Previous month:
February 2006
Next month:
April 2006

Posts from March 2006

Has Harry Potter Worked Reading Score Magic?

I read an interesting and optimistic article by Christopher Hollenback in this month's Pages Magazine. The article, entitled "Improved Reading Scores and a Chamber of Secrets", explores possible causes of a heartening trend, that elementary school students are reading more, and at a higher level. According to the article, the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress results "show that the number of nine-year-olds reading more than 20 pages a day is up a stunning 92 percent since 1984. While only 13 percent read that much in 1984, 25 percent do now." Several experts are quoted on the trend, and "agree that something positive is happening."

The experts are not in as much agreement regarding the cause of the improvement. Some credit the Harry Potter series, because national reading scores started to climb right around the time that the first Harry Potter book was published in the U.S.. They also note that kids were motivated to read the Harry Potter books even when they were above the kids' reading level. Others are more skeptical, and cite other causes (parenting, school curriculum changes, teachers, and increased media promotion of intermediate-level books).

I am far from being an expert, but I personally believe that the Harry Potter books deserve some of the credit. They made reading cool for a lot of kids. They had kids waiting in line in bookstores for an early glimpse at each book. They taught kids not to be afraid of reading longer books. But I'm sure that some of the other factors cited have also made a difference. I think that schools are more supportive of having teachers read aloud, and having entire classes and schools undertake silent reading time. These things have to help, too.

The article goes on to discuss the question of whether or not kids can read too much, and to recap the things that parents can do. You should read the full article for details.

Does a Book Ever Call to You from the Shelf?

Does this ever happen to you? You're minding your own business, going about with your life (working, playing, whatever), and suddenly a book calls to you from the shelf, demanding to be read. Soon, if not today.

For me, I've had a sudden urge this past week to re-read The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit. This is particularly odd, because it's not one of my usual favorites. I like it, but it's not one that I read over and over again. I think that I read it once as a child and once as an adult. But something that I've run across recently must have made a connection in my mind, to evoke The Railway Children.

I'm not sure what this was. Something about trains? Something about lost parents? I think it may have had to do with needing to pack up a couple of sets of sheets, to take to a cabin in Lake Tahoe that a generous friend loans us periodically. Remember the scene where the kids write on a sheet, and hold it up to be read by a passing train traveler?

I'm a little bit annoyed, actually, because I have a big pile of other books that I want to read, books that I haven't read yet. And here I'm going to have to put some of those on hold, so that I can re-read The Railway Children. But you have to give Edith Nesbit points, too. Here's this book, written 100 years ago, with the power to call to me from the shelf.

This happens to me with other books from time to time. Mostly with children's books, but also with some adults books (what I consider comfort books). I wrote back in January about My Personal Classic Books, which I defined as "the books that you expect to re-read at regular intervals for the rest of your life." These books frequently call out to me to be read, much as I periodically get the urge to telephone an old friend. This thing with The Railway Children is a bit more random, more like getting the urge to call a friend who I like, but don't actually know all that well. But now that I think about it, that's kind of cool!

What about you? Do books that you've already read ever call out to you from the shelf? Are they always favorites, or does this happen sometimes with less familiar books? And here's the question: do you act on it, or just wait for the urge to pass? Have a great weekend! -- Jen

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

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!

Bookstore Treasure

I have a friend visiting me this week. We are mostly watching college basketball on TV, but we've also had two highly successful bookstore excursions. I thought that I would share my successes with you.

At M is for Mystery, an amazing mystery bookstore in San Mateo, CA I bought five books, three of them signed. Mostly these are adult mysteries, with one young adult novel thrown in for good measure.

  • RHYS BOWEN: Oh Danny Boy (Molly Murphy Mysteries). Signed! This is the fifth book in the Molly Murphy series, set in New York City in the summer of 1902. I'm partial to the sub-genre of historicals in which the main female character is ahead of her time in terms of independence. Molly works as a private investigator, is unmarried and without family, and generally takes care of herself (though she does have a police detective love interest to get her out of scrapes, too - this is also common to the genre).
  • HENNING MANKELL: Before the Frost. This is the first Kurt and Linda Wallander novel. I've read nearly all of the Kurt Wallander series (I missed one of the early ones, and will go back for it eventually). This is the first book of a spin-off series, featuring both Kurt and his daughter. These are marvelous police procedurals, set in Sweden (and written originally in Swedish). They are a bit dark and brooding, but the characters are complex and real, and the mysteries engaging. I like to take these books on trips because I know that I'll like them, and they are quite dense, so I can make one last cross-country. If you decide to read them, you should start with the first Kurt Wallander book, Faceless Killers. The standalone The Return of the Dancing Master is also compelling.
  • ELIZABETH IRONSIDE: Death in the Garden. Signed! Elizabeth Ironside is the pseudonym of Lady Catherine Manning, wife of the British Ambassador to the U.S. This is a British novel in which an overworked young attorney starts looking through her great-aunt's papers from sixty years earlier, and unravels a mystery concerning the murder of her aunt's husband. I've seen great reviews of this book, and look forward to reading it.
  • SCOTT WESTERFELD: Uglies. This is the first of a young adult series about a futuristic world in which people undergo plastic surgery, to become extremely beautiful, and anyone normal looking is considered ugly. I've been interested to check out the series, and will certainly let you know what I think once I have a chance to read the book. You can visit Scott Westerfeld's blog here.
  • And one that I can't name, because it's a surprise for my Mom.

At BookBuyers (used books) in Mountain View, CA I scored a set of the first six books (out of seven) in Jane Langton's Hall Family Chronicles. I wrote about this series back at the end of January, and have been meaning to go back and read them ever since. So I was quite pleased, while browsing in the used bookstore, to come across a nice paperback set, in good condition, of the first six books. I scooped them right up! Here is the list:

  1. The Diamond in the Window
  2. The Swing in the Summerhouse
  3. The Astonishing Stereoscope
  4. The Fledgling
  5. The Fragile Flag
  6. The Time Bike

All in all, a successful few days, bookwise. I have another trip coming up next week, so I should be able to get some good reading done then. Have a great weekend! -- Jen

Children's Literacy Round-Up: March 17

Today we have a St. Patrick's Day round-up of community literacy activities.

  • The Baltimore Chapter of the Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc., (TLOD) just held it's second "Boys and Girls Booked on Barber and Beauty Shops" event, to help spark interest in reading. During the event "local community role model read to kids at a successful encourage boys and girls to read more." After the readings, children each have the opportunity to select a book to take home. I read about this in a Baltimore Times article by Janine Guerrier-Smith.
  • The Washington Times had a March 13th article by Jen Waters about the Everybody Wins! DC program, a nonprofit organization that began in 1995 to promote children's literacy. Under this program, about 1400 adults volunteer to read with children during lunch hour, directly helping the children with their reading, and also influencing the kids to have more positive associations with books. In another part of the program, "professional storytellers give group presentations designed to excite children about reading... The students take home books related to the program, to help increase their home libraries." The article has lots of great quotes from the children and from the program mentors.
  • I learned from a link on the A Fuse #8 Production blog (a new blog by a New York City children's librarian, and one that I like a lot) about a new program by which the US and Egypt are working together to provide libraries of Arabic and English titles to all of Egypt's 38,000 public schools (700 books per school). You can read the full article, by Sarah Gauch, in the Christian Science Monitor online. This program will involve a huge logistical effort, but I applaud the goal "to encourage children to read in a country where few have access to books and a quarter of adults are illiterate."
  • The UK's National Literacy Trust (a charity dedicated to promoting literacy) is auctioning off an edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book 4), signed by numerous cast members (including the actors who play Harry, Ron, and Hermione). Proceeds from the auction will support Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), a program that offers free books to children in disadvantaged areas of the country. You can see a press release about the auction here.
  • The San Juan Islander had a story on March 16th about the San Juan Reading Foundation Literary Partnership. The article discusses reasons why reading to your child for 20 minutes per day is beneficial, and includes a nice list of tips on "raising a reader". Nothing really new in the list, but a nice reminder about the importance of reading with children. I especially like the title of the article "Read 20 minutes a day, produce lifelong advantages."

Happy St. Patrick's Day! -- Jen

Congratulations Katherine Paterson

Two news tidbits from the Publisher's Weekly Children's Bookshelf e-newsletter (to which you can subscribe here):

  • "Katherine Paterson has been awarded the 2006 Astrid Lindgren Award for Literature, which is given by the Swedish government and is the largest paying international award dedicated to writers of children's books (the author will receive five million kronor, or $640,000). Paterson has previously won two Newbery Medals (in 1978 for Bridge to Terabithia and in 1981 for Jacob Have I Loved) and a Newbery Honor (in 1979 for The Great Gilly Hopkins). The award will be presented on May 31 in Stockholm." Congratulations to Katherine Paterson! Her books are wonderful (as, of course, are Astrid Lindgren's books - Pippi Longstocking is one of my favorite literary characters of all time). Astrid Lindgren is Sweden's most famous and beloved children's author.
  • "The 2006 Gryphon Award winner, recognized for an outstanding work of fiction or nonfiction for children in kindergarten through fourth grade, is Stinky Stern Forever by Michelle Edwards (Harcourt). Three honor books were also named: Jigsaw Pony by Jessie Haas, illustrated by Ying-Hwa-Hu (Greenwillow); Babymouse: Queen of the World! by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (Random House); and Chameleon Chameleon by Joy Cowley, photos by Nic Bishop (Scholastic Press)." Personally, I have Babymouse: Queen of the World! on my "to read" list already, and will have to give the others on the list another look.

Hope that you're all enjoying March Madness! -- Jen

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

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.

More About Boys and Reading

I posted the other day about Boys, Girls, and Stories, in response to last week's Slate article about how boys and girls differ in what they tend to want from books. I have had some great discussion with people in the comments from that post. This week there are some other related discussions that I wanted to share with you:

  • Sally at All About Children's Books raises some interesting questions about the premise that boys read books mainly for information. She asks where Harry Potter and Spiderman and the Lord of the Rings fit in to this paradigm. She posits that what kids, both boys and girls, want is for books to have plenty of conflict, and concludes that "conflict is still king." What I think is that if you can give boys books that have plenty of facts AND have an interesting, conflict-based plot, then you can get even the most reluctant reader hooked. And that's a great thing.
  • And on the subject of finding great books to keep boys interested, Camille at Book Moot writes about her day spent volunteering at a junior high school library, and recommending books to kids (mostly boys in this case). Not surprisingly, Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief was a big hit with the boys. Camille celebrates, as do I, the upcoming release of the second book in the series, The Sea of Monsters, on April 1st.
  • Back to the Slate article, Tasha at Kids Lit expresses her displeasure with the article's "full attack on librarians and their role in why boys don't like reading." I completely agree with her. The librarians that I know certainly aren't "all pinch-faced women with rulers all set to smack little boy hands."
  • Read Roger also takes exception to the Slate article, because it doesn't speak to its title (Why Boys Like Girls Books), and rather makes the opposite case, with little evidence for either point of view. He concludes that "Bazelon seems defeated by her own question, concluding that boys don't read because we aren't doing enough to publish and promote books they would like: boys' books." Roger also discusses another current controversial article, one by Naomi Wolf critiquing young adult fiction. I'm staying out of that debate, because I haven't read the books discussed, but I do recommend that you read the extensive comments about both articles at Read Roger.

Pond Scum: Alan Silberberg

This weekend I read Pond Scum, by Alan Silberberg, which I won as a prize from Susan at Chicken Spaghetti for submitting the first entry to the second Carnival of Children's Literature. It's nice that my compulsive earliness has finally paid off.

I was a bit put off by this book at the beginning. Specifically, I took exception to the introduction of Oliver, a boy who pulls the wings off of flies. What bothered me wasn't so much that Oliver was a boy pulling the wings off of flies (though this is hardly a pleasant attribute). No, what bothered me was this sentence: "He wasn't a bad kid -- just a lonely boy who felt compelled to snatch the flies that kept him company." I mean, shouldn't the author show this, instead of telling us that Oliver isn't a bad kid? Perhaps because I was irritated by this, it took me a while to get into this book.

But Pond Scum grew on me (so to speak). It's a quirky story about a family that moves into an isolated, long-abandoned house, located next to a small pond. The pond and surrounding wood are positively teeming with wildlife. The various birds, animals, and insects make up much of the cast of the book. There are various conflicts occurring between different interest groups: between Oliver and his father; between Oliver and kids at school; between the pond creatures and the humans (especially the real estate agent); between the "kid" pond creatures and the adults; and between the "adult" leaders of the affiliation of creatures. These conflicts swirl about and intersect throughout the book.

But where things really get out of hand (and this is not much of a spoiler, because it's on the back of the book) is when Oliver discovers a way to turn himself into one of the creatures, and interacts with them directly.

On the one hand, this is a fairly simple story, about animals relating to one another, and a boy who has trouble fitting in. But Silberberg manages to address a remarkable number of larger issues, as well as environmental concerns, all with a very light hand. Oh, I still have a few quibbles over some of the writing (show, don't tell, and all that). But overall, I think that kids will find it an enjoyable read, somewhat reminiscent of Hoot. And it might make them think twice about stepping on insects, and certainly about pulling the wings off of flies. Happy Reading! -- Jen

Greeting Cards

I've always been a fan of actual printed birthday cards (as opposed to e-cards, or email). It's so nice to get a real card in the mail, with a hand-addressed envelope, and a cheerful picture that you can put up on the bookshelf! In recent years, though, I have to admit that I had dropped off in my card sending.

But a couple of things happened to get me started on sending real cards again this year. First off, I was influenced by my brother Steve's fiancée, Angela, who LOVES to send cards. Then I read the book Never Eat Alone, which is all about strengthening your connections with people (see my review here), and promotes the recognition of birthdays.

And then I fell in love with the greeting cards from the Kim & Jason Lemonade Stand. The cards are designed by Jason Kotecki, cartoonist and author of the book Escape Adulthood, and I find them both cute and heart-warming. You can order Kim & Jason Greeting Cards online.

I just ordered a bunch, and received a lovely hand-written thank you note from Jason in the mail afterwards. Tell me, how often have you received a hand-written thank you note for a purchase that you've made online? And the mere fact of having this hand-written card on my shelf made me even more interested in sending out hand-written cards myself. Some sort of positive interaction cycle.

This is the thank you card that Jason sent to me. It's called The Night Light.

Night Light Greeting CardThe picture is a bit small, but the first monster under the bed is saying "I'm hungry. Let's eat the kid." And the second monster is saying "We can't. Not with the night light on."

And this is the birthday card that I just sent to a friend:

Chocolate Cake Greeting CardIt says, "The best thing about birthdays is that you get to have your cake and eat it too!" Anyway, my point is that I'm really enjoying sending out real cards to people, instead of just sending e-cards. I hope that my family and friends enjoy them, too. Have a great weekend! -- Jen

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I do get a commission if you click through and purchase items from Kim & Jason Lemonade Stand. But I swear that I would recommend them anyway. Hand-written thank you notes! Cute, funny greeting cards! And a chance to connect better with the people in my life who are far away (which is, sadly, most of the people in my life). Priceless!

Programs That Focus on Giving Books to Kids

Earlier this week, I wrote about Three Programs that Put Books into People's Hands. Gregory K. of the new blog GottaBook commented on that post, and suggested a couple of other southern California-based programs. He also mentioned in a post on his blog the Wonder of Reading's Explore-A-Story fundraiser, to be held tomorrow, March 12th. So many great programs that focus on getting kids excited about books, and on putting books into kids' hands!

This back and forth with Gregory inspired me to start a new list of links in my blog sidebar (look on the right-hand side, and scroll down to immediately below the Books on Raising Readers section) of Programs That Focus on Giving Books to Kids. I've classified the programs by location first, so that you can quickly look for programs in your state. I only actually have a half-dozen or so listed so far, but I welcome suggestions for others.

One of my current favorites is the Cops-N-Kids program, through which police officers give books to local kids, thus promoting a positive interest in books, and strengthening ties between local kids and the police officers.

Of course there are lots of other wonderful literacy-related programs, too, and I link to many in another sidebar list. But I thought that a state-by-state listing of programs that focus on providing books to kids would be nice to have. Happy Reading! -- Jen

Children's Literacy Round-Up: March 10

Here are some stories about community literacy efforts that caught my eye this week:

  • Out of the many wonderful stories about community programs for last week's Read Across America Day (March 2nd), I particularly enjoyed this article by Paul Johnson about programs in New Jersey. Among other details, the article quotes Patricia DiDonato, a retired teacher who dresses up as the The Cat in the Hat and visits schools. Ms. DiDonato says: "Anything any adult can do to inspire children to read is beneficial." I agree! The article also includes a list of children's books that take place in New Jersey.
  • I also liked this article from the Peterborough (UK) Evening Telegraph, about Peterborough's celebration of World Book Day (also March 2nd). According to the article, by Rachel Gordon, "education chiefs in Peterborough aren't just putting literacy at the top of their agenda today – they have a long-term strategy to improve the lives of everyone in the city through the Read, Write, Inspire campaign." The article outlines the philosophy behind the campaign, as well as many of the specific efforts being undertaken, and concludes with an invitation for local residents to vote for their top 10 favorite reads. How wonderful it must be to live in a city that cares this much about reading!
  • Another fun celebration of World Book Day took place at DEEPCAR School in Sheffield, UK, where the school organized activities based on a Roald Dahl theme, and both students and teachers dressed as characters from Roald Dahl books. Personally, I've always identified with Matilda, but it sounds like these kids and teachers enjoyed a full range of characters.
  • The March 9th Sand Mountain Reporter (Albertville, AL) discussed the success of Big Spring Lake School's literacy initiative, part of the Alabama Reading Initiative. For this year's winter benchmark tests, 90 percent of the school's students reached the benchmark target. "There were a lot of tears shed when we got those results," Counselor Deidra Tidwell said. "Our goal was 80 percent and we thought we had a good chance, but when we saw 90 percent, we threw a party." Good for them, I say.
  • And speaking of throwing parties, Bright Horizons, a provider of child care and early eduction, will be hosting five free children’s literacy festivals for families throughout the Raleigh Durham area on April 1 and April 8 from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. You can find more information in this news release, or on the Bright Horizons website. Bright Horizons will also be hosting literacy festivals in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey between now and May (depending on the state).
  • Though more of an opinion piece than a news story, this column by David Lecam in the Weymouth, MA news caught my eye. The title is "What happens when you are not a reader?" Mr. Lecam gives an example of a person who thought that it would be possible to take a train to Hawaii. He goes on to review current literacy statistics, and to quote extensively from Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook. The overall recommendation of the article is to "remove the TV and the Game-Boy as well as the cell phone from the bedroom during homework time and start reading to the kids. Begin in their first year of life. Make them desire reading."

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend! -- Jen