended, I am republishing selected posts here, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, with permission from PBS Parents. Booklights was funded by the PBS Kids Raising Readers initiative. All rights reserved.


Why Adults Should Read Children's Books

Book-illustration-150x150 Today at Getting Kids Reading Joyce Grant has an article that summarizes and expands upon ideas from one of my very earliest blog topics: Why You Should Read Children's Books as an Adult (Joyce's post, my original post). I hope that you'll take a few minutes to check out the new post and admire Joyce's snazzy new look for her blog. Here's a snippet from her post:

"When kids see adults reading they’re more likely to read, themselves. It isn’t just a theory, there’s been research done on this. When a kid sees an adult reading a children’s book, he’s even more likely to read."

I think it's true (not to mention all of the other excellent reasons to read children's books). What say all of you? Have you found that by reading children's books, you've helped to encourage your students and/or your children to read themselves?

Terry_readingtubfinal_1 For more on ways to encourage kids to read, check out part 1 of the January Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup at The Reading Tub. Among other interesting news tidbits, Terry links to a podcast interview between Franki Sibberson and Donalyn Miller at Choice Literacy on Modeling Literate Lives. Two of my favorite literacy champions, talking about how to let kids know that reading is worthwhile. Don't miss it!

I'll be back tomorrow with Part 2 of the January Literacy Roundup. Thanks for reading!


The Power of Social Reading: A Booklights Reissue

This post was originally published at Booklights in June of 2009. It discusses the concept of Social Reading (kids recommending books to one another), something I first saw discussed at The Reading Zone. The original post sparked quite a few comments, and I'll be interested to see if this idea still captures people's imaginations. See also this follow-on post at Booklights (which I won't be republishing here) with links to a variety of other posts about social reading and reading and grade levels. I also shared some links to other people's posts in defense of escapist summer reading here.

The Power of Social Reading

A post that I read recently at The Reading Zone inspired me to write about "social reading" for kids. Blogger Sarah Mulhern is "a 6th grade Language Arts teacher who strives to instill a love of reading and writing in her students". Recently, Sarah wrote about a book club that she observed in her classroom between two best friends. The two girls decided, on their own initiative, to read the same book (Gone by Michael Grant). Sarah observed:

"They talk about the book with each other and with me, coming to me to share their responses and exclamations. I LOVE IT! ... It's amazing the power that social reading has. Why don't we harness this in more classrooms and use it? Students reading, recommending, and talking about books is more powerful than any literacy kit, basal reader, or literature set."

I certainly agree with that. I don't remember much about what I was reading in the classroom in 5th or 6th grade, beyond a vague memory of workbooks and reading comprehension questions. But I DO remember talking about books with my friend Holly. We especially enjoyed a book about Gnomes, Fairies, and Elves, and we were thrilled to discover a hidden path to an island of sticks in the swamp behind my house. Surely there was magic there! Holly moved out of the country after fifth grade, and for quite a while we took turns writing a shared story, sending chapters back and forth by airmail. I think that our shared experience with books worked a dual magic - it strengthened my friendship with Holly, while at the same time reinforcing my love of books. And I've been fortunate to have that dynamic with friends in my adult life, too. We benefit from the recommendations that we share with each other, and our friendships grow while we discuss the books.

In The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, Donalyn Miller talks about the importance of her own shared reading experiences with her husband, her children, and her best friend. Talking about her classroom, she says:

"By setting the expectation that reading is what we do, always, everywhere, it becomes the heart of a class' culture. Even the most resistant readers can't fight if all of their friends comply." (Chapter 3)

I know parents who have had good success with parent-child bookgroups (see MotherDaughterBookClub.com, for example, or read Heather Vogel Frederick's book The Mother-Daughter Book Club). I think that bookclubs are a great idea. There's no doubt that by talking about books with their kids, parents can have a tremendous influence. Last summer, our own MotherReader hosted a wonderful summer book club for her rising seventh-grader's Girl Scout Troop. (You can find all of the posts here.)

I also think that when kids talk about books on their own, and make recommendations to one another, great things can happen. I'm not sure what can be done to encourage this social reading, exactly. I'm sure that the best response comes from the spontaneous bubbling over of genuine enthusiasm, and you can't orchestrate that. But I would be willing to bet that kids whose close friends are avid readers are more likely to be readers themselves (and vice versa).

Surely social reading has been a big part of the Twilight phenomenon, with girls reading the books because their friends rave about them. It was clear when I attended the signing for The Last Olympian this spring that part of the reason that kids were so excited about the Percy Jackson books was because OTHER kids were so excited about them. And that's great. J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Rick Riordan deserve every iota of success, as far as I'm concerned, because their books have turned kids into readers. But what I'd also love to see more of is kids recommending books back and forth that aren't necessarily huge bestsellers. A kid recommending The Magic Thief or Alabama Moon to his best friend because he loves it, and he wants his friend to read it so that they can compare notes, and discuss it. I'd like to peek into Sarah's classroom, just for a moment, to see those two girls, heads bent together over their matching books. I think that social reading is a beautiful thing, something worth cultivating.

What do you all think? Have you observed social reading between your kids and their friends? In their classrooms? Teachers, is this something that you've been able to harness? Do you have any suggestions for how to do it? I would love to hear your feedback.

This post was originally published at Booklights on June 22, 2009. Since Booklights has ended, I am republishing selected posts here, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, with permission from PBS Parents. Booklights was funded by the PBS Kids Raising Readers initiative. All rights reserved.


Reading and Grade Levels: Keeping it FUN: A Booklights Reissue

This post was originally published at Booklights in June of 2009, a result of posts that I'd seen, and discussion on my own blog and at Booklights. Since I wrote this post, I've become a parent myself. And although I have hopefully nicknamed my daughter Baby Bookworm, I certainly don't intend to ever pressure her to read books at any particular grade level. I do very much hope that she will love books, and I believe that the best way for that to happen is for her to read the books that she loves. Don't you?

Reading and Grade Levels: Keeping it FUN

I posted on my blog on Friday [in June of 2009] about the question of whether or not it's a good idea to encourage kids to read above their grade level. I was inspired by an excellent post on this subject by Dashka Slater at Babble. I discovered very quickly that quite a few people have opinions on this, as you can see in the extensive comments of both of the previous two posts, and the cropping up of other posts like this one at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, this one at Here in the Bonny Glen, and this one at Best Book I Have Not Read. I decided, based on this response, that it was a worthwhile topic to bring up here at Booklights. This is also, I think, a logical follow-up to Pam's post from last week about encouraging summer reading. Pam talked about the importance of bringing home a variety of books from the library. She said: "Don't overrule a book your child picks as being too young for him, but also reserve the right make some selections yourself." Like Pam, I'm not a reading specialist, but I do have something to say about this topic.

RES_AnInterestInArt.jpgAs all of the above discussions make clear, there is, in some circles, a bit of competitive pressure going on regarding kids' reading levels. I've heard about the five year old who likes the unabridged version of the Iliad, and the six-year-old reading at a sixth grade level. Melissa Wiley writes about a woman who discouraged her four-year-old from reading picture books, in favor of "something more challenging". An elementary school librarian commented on my earlier post: "I have some students who are "weightlifting" in second grade, carrying Eragon and Inkspell around rather than reading it." The Babble article says: "I hear parents dropping the names of children's books as if they were designer labels. "Junie B. Jones?" one might say witheringly. "My daughter loved that in preschool, but now she's reading the sixth Harry Potter." [Image credit: photo by ToymanRon, shared at MorgueFile. And no, I don't know exactly what this girl is actually reading.]

I can see how it would be easy to caught up in all of this. The parent who reads aloud to her child from the womb, provides lots of books, and is a role model for the importance of reading might be understandably thrilled when said child becomes an advanced reader. Particularly if teachers are encouraging the child to read ever more "challenging" books, and other parents are all talking about what tremendously advanced material their children are reading. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article says (in the context of homework, but I think there's a clear parallel), "Parents who cannot remember homework when they were in kindergarten now help their five-year-olds with up to 45 minutes a day of sheets filled with literacy and numeracy problems. Even those who doubt the wisdom of homework at such an early age reluctantly go along with it, driven by fear of their child falling behind." I know that the "fear of their child falling behind", in our competitive society, is significant.

BUT, there are problems with the relentless progression towards ever-more-advanced reading material for kids. The short-term problem is that children can miss books that they would enjoy reading. Books about kids their own age, having relatable experiences. Fun books. Books with pictures! Instead, they can end up reading books before they are ready for them, which often leads to not appreciating the books, and never going back. The long-term problem is that if you turn reading into a competition, you run the risk of turning it into a chore. You run the risk of having that bright-eyed five-year-old advanced reader grow, in the blink of an eye, into a fourth-grader who won't read anything beyond what's strictly necessary for homework. And that is a tragedy.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't ever let your kids read books that are above their grade level. If they want to do that, and if you deem that books aren't too mature for them thematically, then by all means let them read ahead. Kids usually have a pretty good notion of what they can manage. If they find a book too difficult, they are likely to get bored with that book, and move on to something else. (As Stacy Dillon commented on my post, "I'm bored" is often code for "I don't understand"). So, I'm not saying that the occasional first grader reading the first Harry Potter book is a problem.

JGS_Reading.jpgWhat I am saying is that it's not a good idea to pressure kids to read above their age level. Reading, especially in the summer, should be fun. It isn't meant to be a race. It's a pastime, a journey, a way to teach kids to love books. You don't instill a life-long love of reading by belittling the eight-year-old who wants to flip through picture books on a rainy afternoon. You don't encourage reading by turning down your nose at Goosebumps or comic books or (for teens) the Twilight books. Just because your seven year old CAN read at a sixth grade level, you don't have to deny her the joy of reading about Clementine, Ramona, Pippi Longstocking or Ivy and Bean. Just as we adults sometimes want to read recreationally, it's ok for kids, too. More than OK, in fact, it's something that can help them to maintain the joy of reading. That's what I think, anyway. And it's what many of the authors of and commenters on the posts above think, too, though I've only been able to capture a small amount of that discussion here. [Image credit: photo by Gracey, shared at MorgueFile]

What do you all think? Have you felt pressure, from teachers or other parents, to keep your children reading above grade level? How do you handle this? Or have you found it to be more of a problem the other way, with your library not letting kids read above grade level?

This post was originally published at Booklights on June 15, 2009. Since Booklights has ended, I am republishing selected posts here, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, with permission from PBS Parents. Booklights was funded by the PBS Kids Raising Readers initiative. All rights reserved.


A Most Impressive Reading Streak - 3218 Nights in a Row

Cheryl Rainfield linked to a New York Times article today that I absolutely love. Michael Winerip profiles a father and daughter who read aloud together every night for 3218 nights in a row. 3218 nights!! 

Jim Brozina, a single father and elementary school librarian, proposed "The Streak" to his daughter Kristen when she was in fourth grade. He didn't want them to stop reading together, and he thought that The Streak might help. The original goal was to see if they could read together for 100 nights in a row. Well, 100 nights stretched to 1000, and then The Streak ended up continuing right up until Kristen's first day of college. How awesome is that?

Some compromise was required, of course. They had to do a few of the readings over the phone, or out at Kristen's play practices. They had to interrupt their respective social lives sometimes. But they did it anyway. What a testimonial to the power of reading. And, perhaps, a future tip for growing bookworms... Seems to me that families with two parents at home could have a bit more flexibility in scheduling, and perhaps produce an even more impressive streak. But it would take real determination.

Jim and Kristen, you are an inspiration! Thanks to you (and to Michael Winerip and Cheryl Rainfield) for brightening my weekend.


The Read-Aloud Handbook: Jim Trelease

Book: The Read-Aloud Handbook: Sixth Edition
Author: Jim Trelease
Pages: 432
Age Range: Adult nonfiction 

ReadAloudHandbook I've recommended Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook many times, but I've never actually reviewed it. I recently re-read the book (inspired in part by Dawn Morris' comments after her first reading of the book), and thought that I would share a few thoughts. This is more a reaction than a formal review.

First of all, I agree with Dawn that this is a book that everyone should read. Or at least every parent and teacher, aunt, uncle, or grandparent should read it, along with anyone else who has an interest in the well-being and future success of children. I also agree with Teacherninja Jim, who commented on a recent Booklights post of mine that a copy of this book should be sent home from the hospital with every new parent.

The Read-Aloud Handbook is about why it's important for children to grow up as readers, and how parents and teachers can help to accomplish this goal. My earlier reading of The Read-Aloud Handbook helped inspire me to start this blog in the first place. The Read-Aloud Handbook blends the author's personal experiences as a parent, lecturer, and advocate of reading with extensive research.

The primary arguments of The Read-Aloud Handbook are (and I'm paraphrasing for simplicity):

  • Kids spend 900 hours a year inside of school, and 7800 hours a year outside of school. It's short-sighted to put all of the responsibility of encouraging kids as readers on the schools. Parents can play a huge role by reading to their kids, making sure that they have access to books in the home, and modeling reading behavior. (Introduction)
  • The only way to really drive change is to launch a huge national awareness campaign (like the one against smoking), telling parents what they should and must do in the home, if they want to prepare their children for success in today's world. This is unlikely to happen, however, because politicians are reluctant to hold the huge voting block of parents accountable. (Introduction)
  • The National Reading Panel found that "the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for success in reading is reading aloud to children." (Page 3) This applies at home and in schools.
  • Among the many reasons to read aloud to kids, one of the most important is that it helps them to associate reading with pleasure. Human beings are by nature pleasure-centered -- we will voluntarily do things repeatedly if we get pleasure from them. And because reading is an accrued skill, spending repeated time reading is what enables us to get good at it.

Here are a couple of quotes that particularly stood out for me on this reading (out of many that I could have chosen):

"Reading is the ultimate weapon, destroying ignorance, poverty, and despair before they can destroy us. A nation that doesn't read much doesn't know much. And a nation that doesn't know much is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth. And those decisions ultimately affect an entire nation--the literate and the illiterate." (Page xxvi)

"The last thirty years of reading research confirms this simple formula--regardless of sex, race, nationality, or socioeconomic background. Students who read the most also read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don't read much cannot get better at it.

Why don't students read more? Because of Reading Fact No. 1 (Human beings are pleasure centered). The large number of "unpleasure messages they received throughout their school years, coupled with the lack of pleasure messages in the home, nullify any attraction books might have." (Page 5)

After framing the arguments for raising kids who like to read, and using reading aloud as a tool to facilitate this, Trelease goes on to talk about when to begin (and end) reading aloud, the developmental stages of reading aloud, and some nuts-and-bolts dos and don'ts of reading aloud. These early chapters (especially Chapter 4, which consists of nothing but bulleted lists of dos and don'ts) are the ones that I would most encourage parents to read. If you have time for nothing else, read the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4. This could help you to change your child's life for the better.

The later chapters get a bit more into specifics like sustained silent reading programs in schools; the effect of Oprah, Harry Potter, and the Internet; and limiting television. All of this is useful, just not quite as essential for parents as the first few chapters. I especially enjoyed the fact that Trelease intersperses his research findings with personal anecdotes, some from his own family (reading aloud to his kids while they did the dishes), and others from people he met along the way. For me, these stories often resonated more than the fact-based research.

The book ends with a "giant treasury of great read-alouds", classified by genre. The treasury takes up about 40% of the book, and is more of a reference than something that you need to read page by page. It's a great starting point, though the author also talks in the text about other ways to find books to read. [He doesn't mention the Kidlitosphere, but I'll bet that he would if there was a new edition in the future.]

The edition that I read this week was the sixth (and most recent) edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook, published in 2006. Because Trelease references so many studies on reading and literacy, it's perhaps inevitable that at four years old, the book does occasionally feel dated. At least, it does to me, someone who is constantly reading news stories about the latest and greatest reading studies. Ironically, if the book was less extensively researched and referenced, this wouldn't stand out so much (e.g. if he was just talking about his own experience, rather than tying things to concrete studies).

I do think that Trelease did a good job with this edition overall (I've also read the fourth edition), keeping many of the anecdotes that give the book its heart, but also updating to include web references, discussions about the impact of the Internet, etc. Jim is retired now, and I'm not sure whether or not there will ever be a later edition of the book. But in the meantime, I'm happy to report that the Sixth Edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook holds up well. I have every expectation of continuing to give it as a gift to new parents in the future. I hope that some of you will consider reading it, and giving it to others, too. The Read-Aloud Handbook has my highest recommendation.

Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: July 25, 2006
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: Moms Inspire Learning, ABC and 123, The Homeschool Den. See also my notes from a talk that Jim Trelease gave in Santa Clara, CA. See also a personal story of the impact of this book at Original Content.

© 2010 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).


Third Shelf Space Post Available: A Culture of Reading (and a short break)

My third guest post is now available at ForeWord Magazine's Shelf Space blog. It's about creating a culture of reading. Here's an excerpt:

"Creating a culture of reading is about more than just setting an example for children (though that’s clearly something that I think is important). Creating a culture of reading is about deciding what kind of a world we want to be part of. Do we want to live in a society that values books and reading, or not? The alternative, living in a society in which libraries fall into disuse and reading is a marginalized activity, is unthinkable."

Click through to read the full article.

Speaking of reading, I'm taking a bit of a hiatus from computer work for a few days, in an attempt to clear up some neck/shoulder problems that I've been having (nothing else is working, but a completely computer-free day yesterday seemed to help a bit). So, after I finish this post, I'll be back on the couch with the heating pad. No reading blogs, no FaceBook, no reviews ... it's a little weird, but I will be able to get some reading done, and I'll be checking email on my cell phone. Thanks for your patience!


Five Favorite Fictional Rooms from Children's Literature

Over at Charlotte's Library, Charlotte has been writing about her favorite fictional rooms. This, naturally enough, inspired me to think about my favorite fiction rooms. Here are my top five favorite fictional rooms. All of them (no surprise to people who read this blog) are from favorite children's books of my childhood.

VelvetRoom #1: The Velvet Room of the title in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's book (which I wrote about more extensively here and here). The description is a bit too detailed for me to share it all here, but here is the reaction of the main character (Robin) when she first sees the room:

"Expecting only another bedroom, Robin opened the door and stepped into the most wonderful surprise of her life.

From that first glimpse, from the first minute, it was more than a room -- more even than the most beautiful room Robin had ever seen. Her hands shook on the doorknob, and the shaking didn't come from fear or cold. Her trembling hands were only an echo of something deeper that had been strangely shaken by that first sight of the Velvet Room.

Part of it might have been surprise, surprise that this room wasn't empty like all the others. But another part of it was a strange feeling, almost like recognition. It was as if she had been there before, or at least had known it was there. As if she had always know that there would be a place exactly like this."

Maida #2: The shop in Maida's Little Shop, by Inez Haynes Irwin. And oh my gosh! There's a new paperback reissue of this 1909 title, published earlier this year by Tutis Digital Publishing Pvt. Ltd. There's even a Kindle edition. I currently possess three different old editions of this title, but don't think that's going to stop me from buying this new one. The Maida books, well, they helped make me into a reader. My Grandmother had the first two books in the series (which started with this one), and I have collected them myself for as long as I can remember. Maida's Little Shop is the story of a little rich girl who is lame, and has been sick for all of her life. Her doctor recommends a project, and her father buys her a little shop (toys and candy, etc.) in a working class neighborhood. Working in the shop and becoming friends with the neighborhood children give Maida a new lease on life. It's sappy, but I love it. Here's Maida's first glimpse of the finished shop, and her first, personally arranged shop window.

"Indeed, you would never have known the place yourself. The ceiling had been whitened. The faded drab woodwork had been painted white. The walls had been colored a beautiful soft yellow. Back of the counter a series of shelves, glassed in by sliding doors, ran the whole length of the wall and nearly to the ceiling. Behind the show case stood a comfortable, cushioned swivel-chair...

The window certainly struck the key-note of the season. Tops in all sizes and colors were arranged in pretty patterns in the middle. Marbles of all kinds from the ten-for-a-cent "peeweezers" up to the most beautiful, colored "agates" were displayed at the sides. Jump-ropes of variegated colors with handles, brilliantly painted, were festooned at the back. One of the window shelves had been furnished like a tiny room. A whole family of dolls sat about on the tiny sofas and chairs. On the other shelf lay neat piles of blank-books and paper-blocks, with files of pens, pencils, and rubbers arranged in a decorative pattern surrounding them all."

I may have especially bonded with Maida's shop because my father owned a hardware store, and I always wished it had been a stationery store instead (no, I didn't wish for a toystore, I wished for a stationery store with lots of pens and blank notebooks).

Charlie #3: The Chocolate Room from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (introduced in Chapter 15).

"Mr. Wonka opened the door. Five children and nine grownups pushed their way in -- and oh, what an amazing sight it was that now met their eyes!

They were looking down upon a lovely valley. There were green meadows on either side of the valley, and along the bottom of it there flowed a great brown river.

What is more, there was a tremendous waterfall halfway along the river -- a steep cliff over which the water curled and rolled in a solid sheet, and then went crashing down into a boiling churning whirlpool of froth and spray."

There's lots more (and of course the waterfall is chocolate, not water), but you'll have to re-read the book to experience it.

Mistake #4: The cupola in the Four-Story Mistake, from the book by Elizabeth Enright (reviewed here, and with thanks to Square Fish for re-issuing this series).

"... Randy was the first of the children to see the cupola. She followed her father up the steep, narrow steps. Almost as good as a ladder, she thought to herself. At the top Father opened the door and there they were, standing in a tiny room that seemed to be nothing but windows. The tower of the enchanted princess, Randy thought. All around is nothing but sea. Once a day a slave in a rowboat comes bringing a basket of food. The princess pulls it up on a long silken cord. She also catches fish from the window."

#5: The Boxcar from the first Boxcar Children book by Gertrude Chandler Warner. I don't have a copy, so I can't give you a quote, but it sticks in my head despite being probably 30 years since I read the book, so that should count for something.

It's not that there haven't been interesting rooms in more recent novels (the Hogwarts common room comes to mind, for example), but these are the ones that have been with me the longest, and qualify as my favorites. What about you? What are your favorite fictional rooms?

Many thanks to Charlotte for inspiring this trip down memory lane.

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


Buy Books for the Holidays

Imbuyingbooks_button Amy from My Friend Amy (Founder of Book Blogger Appreciation Week) has started a new initiative: Books for the Holidays. The idea is for book bloggers to put our money where our mouth is this holiday season, and support the publishing industry by buying books as gifts (where possible).

Personally, I'm happy to have an excuse to buy books as gifts for people (especially for kids). But if you need additional reasons, here are a few from the Books for the Holidays blog:

"Books are a good value for the amount they cost. They provide information, entertainment, encouragement, and escape. They challenge our thinking, make us laugh, and inspire our dreams. They look lovely sitting on our shelves or coffee tables.

Books are diverse. I recognize that not everyone in your life might like to read. But thankfully, there's a book for just about every interest. There are even books that are just pictures or recipes...cool, huh???

Giving books makes you look intelligent and cool. Enough said."

You can sign up here if you want to participate. You can also subscribe to the Buy Books for the Holidays collaborative blog to get ideas and motivation. Also, Amy mentioned on her own blog that she "could use a few more bloggers to help out with the blog...specifically if you have a strong niche....mystery, romance, kidlit, non-fiction etc. or live in a country other than the United States and Canada." I am personally spread too thin right now to take her up on this, but I raise it as an opportunity for other KidLit bloggers to help reach the broader audience of book bloggers. If you're interested, you can contact Amy via this post.

Think about giving books for this year's holiday season. I'm in.