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Honor the Story

Don’t you hate it when you’re watching a movie and someone comes in the room and immediately interrupts your mood by asking some insistent (and often petty) question, without any regard for what’s happening in your movie, completely unmindful of whether they are interrupting a comic moment or a dramatic moment or an emotional moment?

This can happen, too, when you’re watching – or interrupting – a sporting event.  If you’re the sports fan, you probably know what it’s like when someone comes in – unmindful – and interrupts an especially fraught moment – and at some time I bet you have snapped or yelled at your interrupter: “Can’t you see it’s 4th down?!”  Or perhaps you have been the person yelled at – unmindful.  I’ll bet you probably know what it’s like to be in that situation – from either perspective.

This doesn’t have to happen.  Technology continues to make it easier to avoid.  If you’re watching a movie – doesn’t matter whether it’s an actual DVD (remember those?) or you’re streaming – it’s not too hard to just Pause your movie (or binged TV show) and hear what your interrupting interlocutor (it’s usually a loved one) has to say – petty or profound.  Modern DVR technology makes it equally simple to interrupt – and pause – a sporting event – so there is no need for tension or impatience or resentment.

At the risk of being Miss Manners, I’ll go one step further and tell you you that in my family we’ve developed an ethic wherein if you enter a room and there’s an activity going on that is absorbing the participants – Pixar movie, baseball playoff game, Monopoly game, Settlers of Catan, Game of Thrones episode – you don’t just blast in and say, “Pause, please” (which sounds polite enough).  Instead you actually pause yourself and get your bearings.  Where are they in the movie or the Catan game?  You can bide a moment and give folks a moment to finish their scene or turn.  I think it’s polite to the participants – but it also means they will be able to more patiently consider what you have to share or ask of them.  

Even more, I think it’s actually respectful of the activity itself: the shared act of watching a movie or TV show or sporting event together – or playing a board or card or dice game together.  That togetherness is worth acknowledging and respecting.  It’s worth honoring.  

What does this have to do with reading aloud?  Everything.  Because the act of reading aloud together creates a similar mood.  Reading aloud together casts a spell, an aura, that you don’t want to mess with.  Unless the house is burning, your question about the toilet or the meal or the schedule or how to get the computer to work isn’t as important as that treasured spell, that aura.  The magic that happens between reader and listener can come from many moods – funny, patient, sentimental, nostalgic, dramatic, scary – and it doesn’t matter which.  They’re all special. They’re all worth preserving.  The spell from a written text is created slowly, it’s built patiently.  I wouldn’t say it’s fragile but it is vulnerable.  The pinging demands of the real world are many – and all of them demand less of the imaginative energy it takes to conjure and illuminate the imagined world of a story, and the patient build up it can sometimes take to create humor, sentiment, nostalgia, drama etc.  

I would say something similar about those other forms of entertainment.  A ten-pitch at bat in baseball is more dramatic, builds tension more tantalizing, than a three-pitch at bat.  Just as the anticipation expectation for Episode 10 of a ten-episode TV show is greater than for the pilot.  

But when we’re talking about reading aloud we’re especially, not exclusively, but especially talking about reading to or with children.  Children are probably even more vulnerable to the call of the next thing, so more than ever when you’re reading with children you don’t want someone to barge in – unmindful.

Before you do – consider the context.  Can your question wait?  Does it need to be answered now?  If not – let ‘em finish the chapter.  If yes – you can still pause in the doorway and get a sense of where they are in the story – before asking them to Pause for your question.  I am here to say, Please do.  Please Pause.

My appeal is to Honor the Story.  Whether it’s a picture book or chapter book.  And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street or Harry Potter.  Or a TV show.  Or a movie.  Or a board game.

Honor the shared activity, the togetherness.  (What the character, Stingray, in Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out, calls “the specialness.”) Modern parents and modern parenting need to be able to create and preserve that kind of special magic bonding togetherness – and many of us feel it’s harder to create, and even harder to preserve, in our digitally distracted modern age.  

Honor the Story.  Recognize the magic benefits of being together, reading together, sharing together.  Don’t disrupt that magic alchemy carelessly.  Be mindful.  Learn and teach others how to create an ethic that honors the story.  In the 9th inning.  Before someone says, “Gin.”  Before Horton speaks to the Whos.  And not while Tom Riddle’s diary is writing back to Harry.

To honor the story is really to recognize the power and potential of a shared story.  The magic bond it creates between parent and child.  And the cultural riches it creates and plants in the mind and imagination and memory of a child.  Forever.  Tend that plant.  Water those seedlings.  Take our your shield; protect these moments.  Hit the Pause button – politely.  And Honor the Story.

A Culture of Literacy

What is a culture of literacy?

The answer to this question really depends on understanding the meaning of the word culture. It’s a powerful word. A highfalutin word – but one with a wealth of meaning beneath it.

Culture is an anthropologist’s word. We use it to indicate or describe an entire pattern of behavior – customs, styles of life, ways of living, the way a people interact with each other, traditions…

So what is a culture of literacy?

At Read to Them, we use this phrase to describe a home in which families share and experience literacy together. Families that share customs and habits that involve reading. Books are not only present in the home – but a source of common interaction and shared experience.

It describes a home with books in it – a home that values books and knows how to procure them. It doesn’t matter if you get ‘em from Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or Target, or the Library – there are books in the home.

It’s a home where reading is shared. Where brothers and sisters pass down favorite books or even read them together. A home in which a growing family prizes time to read together – making time, carving out time, reserving time – to read picture books to infants and chapter books together to growing children.

It’s a home where children might read a passage or chapter out loud to a parent chopping salad ingredients. Or a home where everyone waits for breadwinner #2 to get home before sharing and reading the nightly OSOB chapter together.

Ideally, it’s a home where children see parents set an example by reading the newspaper or magazines or books. And also see parents put their phones down or turn the TV off to do so.

A culture of literacy is practiced in three main ways…

a) Books and text are valued and conspicuous. Books are saved and preserved – and on display. There is always new text coming in. A library demonstrates a culture of literacy. At Read to Them we like to help homes without a culture of literacy start to build one by starting a library. We hope that every family’s OSOB title will be saved and once it is read put out on the shelf – the beginnings of a library marking the beginnings of a culture of literacy.

b) Books are consumed conspicuously. Nobody put it finer than former First Lady, Barbara Bush who’s literacy mantra was: “Let your children see you read.” They already see you cook and set the table and make the bed. They probably see you use your phone. To build a culture of literacy, they must see you read. Actions speak louder than words. Teachers and parents alike exhort children to read. But nothing will silently demonstrate that reading is normal, enjoyable, and what grown up people do – than seeing your big brother or sister, your Mom or Dad, your aunt or uncle or grandparent sitting and smirking and laughing engrossed in a book. It’ll make you want to know, ‘What’s so funny? What’s in that book?’

c) Books are shared. Once you learn to read, you mostly read by yourself. Your first novels. The news. And now on your phone. That’s not going to change, but once upon a time, when the first Bibles were printed, the stories and lessons of the Bible were shared at the family hearth, one parent reading, the family listening. In modern times, with the advent of the novel, families have shared stories together to enrich their children’s imaginations – from Charles Dickens to the Swiss Family Robinson, and from Little House on the Prairie to Harry Potter. In a home w/ a culture of literacy, these traditions are still practiced. Parents – or siblings – read Dr. Seuss together. And then they read Charlotte’s Web together.

It doesn’t have to stop there In a home with a culture of literacy, anything can be shared. An editorial in the newspaper. A story in Sports Illustrated. A quiz or column in Seventeen. Older students can even share what they’re reading with their parents – without having to commit to the whole novel. Families with a culture of literacy understand the spell that is cast when everything slows down and you give your attention over to the author or narrator and the pace and tone of the story or passage or chapter being shared. You let the author in the room – and you share a prized moment of connection.

Connection is fleeting in today’s digital lifestyle. Teenagers share memes and YouTube videos and social media on their phones. Adults do, too. But it is becoming increasingly well understood that these sorts of connections are not the same as connecting over the dinner table or at the drugstore or the soda fountain counter or at a café or bar. Those are the connections we all seek – consciously or unconsciously. And homes with a culture of literacy know that sharing a text together – a chapter in a novel – or even a poem! – have a secret weapon – an age-old, tried and true means of connection – a lost art in our digital age.

If your home has these customs and habits – books on display, books shared together, books prized – then you probably have your own anecdotes to share. But you also know, and probably care, that there are homes in America that don’t have or practice these habits and customs. At Read to Them, we think that if more families did practice a culture of literacy, it would help solve a slew of challenges and make our nation a better place. It would help children value stories and prepare them better for school, help them succeed in school, make them better students, and prepare them to be more successful citizens. It will help or families – and schools – and communities.

Our mission is to help foster and implant this culture of literacy – in every home. Our family literacy programs help families take that first step – sharing a novel together. Read that first book together – and the habits and customs come next.

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.

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.

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.


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 won’t 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.

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.

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.)

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.


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).



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.


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.


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.”