Author Archives: Bruce

The Importance of Sharing

Find the Summer chapter in your text and share it with someone you love.

Read to Them‘s family literacy programs are premised on several components – reading a book, a high quality chapter book, at home, with your family, as an entire school.  Reading.  A chapter book.  Aloud.  At home.  As a school.  Together.

In a perfect world, a family gathers together and every member – mother, father, sister, brother – listens to every word together.  No one misses a word.  Or a chapter.  Or scene.  Or dialogue.

But life isn’t perfect.

As eager as we are for our thousands of readers and listeners, families and schools, to read a wide range of challenging titles, to stretch and learn and share and grow – to collect characters and moments and choice bits of dialogue and memorable plot developments – funny, dramatic, sad, moving, heartwarming – we also want to remember that the most important aspect of all this is the sharing.  That’s right.  The sharing.

Not my favorite line or your favorite character.   Not “You have to read this part!”  Or “Read that part again.”  Yes, all those things are vitally important.  It’s why you or any of us do this in the first place.  To create memories.  To transmit culture – stories, lessons, morals, style.

More important than any of these vital elements is the simple act of being together and sharing the text – and the moment and the choice details – together.  So you both know them.  So you can both refer to them.  (“Remember that time when you read…”)  So you both know that you both know that that text, that title, that chapter, that moment, that line is something that’s now a part of both of you.  It’s something you share.

I was reminded of this simple central truth in a recent conversation with a professional colleague.  She came to the Read to Them office to talk about writing and graphics and future employees.  But she is also a mother, so naturally we talked about books, too.  Two of her children were reading ripe Read to Them titles – The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate) and the incomparable Wonder (R.J. Palacio).

Such a conversation naturally turns me into a reading evangelist, but I can’t subject every person who crosses the Read to Them threshold to that kind of enthusiastic pressure.  I wanted to ask, “Are you reading the books together?  Have you read them, too?  Do you know what’s in them?  What does your daughter think of Ruby?  Or Auggie’s helmet?” But I didn’t.

She acknowledged that one of her daughters found Wonder confusing.  I suspected that that might be because of R.J. Palacio’s magnificent technique of switching narrators and perspectives.  Magnificent to me, perhaps, but maybe not for each and every inexperienced reader.  I sensed my opening.

I pulled Wonder off the shelf and showed her how it ticks and gently suggested she might try reading it together.  See how it goes…

A day later I received a highly professional e-mail, detailing the half dozen topics and projects we discussed.  But my favorite part was her addendum…

“On a totally separate note, I read Wonder with my daughter out loud last night. We read the ‘Summer’ chapter together….alternating pages. When we were done, she said, ‘I understand it so much better when we both read it out loud.’ Thanks for the advice.”

I reciprocate and thank my correspondent (now colleague) for reminding me of this simple, elemental truth that it as at the heart of family literacy and all we do to promote families reading together and children growing up into lifelong readers.  It doesn’t matter if she started from the beginning.  It doesn’t matter if she reads the whole thing with her daughter.  All that matters is the sharing.  All that matters is that they created and shared a magic moment thru a book – one they won’t likely forget.  (And I won’t either.)

This past year we’ve been promoting the Middle School version of One School, One Book.  We know that neither middle school students nor middle school parents are going to take or make the time to be sure to be together to share a 250-page book together.  Schools are realistic in their expectations.

But that doesn’t mean that adolescent and parent can’t still share a little together.  Both are likely starved for such moments.  So I invite them both – teen-ager and parent – to consider sharing a character or scene or chapter or line from your book together.  Show them what you think is cool or memorable – sad or funny – or unforgettable.  Worth sharing.  Worth remembering.  Bring it up when you’re on a walk, or driving to practice!, or someone’s doing a chore.  Offer to read while student or parent is doing the dishes.  Find the Summer chapter in your title and share it with someone you love.

Remember: We all have choice memorable moments we are probably eager for others to know about.  To connect.  All that matters is the sharing.

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We Must Become Masters of the Medium

I believe there’s a wave cresting – and I think you want to be on it.

The iPhone and the smartphone have now been with us ten years.  In those ten years, we have all become beguiled, fallen in love, even become addicted.  And it’s happened to every generation.  Our parents, ourselves, and…our children.

We all know well the infinite pleasures, the limitless time saving innovations, the expansion of connectivity and instant social gratification, the stimulation and access to information and entertainment – all in the palm of our hand.  It’s the Jetsons!

We also all know the guilt and the judgement.  The infinite number of apps and platforms that occupy or waste our time.  We all resent it when others are absorbed – our teen-age children, our peers, our colleagues.  We wish we could get them to put their phones down when we want to interact.  And they wish the same.

I believe we are a generation that is still learning to understand the cultural and behavioral effects of this magic life-changing technology.  We are each and all still adapting.  And we are coming to realize it.

I am seeing now a raft of essays in the media asking us to pause and reflect.  To take just a recent sampling, you can look at “Before the Internet” (in the June 2017 New Yorker); “I Love You, I Hate You” (by the technology correspondent for Walls Street Journal, 6.22.17); “Digital Detox” (by a father in my own local Richmond Family Magazine, June, 2017); or “I Used to Be Human” (Andrew Sullivan’s reflective essay in New York Magazine, September, 2016).

In truth, we could each probably find a dozen similar pieces in our local press, or on Medium, or in other national publications or media outlets.

But the good news is that we are noticing.  We are reflecting.

*

I am a Middle School teacher.  Our school has determined that to be prepared and educated, our students need to be facile with the digital way we research, create, and learn.  They need to know how to use computers and the Internet and modern digital creative platforms – from Microsoft Word to Google Docs; from Photoshop to PowerPoint to Prezi, from WordPress to Dropbox; and beyond.

But it’s a double-edged sword.  We know it is.  On the one hand, we firmly believe that to be educated in the 21st century, you have to know how to use digital tools.  But on the other hand, the computer and the Internet, the cell phone, and the world of social media are one gigantic Pandora’s Box of Temptation.  How to manage that?

We try.  Earnestly.  I give a presentation to all our middle school students – every year.  I tell them about the temptations and the research.  I warn them what happens when you read on the Internet instead of the hardcopy.  (Thank you, David Carr, The Shallows, 2011.)  I arm them to explain to their elders how complex and rewarding much of the digital world they live, experience, and will work in really is.  They shouldn’t feel guilty for being tempted.  (Thank you, Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You, 2013).  I explain to them that the temptations they face are not really new, they are just the newest forms.  That information and communication technologies have always changed behavior, disrupted our attention, and how we work and communicate.  (Thank you, Nick Harkness, The Blind Giant, 2012.)

I warn them.  I tell them about Marshall McLuhan and his famous injunction, ‘the medium is the message.’  I tell them when I was their age that my peers wanted to ‘watch television.’  Not the Mets game or Batman or The Pink Panther, but the tube itself – whatever was on.  That, of course, is what McLuhan was talking about.  I ask them if anyone ever invited them to ‘do iPhone?’  “Hey. Do you want to do Internet?”  Because that of course is what we do.  And when we realize it, we know McLuhan is still right.  We think we’re texting, Snapping or Tumbling.  But we’re not.  We’re doing iPhone.

Most of all – I challenge them. Armed with this information, they must understand that the computer (and the iPhone) are both a tool and a temptation.  If we understand the temptation, then perhaps we can learn to use the computer as a tool.  I challenge them to become Masters of the Medium.

I also tell them there is a larger goal – one that’s true for all of us – middle school students and citizens/workers of the world.  That goal is true, inspired, passionate, fine, proud work – and it’s attained through the elusive psychology notion of ‘flow.’  Flow is most famously articulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name (Flow, 1990), but it is actually something we all know and understand and is easy for middle schoolers to understand.

We attain a state of flow when we are ‘in the zone.’  When we are so focused and absorbed in our work that we don’t noticed the passage of time and we don’t want to allow or allow ourselves to be distracted by petty distractions.  I am guessing we all know this exalted state.  It is when we do our best work.  It is something we all seek.  It is a form of creative nirvana.  It is the Holy Grail.

And it’s not possible when we work while allowing ourselves to be interrupted by messages, e-mails, the full range of digital delights and distractions.

It’s awfully easy for me to say to students, “You must become Masters of the Medium.”  It’s much harder for adolescents to do.  It’s even harder if we adults can’t do it ourselves.

When I present this spiel to parents I conclude with one basic message; they can’t do it unless we show them how.  As adults – parents or teachers – we have to set the right example.  My 7-year-old only wants a smartphone because he sees how much everyone else – his parents, his siblings, their friends – love their smartphones.

So how do we do it?  How do we learn to master the medium – and re-attain the sense of flow?

I think we’ve started.  The essays I cited at the top suggest that we’re waking up.  We recognize the problem.  But we feel alone.

I think we need to do it together.  I think we need to help each other.  I think it requires a family effort.

Start here.  Everyone has a story to tell about the time they were forced off the grid.  You forgot your phone or charger.  You were in the woods or on a mountain or in a foreign country without access to a network or wifi.  At first, it’s infuriating.  Until it becomes liberating.  I feel liberated when I am able to leave my laptop at work.  We all feel liberated – lost and lonely and hapless – but liberated when we are not tethered to our iPhone.

So we need to make it safe, enjoyable, OK, sought after, cool to untether.  We may need to find agreed upon times and modes to untether.  Together.

We can lead by example – and it might work – but we need to beware the temptation to appear or act self-righteous.  “Here I am in the blissful state of unconnectedness.  Join me.”  No one’s going to follow that guy.

Better to agree in groups.  While we watch this movie, read this book, take this walk, go on this hike, visit this museum, swim on this beach, eat this meal – we’re going to leave our phones behind.  We’re going to take a deep breath and revel in noticing each other and not always checking the answer or texting this friend or sharing this photo (now!) or adding this social media update.  We’re going to enjoy each other and everything we have to offer each other, everything we already know and love about each other, but are missing because of…that other thing.

I think if we join hands – if we’re willing to broach the concept – in our work environments, on our dates, in certain social outings, and especially with our families – we can regain what was lost “before the Internet.”  We can re-claim and assert and share our truly connected individual human selves.  Together we can learn to become Masters of the Medium.  And make flow possible for ourselves and our students.  And truly connect.

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The Diversity Gap

The Diversity Gap

We get asked it all the time. “I love your list. But why aren’t there more books with people of color on the covers? Your list needs to meet minority readers where they live. It needs to reflect their experiences. Why aren’t there more books for African-American and Latino and Asian students, readers, families?”

It’s a vital question. Our list is now 100 books strong, and contain more that address this question. But it still doesn’t seem like enough. Why not?

I believe there are three answers to this question…

The first is that good literature doesn’t depend on race or gender. If it’s a great story, has a winning protagonist, poses vital questions, and teaches vital lessons – then it doesn’t matter what color the characters are or where or when it takes place. That’s what literature is. Anyone can benefit from it.

That’s true. But…

The second answer is that we do have some books with minority protagonists that take place in non-white milieu. We’re adding more all the time. We’ve added EllRay Jakes and Keena Ford. We can’t get enough of Christopher Paul Curtis. Esperanza Rising is coming very soon. And we’ve always had In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

 

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But it still doesn’t seem enough…

The third answer is that it’s harder than you think. The problem isn’t a dearth of books. The problem is a dearth of titles in one key category – what we call the Sweet Spot.

Here’s the deal with books representing minority protagonists or populations in the United States.

There are plenty of picture books. You can go back to Ezra Jack Keats. They’ve been on librarians’ reading lists for years. At least 3 generations of American schoolchildren have been exposed to and read titles like The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie and Peter’s Chair. And such books have never really stopped coming. If you look on contemporary recommended reading lists, including year-end reading lists, you’ll see plenty of African-American and Latino titles represented.

There are also plenty of books for older readers – by which I mean books aimed at middle or high school readers. This has been true for some time – going back to classics like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – and is no less true today. Christopher Paul Curtis and Jacqueline Woodson and Kwame Alexander are current favorites, but the list of rich, challenging, insightful books aimed at MS and HS readers is long and growing.

 

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The problem is the gap in the middle. There aren’t many/any effective, successful, literary rich books that are aimed at the broad swath of general elementary school readers – Grades 1 thru 5.

There are a lot that try. Christopher Paul Curtis’ books, like The Watsons Go to Birmingingham-1963, was aimed at some elementary school readers. But it’s mostly aimed for, or read by, or to older students, maybe Grades 3-5 if we’re generous.

(I suspect many readers will now tell me that you have read The Watsons to your 8-year-old or 2nd grade class and he/they loved it – and I don’t doubt you for a second. We at Read to Them are all about encouraging and challenging schools and families to read books that challenge readers. But elementary schools, in general, have been unwilling to read these titles with their broad elementary school populations – a key premise of One School, One Book. No matter how funny and engaging, their themes are just a little too rich for K-2 reader/listeners.)

At Read to Them we have shelves of books, lesser known greats like Storm Warriors, by Elisa Carbone, books that involve strong interesting African-American protagonists and situations. These are well-written books well-worthy of being known and loved. But they are not digestible to a broad elementary school audience. (Not like Humphrey.) In general, we have found that the best African-American children’s literature invariably involves some racially challenging theme – current or historical – that gives these books a darker or graver or heavier or more serious tone or character. See, for example, the corpus of the venerable Virginia Hamilton. The books are still rich and funny – but families and schools are unwilling to share them with their 1st graders, unlike like Charlotte’s Web.

 

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We also have a growing list of what we call intro books – books that are shorter and simpler. They are meant as intro readers and at Read to Them we use them as intro readers for families. Schools select these titles when they feel less confident of their own parents’ reading abilities. These titles include Keena Ford, EllRay Jakes, Lola Levine, and the list continues to grow.

(Other series are trying to fill this reading level niche, too. Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver’s popular Hank Zipzer series is now being re-introduced in a lite version called Here’s Hank.)

What we don’t have – and this essay is calling for – are engaging, rich, literary books with African-American or Latino protagonists in the Sweet Spot of children’s literature. For out purposes, I am talking about seemingly ageless classics like Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and modern popular works like Betty G. Birney’s The World According to Humphrey or Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. We don’t have an African-American Charlotte’s Web. We don’t have a Latino Humphrey.

Why not? I suppose it’s not for lack of trying. I’m sure every children’s author wants to write the next Charlotte’s Web. And we’re all richer for it. But it does seem like the books being published that explicitly address minority milieu are picture books or Y.A. titles.

It cannot be because it cannot be done. Perhaps it’s because Charlotte’s Web and The World According to Humphrey transcend race, like the greatest literature should? Perhaps. I know we never receive negative feedback from schools on that score when they read these titles. But I suspect this answer will not satisfy most of you. There are too many out there, like the We Need More Diverse Books movement, who are desperately seeking more representation here in this space.

Somehow books w/ Asian characters have found an easier time fitting in. I’ve already mentioned In the Year of the Boar and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. (Grace Lin has just published the third volume in this trilogy.) Linda Sue Park has been working here a while, too, although even strong titles like The Mulberry Project tend to be sought more by middle school audiences than elementary schools.

If you want a final piece of evidence, check out this recommended reading list from the New York Times in 2016, titled “Children’s Books that Tackle Race and Ethnicity.” It starts with The Snowy Day and includes 8 picture books It then lists 9 titles recommended for ages 8-12. Five of them involve Asian characters. The rest include Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, which is festooned with award stickers: Newbery Honor, Scott O’Dell, National Book Award, Corretta Scott King. It’s about 3 African-American girls who leave New York to spend a summer in Oakland in 1969 – a summer of the Black Panthers.

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We want our children, all children, to be reading books like these. We want them to be reading about other people and times and places – including the Black Panthers. But parents and schools wont’ be reading these titles to children in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade.

The rest of the list, by the way, includes 5 more titles aimed solely at students in middle and high school. The black Charlotte’s Web is not on this list.

Now maybe the Sweet Spot is a niche unique to our One School, One Book family literacy reading program since we ask schools to eschew reading levels and choose titles that can be and will be read and enjoyed by a wide school-age population. But I don’t think so. Hundreds of schools across the United States and Canada are choosing a wide range of titles – over 70 that somehow do fill that need.

So I’ll say here now, I believe we can add more titles by, about, and for American’s minority populations. (We certainly want to.) I believe such titles can and will lead children and families to the rich panoply of characters and milieu across the wide swath of children’s literature.

I appeal to you now. Share your titles with us. Authors – don’t stop trying. We’re still waiting for the black Charlotte’s Web, the Latino Humphrey. Children and families and readers of America – of all colors and races – will benefit and surely thank you. And it may just be the surefire way into the rarefied pantheon of children’s literature.

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The Harry Potter Discs

Every year my family likes to create a ‘family present.’ Something everyone – kids and parents – can contribute to. Something low cost to produce – that can be shared and shipped to the ever-burgeoning list of family and friends.

One year we made a calendar based on kids’ art. One year we made a mix-tape of everyone’s favorite songs – a little bit of personality from each of us. One year we sent an elaborate set of Christmas haiku (printed, pasted, and mounted).

Four years ago my teen-age daughters came to me and said, “Let’s record the first Harry Potter book – and send that to the people we love.” OK. 16 chapters. Everyone recorded 3 chapters. Burned onto a set of CDs. (Not that expensive. A little time consuming.) In the mail. Voila. Merry Christmas.

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It’s become a family tradition. Last year we recorded the 4th Harry Potter book – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 40 chapters. Would have required over 20 discs per recipient. Now that is expensive. And time consuming! So we ordered a bunch of cheap flash drives from Alibaba and loaded and sent the digital files. $5 a present. And most people listen on cell phones or iPods or computers now anyway.

Each year, as my daughters insisted we do another (longer) Harry Potter book (they get longer, as you probably know), I wondered about the prudence of the ‘gift.’ How overbearing is it to share with someone else – with or without children – multiple tracks of you and your children reading a children’s chapter book out loud? Can’t they read it themselves? Who nominated my family to be worthwhile readers? Does a present like this include some kind of guilt-inducing obligation? After all, not everyone is going to want to listen to each book, or all the chapters, even if they do have children?

Obviously any gift ought to come without obligation. When you give a book to someone (and I give ‘em a lot), you can’t be asking them every 6 weeks, “So, have you read it, have you read it, have you read it yet???” It’s up to them. Take it or leave it. A gift is a gesture, a spirited offering. Sharing. No more.

But the response of our recipients has put my anxieties to rest.

In some cases, even parentless friends have told us they like having the opportunity to hear my kids’ voices – as they grow up. (Three books to go!) So sharing a chapter book that your family has read turns out to be an intimate way of sharing your family with those who know them and care about them. Yes, a lot more involved than posting family vacay pictures on Facebook. It creates a more intimate, long-lasting memory, too. My kids voices are in our friends’ – even our single, childless friends’ – heads.

Naturally we’ve heard from parents with children. Not just cousins. Some of them haven’t quite gotten to Harry Potter yet. Some of them are in the middle of the series. And some of them include children who’ve already read HP and appear to relish the opportunity to listen to the stories again. To go back to the well and re-create that magical, listening, world-envisioning environment.

I don’t have to tell you that listening to a book – in the privacy of your bedroom, on a family car trip, via headphones – is a qualitatively different experience than ‘seeing the movie.’ A richer experience. Seeing the movie is thrilling but passive. Listening to the story puts J.K. Rowling back in charge. And the pace of a chapter read aloud allows the listener to imagine, to create word pictures, to look forward to their favorite parts (funny or scary), to anticipate, and to free associate. When you’re enveloped in that imaginative cloud, you don’t want to be interrupted. Even when you get to a rest stop, you can’t wait to start the next chapter.

We’re hearing from parents of these children how much they like to listen. How absorbed they get. How much they look forward to the next books discs/files. How many nights have been absorbed listening. (Just like we did when we were kids!) How they look forward to certain long car trips because they get to listen to the next book! And how strangely connected they feel to my daughters even if they don’t see them that often – or in some cases even know them that well.

We’ve heard from adults who do know my girls how nice it is to have a way to be connected. Something they can control and imbibe in bits. It doesn’t have to be Harry Potter. And yet Harry Potter is also the vehicle that brings out that level of high standard sharing showmanship in my kids.

Some close friends also relish hearing my girls’s voices grow up in successive readings. My voice doesn’t change – but my youngest daughter was 10 when we started reading Harry Potter onto the CDs. She’ll be 17 when we’re done. (Gulp.) And her voice has already changed a lot.

I’m not writing or sharing this to suggest you need to go out and record and share your favorite children’s chapter book with the people you love. I am writing it to share our family’s labor(s) of love. To share how enriching and inspiring it was for my family to read, and re-read, and live and experience and share Harry Potter growing up. To observe and remind us all that even as children grow up – they don’t want to lose stuff with the nostalgic stuff of their roots. Reading together as a family obviously creates rich, unforgettable memories. Those stories and characters – that time spent together – leaves an indelible warm fuzzy feeling for your family. In our case, even as they grew and matured, my girls didn’t want to give that feeling up. They wanted to re-access it. And to share it. What more can reading together as a family build and bring? Merry Christmas indeed.

So my fears have been put to rest. I confess that Harry Potter has been a huge part of our family bonding. We read all the books out loud with our girls – which means we read each book more than once. And yes the middle books were long and larded. But never was it a chore. We relished the chance to read again. And in fact look forward with relish to reading them yet again with our 5 year-old.

I can’t say enough about what it means to delve and imbibe and wallow in something that will clearly be shared across generations. To make it part of our spirit of Christmas giving. And to share what feels like so much of our family through a book. It feels so rewarding and right to receive feedback from our friends and family telling us that their children anticipate and re-listen to the chapters – asking for more. It feels like the true spirit of Christmas.

Thank you, J.K. Rowling.

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Reading is Reflective

Reading is Reflective

I am often asked and often write and speak about the differences between reading and other forms of media – especially television and video games. Typically this conversation becomes a discussion of the differences between passive and active media. Thus…

– Television is passive. Thus the classic couch potato vegetative look.

[Caveat: The truth is, as Steven Johnson so ably explains in Everything Bad is Good for You (2005), television has gotten a lot more stimulating. But it’s still passive.]

– Film is passive. Perhaps more dynamic and enticing. Although since so much film is watched on computer screens this difference is mitigated. But it’s still passive. You sit back, enjoy your popcorn, and let the film do it’s (considerable) thing.

– Video Games are interactive. Low grade ‘educational’ games are not. Not really. Click the birdie – watch the computer do something. But today’s video games for teens and adults are very interactive. There’s no denying this. Steven Johnson is very strong on this. You have to learn to navigate each environment and interface. Most games demand a lot of thinking and challenge you to solve problems. This is not the same thing as being active. But it certainly does stimulate your brain, and entertain you, and helps train you to form and test and reject and reform hypotheses. That is certainly why they’re so dang popular.

– Reading is…what? It is passive when the “listener” just sits there and takes it all in. It is ‘active’ for the reader as your mind must conjure…everything. The author provides text and description and setting and narrative. But the action doesn’t just happen in front of you. You can’t read in a vegetative state. You must use your active imagination. You must conjure, conjure, conjure! You decide what the characters look like. The settings – the rooms and landscape and settings. Your active imagination must be the director fleshing out the narrative ‘film’ in your mind provided by the author. Reading is definitely active. And all this is true for the listener, too. A child listening still has to conjure what the giant or the dragon or Voldemort looks like. What it’s like to enter Narnia. What Farmer Zuckerman’s barn smells like. Listening is active, too!

OK. I’ve actually said all this before. But I want to add one more dimension. (Or re-phrase something I’ve said before.)

I recently read Nick Harkaway’s stimulating book on “How to Be Human in the Digital World.” It’s called The Blind Giant (2012). This was for an annual presentation I make to middle schoolers on how to use their computers and the Internet responsibly. (I ask them to learn to be “masters of the medium.”)

Harkaway does a thought experiment. He asks, What if reading was a new technology? What if we all grew up with digital and video and computer entertainment – and then books were invented? What would we say about them? Would they be rejected and criticized for being boring, flat, passive, not interactive enough?

Maybe. But Harkaway suggests – or reiterates – that reading has something that none of those ‘pre-existing’ contemporary media have. Reading is reflective!

When you are reading you’re actually having an internal dialogue. With yourself. With the author. Maybe with the characters. And with the entire corpus of what you’ve read before. Easier with fiction – but very true for non-fiction, too. Your mind is multi-tasking. Taking in narrative. Being entertained. Reacting emotionally, psychologically. Anticipating what might happen next. And being critical: judging, admiring, criticizing, comparing.

That is high-order stuff. And sometimes it blows over and you actually have to stop and think about it. You ‘hit the Pause button.’ Maybe you jot an idea down. (Maybe you text it to a friend, or Tweet an apercu or epiphany, or just make a note to yourself.) Maybe you just stop and think for a moment. Maybe you take a walk. But you necessarily pause and let yourself think about what you’re reading, how you feel about it, what makes you happy or mad, how it might change your opinion or grow, what you want to tell your friend about how much it makes you angry or ‘you gotta read this!’ or ‘i just read the funniest thing…’ You reflect.

All media are shareable. But only reading not only demands and insists on reflection. And only reading makes it so easy to reflect. As a technology it is much easier to detach yourself from it to do actual reflecting. We all know how great it feels to want nothing more than to return to our book. In that sense reading is…addictive. But reading has an automatic and much more accessible Pause Button that enables reflection. Yes – I’ve said it a million times before – you can pause your film or video or game – but who does? Hardly ever.

Reading stimulates a broader array of stuff in your ever developing brain because it’s not passive. It’s active, but not just active. It’s reflective. It allows – nay, it impels – you to think beyond the medium. It asks and allows and enables you not only to imagine – but to associate and compare and analyze and assess. It allows you to reflect.

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Re-Reading Winn-Dixie

Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie has been a very successful book for thousands of families via our One School, One Book program.  I remember the first time I read the book with my family – three daughters then – the first time we experienced the graceful, efficient, poetic prose of Kate DiCamillo – and the simple, rich encounters the protagonist – Opal – has with the various adults she befriends and who befriend her.

For many families, reading Winn-Dixie the first time is a portal to reading other stories by Kate DiCamilo – especially The Tale of Despereaux (which won the Newbery in 2004) and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (a book which has proved provocative and popular at Read to Them).

This summer, we finally had occasion to re-visit Opal and Winn-Dixie – and all their friends – reading it to our 4-year-old son.  We hadn’t read it in well over 5 years.  (My daughters are all grown up teen-agers.)  We have been reading chapter books with my son since January.  A lot of Roald Dahl – James and the Giant PeachCharlie and the Chocolate FactoryThe BFGFantastic Mr. FoxDanny, the Champion of the World.  Of course we’re also still reading picture books and – as shared recently here – the comic books featuring Usagi Yojimbo.

But Winn-Dixie is a little different.  A step up in emotional sophistication.  I even occasionally hear from a school or two that it’s not exactly a book for boys.  I don’t know if that’s true – but I understand why schools are more concerned with reaching boys and sometimes assume books need male protagonists or even traditional male quests or conflict to hold boys’ attention.  My son is our first and only boy – and he is a real light-sabre duelling, rough-housing, rough and tumble boy – so I didn’t know how it would go…

Well it went great.  Truly great.  In fact, it was special.  A rich, memorable experience.  Re-kindled our love and affection for Winn-Dixie.

He first fell in love with Winn-Dixie the smiling dog. Thought that was hilarious.  Remembered and called attention to it.  Began to anticipate it.

He also continued to re-visit the opening scene in the grocery store when Winn-Dixie knocks over the tomatoes and onions and peppers. Thought that was hilarious.  Little boys go for slapstick.  I’ve seen him laugh regularly at the dumbest, silliest hijinks in movies and cartoons.  So it was nice to see him laugh at the imagined, conjured image of Winn-Dixie knocking over those vegetables.

He was very taken by Opal’s missing mother.  Not a theme or scenario he had encountered before.  (Well – that’s not exactly true.  Roald Dahl’s protagonists are often orphans – but it’s not exactly emphasized or featured as a missing sore spot.  Kate DiCamillo plays it much differently – w/out being maudlin.)  At Read to Them we have encouraged schools and families to play up this aspect of the story.  Opal’s father’s list of Ten Things about Opal’s Mother is one of the essential moments in the book.  (We’ve encouraged students to make their own lists about important relatives.)

My son was taken, too.  My lasting image of reading Winn-Dixie to him is the look on his face – mouth pursed, eyes staring ahead – the look behind his eyes, the changing look of quizzical consternation – as he imagined what it would be like to not have your mother.  Not a ‘nice’ thing to do your mother-adoring son perhaps.  But that’s what literature is for.  To watch your children perceive and imagine, feel and contemplate.  To put new notions and emotions in their heads.  To watch them grow.

Ready McFie listened attentively and asked questions throughout about Opal’s missing mother.  At odd times away from the book – on a hike, say – we would try to remember the Ten Things together.  A tried and true technique.  (Try it yourself.)

He responded to the different kids in the book – especially the rude Dewberry Brothers.  Little children are very good at seeing the world in black and white terms – constantly re-affirming their growing sense and command of the world – and seeking clarity to confirm or re-iterate their understanding.  The Dewberries are foils for understanding how NOT to behave.  And Ready duly observed and confirmed – scolded – their meanness.  (Although even here, Kate DiCamillo has more in mind – including forgiveness and an enhanced understanding of other people – despite their foibles.)

He loved hearing Miss Franny Block’s stories at the Library – and Otis’s songs at the Pet Store.  Especially – you can predict this – the parrot, Gertrude, perching on Winn-Dixie’s head.

But he really loved Gloria Dump.  Loved her way with peanut butter.  Another one of those details that stayed with him after the fact.  Smiling teeth.  Tomatoes.  Bald-headed babies.  Gertrude.  And peanut butter being fed to Winn-Dixie.

His favorite motif was the Litmus Lozenges.  He was fascinated that a candy could taste like an emotion.  We had to explain the word ‘sorrow’ of course.  But he understood that it meant sad – and he likes using new vocabulary – and so every time we picked up the book he was curious again about ‘the candy that tastes like sorrow.’  Asked endless questions about it.  Opined about it.  That’s my lasting aural memory – Ready McFie going on about “the candy that tastes like sorrow.”

I was a little concerned he would fret for Winn-Dixie during the evening when he is lost during the party.  (“You can’t hold onto anything.  You can only love what you’ve got while you’ve got it.”)  But he was more interested in Opal’s list of Ten Winn-Dixie traits and eccentric characteristics.  We sailed through the denouement easily. (And tried to remember the list the next day.)

Thank you again, Kate DiCamillo – for charming and enriching our family again.  I am so glad and heartened that my rough and tumble son responded so well to the emotional tricks and pleasures in Because of Winn-Dixie.

This experience is what reading chapter books with your kids is all about.  Watching their faces. ‘Seeing’ their minds click and whir and conjure and imagine. Watching them grapple and wrestle with new and challenging characters, scenarios, emotions.  Seeing them settle down and experience the interactive pleasure of imagination – completely different than the call and response passive interaction of the various electronic screens we put in front of them.

And may all families eventually come to share a similar experience with Opal and Winn-Dixie.  And to appreciate the loved ones in their lives – pets, grandparents, neighbors – for all their eccentric foibles.  (Even loved ones who aren’t present.)

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Re-Discovering Usagi Yojimbo

Yes, you can read comic books!  I’ve said it before – but perhaps it’s become sotte voce.  So I’ll say it again here, now:  Yes, you can read comic books!

This weekend I got to pull one of my favorite comic book series for kids off the shelf.  I hadn’t read it in ten years.

The occasion was my 4 year-old son’s interest in light sabres and all things fighting.

The series is Usagi Yojimbo – by Stan Sakai.

UY1

Back when my daughters were his age, we discovered and read Usagi with abandon.  They took to Star Wars and all things light sabres and they took to being read to and we needed to continue to find ways to branch out and explore and share.  Comic books were one way to do that.  Lots of pictures.  New characters.  Serial storylines.  And – as I have emphasized what feels like ad nauseum – lots of stimulating text.  Good vocabulary.  Science.  History.  Complex narrative arcs.  Everything you want.  And so easy and fun to share.

But Usagi was the best.  Usagi (rabbit) Yojimbo (bodyguard) is the Hawaiian-born Stan Sakai’s take on the various samurai epics that have come out of Japan – Lone Wolf and Cub; many of the films of Kurosawa; the legend of the 47 Ronin.  Sakai draws upon all these stories and traditions – adapting the culture of the samurai for children.  The stories take place in 16th century Japan – but all the characters are animals.  Usagi is a rabbit.  His best friend is a warthog.  His romantic interests are often cats.  Sakai revels in period details – luscious pen and ink drawings of nature and architecture and armor.  The stories are filled with lords and guards, villagers and peasants and innkeepers, samurai of various types, and of course ninjas!  It’s done for children – but there is lots of back story and lots of fighting (but not too much blood) – all wrapped up in 48 page stories.  (Long form stories – serial chapters, ten episodes in length are collected and bound in easily accessible published books.)  There is also plenty of bushido – the warrior code – and the kinds of details kids love – like telling the difference between the two swords the samurai carry – the katana (the long sword) and the wakizashi (the short sword).

 

UY3

Some of my girls favorite stories involved Usagi’s training by his sensei (teacher) when he was a child.  But they reveled in all the detail – the range of characters – sidekicks and scary bad guys – the newness and foreignness of another time and place – rendered w/ all that loving attention and detail – exactly what we want – from children’s literature (or any literature) and in any medium.

They’re all grown up now.  The Usagi comics and books are all neatly stacked and stored on the shelf – dusted regularly – but unread for some time.

Until this Labor Day weekend!

Like many parents, I am slightly mystified by my son’s interest in guns.  We don’t have any.  We don’t glory in them.  I am not interested in them.  But I have spoken to enough parents – and seen enough kids – to know that it’s not really a personal thing.  It’s genetic or cultural or a boy thing.  But it’s out of my control.

I’ve always favored the line Obi-Wan Kenobi uses when he introduced the light sabre to Luke Skywalker (in Episode IV: A New Hope): “An elegant weapon from a more civilized age.”  George Lucas was certainly thinking of the samurai when he introduced the light sabre, and I am sure I am not the first father to use that line to try to sway my son to fighting duels w/ play swords instead of play guns.

But Ready McFie has heard that line to death.  Hardly carries any water any more.  Time for Usagi.  To re-introduce the warrior code – and elegance.  (And fighting.)

We pulled Book One off the shelf and started reading Labor Day morning.  After each story – which takes about ten minutes to read – “One more, Papa.”  We reveled in the details.  The tokage lizards on the sidelines.  The fine use of silhouettes.  (You can always tell Usagi because of his rabbit ears.)  He delighted in the fighting.  He laughed at Usagi’s jokes.  He cared about what might happen to the peasants.  Or the people Usagi chooses to protect.  (Usagi has all the super hero virtues.)  He repeated all the Japanese names and terms.  He learned – it was difficult – how to hold off and try to ignore the exciting upcoming images on the right-hand page as we made our way thru the text and story on the left-hand pages.

UY3

I tried to break it up.  “Papa needs to work.”  “Time go to the pool.”  But by the end of the day – before bedtime, before dinner even – we had finished the whole first book – ten chapters or stories.

Of course we pulled out the old styrofoam katana and wakizashi his sisters had acquired.  (Not too dusty.)  Even Mom got challenged to duel.

Does he want more?  Does a samurai honor bushido?!

How fortunate he is – how fortunate I am – that we have a whole shelf to dust off and explore.  (He’s already cased and surveyed the covers – asking aggressive questions to know about the villains depicted there in his future.)  I hope they last ‘til Christmas…

Better yet – perhaps some day soon we’ll get to venture back to the comic books shop – where I also haven’t been in years – and catch up (stock up!) on the issues of Usagi we’ve missed in the intervening years.

As parents, we are constantly trying to help our children maintain a healthy balance – playing outside, not ODing on video games or movies or TV.  Asking or reminding or insisting they read too – by themselves or with us – can sometimes feel like or begin to sound like asking them to eat their vegetables.  Comic books – sharing comic books! – can be another solution.  A textual, visual medium – stimulating all the senses – interesting and entertaining and educational and compelling and beautiful enough to delight adult and child alike – together.

All hail Usagi Yojimbo!   Try him together.

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Why the Book is Better than the Movie

The Treasure’s in the Details

I made a couple of TV appearances recently, and it got me thinking about different media and the people who consume them.  We in the parenting/educational line are often thinking of what’s best for our children and students.  We are very judgemental.  We’d rather they eat healthy and play healthy and read healthy.  We let them eat junk food and soda – we let them play video games and live on their phones – but we’d rather they do better.  We all know TV isn’t good for you – that reading is better.  So how do we get ‘em to read healthy – without wagging our fingers at them and making it our chore rather than their pleasure?

Let’s look at it from this angle.  How many times have your kids gone to see a big movie based on a big book – and they’ve come back and said – “The book was better than the movie”?  How many times have you said it?  We all say it.  Why is that?  Why is the book better than the movie?

It doesn’t take much to understand the answer.  The book is richer.  The characters are depicted in more patient emotional depth – and we as readers – and our kids as readers, too – respond to that.  We care more.  The book uses more details – longer descriptions – more color and anecdote – more complicated nuanced layered plot set up – to advance it’s story.  Sometimes when you are in the middle of a good book – and kids know this, too – you don’t want the story to end.  You’re with a good friend(s) and you want to pause and hold onto that moment.  If you’ll forgive me, you’re like a rat who wants to keep pushing that dopamine receptor.  You don’t want life to intercede and take that pleasure away from you.

The movie can’t – or rarely can – provide these pleasures.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love movies.  I love a rich movie that I’ll want to watch more than once, share w/ others, remember and reference.  I love a movie that adds to my emotional and intellectual palette – that enriches my mental world.  I admit – not everyone goes to the movies for those reasons.  Sometimes we just want an ephemeral pleasure.  We want to laugh or be caught up in a story – action, mystery, thriller – or even be scared.  But when it’s a movie we also expect it to be finite.  We need to get in and get out in 2 hours.  (Excepting anomalies like Lord of the Rings.)  And that means a movie can’t provide as rich an experience – in two hours – as a book can in 10 or 20.

Kids intuitively know this.  My examples are going to date me – but if we just choose from recent adaptations of popular novels aimed at children – from The Lightning Thief to The Hunger Games to Twilight to good old dependable Harry Potter – the experience is the same.  Kids will tell you they liked the movie, they may even see it again, but it wasn’t as good as the book.  Why?  What can we do with that?

The truth is, kids have a tough time telling you why.  They usually harp on the same things – the stuff that was left out.  They usually mention characters, scenes, bits of dialogue – stuff that is precious to them that the film-makers had to cut out or condense because they couldn’t make a 12 hour movie.  For starters, we need to recognize that kids who read books treasure the stuff – the details –  inside of those books as precious.  It bothers them that such details are left out.  (You can ask your closest child for their personal examples.  They may like how the Harry Potter folks pulled off Luna Lovegood – but they still miss Peeves the Poltergeist.)  That stuff – those details – are in fact your kids’ treasure.

But that is not all the filmmakers leave out.  They truncate or eliminate themes and plot lines.  Set ups that may have taken pages to establish are executed visually in a film in seconds.  Screenwriters are trained to establish elements – character elements or didactic exposition – as efficiently is possible.  This is necessary and skillful for efficient two-hour story-telling.  But it’s not what makes books special.  And that difference – the stuff left out – is what makes books better.

A recent example from the adult world may really illustrate the point.  I’m talking about World War Z.  (And before I begin, let me say that I know an awful lot of precocious middle schoolers who have discovered this book, too.)  If you’ve read the book, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t – allow me a moment to convince you – just to make sure you don’t think that World War Z is just another stupid zombie book.  I confess, the notion of zombies is pretty silly, and the current craze is probably little more than that – a passing fad.  Nonetheless World War Z is special.  It takes as its premise that there has been a world wide attack of zombies – a plague.  And that people and nations all over the globe have fought back – and largely won.  But the book doesn’t depict that war in real time.  It is all told after the fact through the technique of oral history.  The author – Max Brooks – contrives to have ‘interviewed’ participants and survivors of the war that was.  From all over the globe they describe what they witnessed and what they experience.  What they really describe is how people – different people in different places and cultures – responded to the threat.  Sure there are moments where some characters describe the physical details of fighting off zombies.  (There are details like why to go for a head shot.)  But this is not the true meat or theme of the book.  Instead, Brooks uses the occasion of a zombie attack to imagine how humanity would respond to a world-wide threat.  His premise could just as easily be an actual disease or pandemic.  Or natural disaster.  Or invasion from Mars.  His real subject is who would panic?  What would that look like?  Who would succeed?  What kind of leadership or ingenuity or teamwork or unity would succeed against a difficult to understand adversary?  And Brooks uses actual history and journalistic references to tell his story.  There is an early character who describes the trade in internal organs for transplant in the Far East.  Brooks’ imagination also abounds in historical ironies.  The Israelis invite the Palestinians in as they build a higher wall to keep the zombies out.  Rich Americans become boat people trying to get into the haven of Cuba.  I won’t spoil more but you can see the natural question – how do you film that?

And the answer is they barely even tried.  My point isn’t to write a screed against the film adaptation of World War Z.  In fact, they created an enjoyable – and fairly traditional – adventure film that allows Brad Pitt (a character who doesn’t exist in the bool) to trot the globe learning a little here and there (Korea, Israel, Iceland) to try to figure out how to combat the zombies.  But this film – as conceived and executed – can’t hold a candle to the book.  It doesn’t even try.

I think kids know this, too, when they come out of The Hunger Games or Harry Potter 7.  They want to see their favorite characters and moments.  They want to be back in the favored magical, exciting world of their imaginations – the one they conjured when read the book.  They come out knowing they only got a less than satisfying, not as rich taste.  Many of them go back and re-read the original for the full emotional, imaginative experience.

So what can we do with that?  If the book is better than the movie – how can we get them to read the books?  Make them available.  Always say ‘Yes’ when they want to go to the library or – gulp – the bookstore.  Let them put it on their Kindles.  Make the books available.  Have them lying around.  Encourage them to read the book before they see the movie.  You can even demand a quid pro quo – telling them they can’t see the movie until they’ve read the book.  (Yes, that’s the rule in my house.)  If they haven’t read the book – or perhaps weren’t even aware there was a book – get it for them.  Oftentimes this is how a child first learns “the book is better than the movie.”  Make comparisons.  When they tell you the book is better than the movie – make a list.  Together.  Come up with other examples. From their childhood.  And from yours.  (You can even include adult films.)  Let them come up with whatever films they do.  Do they like Stuart Little?  Do they know Freaky Friday was a book?  The possibilities are endless.  But let the occasion of the comparison between the movie and the book become an opportunity to talk about more movies – and more books.  And get those books!  Life is about opportunities.  Create them.

Finally, I think we have to trust.  If the books really are better than the movies – then quality will out.  Eventually children don’t want junk food – they want a full, rich nourishing meal.  They’d rather eat Thanksgiving dinner than more Cheetos.  So they will gravitate to those hefty, nourishing chapter books – no matter how thick and imposing.  (In fact, when they come to love those worlds, they’ll prefer them thick and imposing, because they’ll want to reside and wallow there – stopping time – longer.  They’ll want their literary Big Gulps. Indulge them.)  But we can also hasten or enable that moment along.  Have the books around.  Let them bring them in the car.  Make sure they’re with you during likely moments when there might be dead time – car trips, any time you may have to wait for wherever you’re going (e.g. doctor’s offices.)

It’s also OK to use some quid pro quo carrots and sticks.  Books can be rewards.  If you’re a little firm – books will become their own rewards.  When we finally had a child who really wanted to play video games – we instilled a 1:1:1 ratio requirement.  She was allowed to play video games – but she had to maintain a 1:1:1 ratio of time spent a) playing outside, b) reading, c) playing video games.  She’s been on her honor to maintain this balance.  If we think things are out of whack – we speak up.  Books – even in this required scenario – quickly become attractive anyway.  If you’re looking forward to playing your next video game – you still want to choose books you’ll enjoy – books so good they read fast – books so rich you’ll enjoy being in them for 500 pages.  In a perverse way, even this technique takes children into worlds where – sometimes despite themselves – they discover the superior riches of the mental and imaginative worlds – the emotional universe – of good books.  And they’ll come out admitting, “the book was better than the movie.”

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After the interview

I was interviewed by a local television station in Richmond this week.  The morning show on Fox.  It’s not the first time – but my emotions and reactions were different this time.

1) It’s just TV.  And it’s not the first time.  Who even watches TV anymore?  It hardly feels like it’s a topic of conversation these days – the way it used to.  Unless that just dates me.  Because of course I’m wrong.  Of course people still watch TV.  Sure they watch more channels.  And they ‘watch’ or consume other media forms too.  The audience is highly diffuse and dispersed.  But I’m still fortunate to be there – to have a platform – to have an audience that might be interested.  Like a musician performing his best songs for an unknown audience – I still need to be up and ready and give it my best.  And I did.

2) Part of me is self conscious about doing that at all.  It is important to me to be asked for my opinion, my point of view, my expertise – not to over-aggressively offer my opinion, advice, anecdotes unsolicited.  But I know that’s not entirely true either.  I know that some people want to be entertained.  I know that some people want answers – even if they’re unsure of what questions they’re asking.  And I really know that I have a message worth sharing.  It’s not just a do-gooder’s message about eating healthy.  (Although it is that, too.)  I know that dozens, scores, hundreds, thousands of families will be enthused about reading aloud – whether they’re just doing it more, or more often, or if they’re doing it for the first time.  My message is worth it.  It’s not only worth offering – even unsolicited.  It’s worth pushing.  If there’s a TV audience out there – it’s eager to be pushed.

3) Late in the interview I committed what felt like a mistake.  I mentioned my son. He’s only 3. And I mentioned that we play the movie line game – and even the book line game – together.

Was that wrong?

In one sense it’s not.  I have certainly mentioned my own children – including my still young son – often enough in this blogging arena.  And where else does one find the anecdotes and apercus about reading aloud but from one’s own experience?

But in another sense I must be cautious.  Wary.  Careful.  When I am being interviewed – it’s not about me. (Or my family.) It’s about the families we’re reaching.

A step further – I must be careful to come off right.  I am educated, articulate, sometimes academic, can be intimidating.  And my children are – comparatively – privileged.  They grow up in a highly literate, articulate household.  I don’t want to come off wrong.  I don’t want anyone to turn away because my own children’s experiences can’t be relevant to their own.

But with enough reflection I realize that this is in fact the whole game right here.  In fact, I shouldn’t be embarrassed about sharing both what I know and have learned and the experiences and anecdotes of my own kids.  It’s what I’m here for.  It’s what I do.

Let me explain.

a) In fact lots of families are eager for answers and information – for stories and inspiration – eager in fact to be told what to do and how to do it.  I know this because of the untold millions of dollars spent by our federal government and untold number of earnest non-profits (like our own) trying to reach out and help – to enable and to make our world a better place.  I know because parents and families ask.  They read parenting magazines and are hungry for tips – parenting tips on all and sundry.  They call and write and ask questions – Am I doing it right? What else should I do?  Do you have any ideas for this?  It’s what parents talk about on the playground and at the gym.  How do you handle this?  What are you doing about that?  I know because they ask us, too. They ask even the most elementary questions about where to find book lists and what books to read.  I shouldn’t be embarrassed or humble about sharing what I know.  We all can’t know about everything – and I know a lot about this (this reading aloud thing).  Parents do want to know.  They should. And they do.

b) I also know from my own experience.  If I share Ready McFie’s ardor for the movie line game – I know it can come off show-offy.  (And I know what it’s like to be repelled by the show-offy parent.  I DON’T want to be that parent – and certainly not on TV.)  But I know from experience how other kids respond to the movie line game.  And so I know it’s worth sharing.

You see this, in fact, is where the trivia questions come from.  They – the idea behind them – their impetus – come from the very questions (or type of questions) I ask my own kids when we have read books together.  Or long after we have read books together.  It’s one of the ways we interact and communicate.  It is our vernacular.  A way to celebrate the books.  To challenge each other.  To re-access and re-live in the choice detailed pleasurable worlds and moods and atmospheres those books create.  But it doesn’t stop there.

I can recall countless times I have shared the same with my children’s friends.  At parties.  In the car.  Carpooling all those countless places we end up taking our own and other people’s kids.  Invariably other children are quickly fascinated and enthused by movie or book trivia.  I test and feint to locate their level of knowledge and understanding – what books and flics they know well.  For some of them it takes a little getting used to.  But for almost all of them they sit up – are more alert – they’re brains are thinking too – they want to play the game.

And that’s what tells me how good and healthy and stimulating and right it is for other children – other people’s children – everyone’s children.  It’s not me telling you to eat your vegetables.  It’s just me sharing that I know kids LOVE this kind of stimulating, get-the-most-out-of-popular-culture celebration.  I know how to do it.  And I want you to, too.
But that is not all.  (‘Oh no, that is not all’…quoted from what picture book? A: The Cat in the Hat.)

It all goes double for the movie line game.  One kind of trivia question I love to put in the OSOB book packets are “Who said?” questions.  Children spring up animated to try to answer these questions.  The questions put kids’ imaginations right back in the book. They scramble all over each other to recapitulate the scenes and moments and characters who create certain lines of dialogue.  I especially like choosing dialogue that is not obvious.  Redolent, memorable – but on the edge of memory.  So they have to work a little to remember and re-imagine and recreate.  The effort is worth it as their satisfaction and pride are all the greater.  Their enthusiasm and celebration is brought forth.

And children – even my bred-in-the-bone 3-year-old – especially cotton on to the movie line game.  They can play it too.  It is somehow easier for them to come up with lines from movies than it is from books – even from movies they haven’t seen in a year.  (Perhaps because it’s easier – part of our generation’s parenting culture – to see and re-see favorite movies.) Children make the transition quickly – eagerly – and start to ask their own “Who said?” questions riffing the movie-line game.

c) So what was Ready McFie’s book line? It started when we were reading Charlotte’s Web. The night before Wilbur meets Charlotte she actually speaks to him from the rafters in the darkness. Wilbur can’t see her – doesn’t know who she is – doesn’t even know what kind of animal she is – doesn’t know where to look. She says good night to Wilbur intoning, “I’ll see you in the morning.” Wilbur goes to sleep that night pondering the mystery – eager to learn the identity of his mystery friend.

Well Ready McFie – the eager listener – went to the bed the same way. (This is, of course, a classic read aloud scenario. The tired child eager to hear more. Sometimes asking for one more chapter. Sometimes recognizing the safety of their fatigue, but happy they have something to look forward to the next day.) He woke up the next morning – and he remembered the line. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he quoted. He made the line his. It was a talisman of the book for him. He has quoted it many times since.

And that’s how you play the book line game. You try to think of lines from books – and see if your interlocutors can identify the character who spoke it; the title of the book it’s from; the author. Sometimes it’s even fun to recall moments of dialogue – and see if your child, friend, colleague can finish the conversation.

Try one: From the Disney film, The Emperor’s New Groove. (this sequence may be familiar to you from the trailer) David Spade/Llama: “Let me guess. We’re about to go over a huge waterfall.” John Goodman/Peruvian peasant: “Yup.” Spade: “Sharp rocks at the bottom?” Goodman: “Most likely.” And how does Spade finish the exchange? “Bring it on.”

An easy one: “That Sam-I-am. That Sam-I-am. I do not like that Sam-I-am.” Too easy right? (Green Eggs and Ham, of course.)

How about: “Kaplink. Kaplank. Kaplunk.” A little harder, I hope. From Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey.

Moving up a little: “Wow. That’s about all they could say was ‘Wow.”  [Kevin Henkes’ Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse.]

How about a chapter book: “Excuse me?” “Excuse me?” “Excuse me?” [That’d be the Warden in Louis Sachar’s Holes – a line (and method of delivery) all kids remember and love in fear – memorably played by Sigourney Weaver in the film adaptation.]

Closer to home: “How can you whip cream without whips?” A toughie, eh? Try it on one of your e.s. kids. It’s Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (explaining about the Whip Room to Veruca Salt)

You can play this game forever – with movies or books. We just watched The Lion King for the first time. We’re playing it now. “I’ll tell you when we get there.” (Simba, to Nala.)  “Ix-nay on the upid-stay.” (Zazu, to Simba)  “It is time.” (Rafiki)  “Remember.  Remember who you are.” (Mufasa, to Simba)

One more? “I know what I said. Listen to what I’m saying now!” (Character? Movie?) [Elastigirl/Holly Hunter; The Incredibles.]

You can play it, too.

And I think – upon reflection – my instinct to share this was right after all – even on TV. It is what I do. We play the movie line game – and the book line game. It is one way we celebrate the books we share. I want you to share books with your families too. What else can I do but share that enthusiasm, that joy, and these methods, too? I just hope it comes off right…on TV.

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Re-Discovering James and the Giant Peach

I have a three-year-old.  I’ve raised three daughters – and written about reading aloud with them here.  I’ve looked forward to writing about reading aloud anew – from the trenches – with my three-year-old son.  And the moment has finally arrived.

My wife and I didn’t push it.  Our young son is a boy – and full of all the energy and rough-house instincts we’ve seen in lots of other little boys.  As he’s grown we’ve read (and continue to read) the full slate of picture books – from board books like Good Night, Gorilla to all the old favorites: Ferdinand; Bread and Jam for Frances; Little Bear; Robert McCloskey…  The full corpus of Kevin Henkes.  And William Steig.  Babar.  Even Star Wars.

A question often asked of me is, When do you start reading chapter books?  And my best answer is: When they’re ready.  Could be 2.  Could be 3.  Could be 4. Might not be until 5 or 6.
But you have to try.  Not religiously. Not pushing it.  Little different than graduating from bottles and sippy cups.  Or tying your shoes.  Ideally you follow their lead.

Of course we have lots of books around.  (They’re not all down at the office.)  Even if we haven’t read a kid’s chapter book out loud in a few years.  They’re still on the shelf.  Calling.
My wife tried Charlotte’s Web.  Couldn’t get past the complexity of the Zuckerman’s Farm characters.  She tried Because of Winn-Dixie.  Interesting when the dog is the protagonist.  Not so much when Opal is meeting her adult friends in town.

Probably it was too early.  We put ‘em down.  Their time will come.

And then – early in the New Year – we struck gold with an unexpected source.  Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.  Unexpected?  Yes.

Here’s the backstory:  Of course I love Roald Dahl.  (I still remember when my elementary school librarian read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and Charlottes’s Web – and that’s going back to 1973!)  As a parent and educator I especially love some of the later gems like The BFG and The Witches.  Perhaps that’s my taste.  But that’s why they’re OSOB selections.

But I was never a big fan of James and the Giant Peach.  Why?  I’m not entirely sure.  Many, many people love it.  It’s Dahl’s first book for children.  But I have found it hard to read aloud.  Despite my paeans and tips on how to create voices and differentiate characters – I have always found the voices in James and the Giant Peach to be difficult.  Not the Aunts.  They’re easy.  They’re cartoons.  But the bugs in the Peach are not easy.  They’re all adults.  But they’re all a little arch, a little fey, a little British.  One character like that is easy to communicate to a child as a foil.  But a peach full of six of them?  I’ve always found them a challenge.

Having said that, I still know that the book contains some Dahl’s most famous and effective descriptions.  I have long used a sample from James and the Giant Peach in my reading tips.  To   illustrate my tip on vocabulary – specifically my suggestion that the reader seek out and highlight or emphasize (subtly or grandly) descriptive words – I read Chapter 9 – when James seeks out on a dewy moonlit night – and arrives at the full grown Peach all alone.  And discovers the entrance.
[You can listen to that tip – and that description – here.]

But the book remains popular.  And the film adaptation – despite adding some material – and some original songs – is faithful in tone, faithful to the characters – a worthy animated pleasure.
In response to popular demand, I resolved to add James to Read to Them’s Recommended Title list.  And was pleasantly surprised to discover what a joy it was to read Roald Dahl’s original prose.  His sentences were elegant.  His word choices brisk and pointed and memorable.  His dialogue with the reader arch and brisk, witty and edgily moralistic.  Not only did the book not feel dated or 50 years old – it felt really like catching up with an old friend.

What does the ocean look like to James?  “A long thin streak of blackish-blue, like a line of ink, along the rim of the sky.”

Dahl excels at describing movement – the sound and images that pulse vibrantly and teem with life and heighten the vicarious reader’s curiosity:

“James stared into the bag, and sure enough there was a faint rustling sound coming up from inside of it, and then he noticed that all the thousands of little green things were slowly, very very slowly stirring about and moving over each other as though they were alive.”

Dahl observes and calls attention and brings to life just the very details that a child would attend to.  I am similarly reminded of the mysterious dreams captured in jars in The BFG – which pulse and change colour ephemerally.

The reader is dying to go inside the Peach – but what does it feel like on the outside?  “It felt soft and warm and furry, like the skin of a baby mouse.”  Want to know what it feels like?  James does too and Dahl’s prose is positively tactile: “He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin.”  Can you feel it, too?

What’s it like to be the calm, resourceful one amid a bunch of oversized querulous insects? “Their eyes waited upon him, tense, anxious, pathetically hopeful.”

And Dahl does drama – without indulging or wasting words, paper, or time: “There was a squelch.  The needle went in deep.  And suddenly there was the Giant Peach, caught and spiked upon the every pinnacle of the Empire State Building.”  Unforgettable.

Beautiful, no?  But does that mean it could work with a 3-1/2-year-old?

Maybe I brought my newfound sense of discovery and pleasure to it.  Maybe I read it more patiently.  Maybe I found ways to appreciate and love the creatures in the Peach – the silly Centipede whom James seems to relate to; the lovely Spider who shelters and comforts James; the elegant Old Green-Grasshopper – the acme of avuncular.

All books have those moments you are looking forward to – funny moments, scary moments, grand triumphant moments, tension-filled moments resolved by imagination and courage and resourcefulness.

For James and the Giant Peach these are those early moments:

What will your child do when James’ parents are killed in the first paragraph?  Does the ridiculous spectre of “an escaped rhinocerous” somehow mitigate or distract from the catastrophe of orphanhood?  Or does it instantly trigger a kindred sympathy in the reader/listener?

How will he respond to the unrelenting and unrelieved awfulness of the Aunts?  It made him sit up and resent them – on behalf of James – with all his being.  It made him alert.

What about when James loses the bag of magic crystals?  Can nothing ever go right for him?
One obviously looks forward with delight for the opportunity to describe the appearance and growth of the Peach.  Read for maximize empathic effect.

And then James gets to that Peach – and he gets inside of it – and we discover a whole new world – a whole new sensibility – with voices and eccentricities – and can you differentiate the characters – and can he keep them all straight.  It is an awful lot.  It is a new book.

And then the Peach leaves – and the Aunts get their comeuppance.  And macabre as it is for Dahl to kill them off summarily – it remains satisfying to every child.  The Peach rolls over the dastardly Aunts and smushes them.  Yes!  Such triumph and satisfaction is good for 50 pages of good will.

And that’s only the first third of the book!  The ocean – and the sharks – and the seagulls – and the Cloudmen – and New York City all await.

So how did he take it?  For the first time – he bought in.  He was enthralled.  His interest – his concern – his curiosity – were not only engaged.  They were sustained.

First of all – he related to James.  He wanted only the best for him.  And nothing bad.  He even relished James’ vengeance.

He also cared about James’ friendships.  His affinity for the Centipede – who he laughed with.  The gentle, loving support of Miss Spider

And he admired James’ resourcefulness.  His can-do response to the problem of the sharks.
He bought in also to the notion of not knowing what could happen next.  A man shows up w/ a bag of crystals?  A Giant Peach grows out of nowhere?  A room full of new characters.  Who are they all?  One of them is funny?  Some of them are really nice.  James escapes!  The Peach rolls into the ocean.  Sharks?  Seagulls!

I think he clearly grasped the unconscious notion that the pleasure you retain – as a reader – in something that has already happened – “What happened to the Aunts?” “They got smushed by the Peach” – can carry your interest and patience and expectation and fortitude for the next thing.  It might be sweet – it might be funny – it might be scary – it might be colorful or active.  But there will be a next thing.  It will be entertaining.  It will be interesting.  And it will be worth it.  That’s how books work.

I think that there is nothing like seeing a child sit up, attentive, listening, mouth open, conjuring in their mind what is happening from the words read on the page – expecting, hoping, wishing, dreading, remembering.

It is different than a child in your arms safely turning familiar if endlessly entertaining rich illustrated pages.  Not different better.  But different.  A little bit of it is growing up.  A little bit of it us unsafe.  He doesn’t know what will happen next.  That little trepidation is being a reader.  It is life.

So he made it through – and it was worth it.  For him.  For me.  For his mother.  A collected series of moments and memories.  A milestone.

Will he remember it?  In my experience, children under four do not retain well the details of experiences like these.  He’ll remember something – but whether it’s the rhinocerous or the sharks or the Empire State Building I don’t know.  He will remember Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker – I am sure of that.

What makes it worth it?  Oh, so many things.  That kind of sitting still concentrated attention span is priceless.  The ability to conjure the action – the characters – to flesh out the story in their mind – also priceless.  And now we have a shared story – characters, moments, fears, resolution.  Maybe even some memorable lines, too.  (The Centipede prides himself on being a pest!)

But we’ve also established a premise – a foundation to build on.  Yes we still have picture books – our own and the Library’s.  And yes someday he’ll read on his own.  But in between – we have this lovely, special, imaginative, shared habit to fall back on.

We’ve since read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  And Fantastic Mr. Fox.  And The BFG.  And have just re-opened Charlotte’s Web.  And he’s the one who asks.  “Mama, can we read Charlotte’s Web tonite?”

He’s got the habit.  When he was ready.  Thank you, Roald Dahl.  Thank you for 50 years.  And I suspect, my son’s children will be thanking you someday, too.

 

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