Tag Archives: children’s literature

The Tale of Trauma Bunny

I never much cared for dolls as a child. I never even had a Barbie. What I had were stuffed animals. That’s what we called them back then, before taxidermy became so trendy. Now, I understand, they’re called “plushies.” My favorite plushies were always rabbits – there was one in my Easter basket every year.

One of the most famous plushies in literature is the Velveteen Rabbit. Its story is the one about a beloved childhood toy that becomes worn and shabby, but wishes for someone to love him enough to make him real. There’s even a song about it by Kathy Mar, which is a real tearjerker. My story is about a stuffed rabbit too, that once was shabby.

My life has been full of beloved plushies. Before my house and most of my belongings were destroyed in a tornado, I had a pirate Winnie the Pooh. I had a Raggedy John Denver doll that a friend made for me (the heart on his chest says, “Far Out”). I had a cat that looks just like a cat I once had. I had an official Vorkosigan Butter Bug hand puppet. A couple of armadillos. Assorted teddy bears and Beanie Babies. And a plush Puss in Boots that makes a sound like a cat coughing up a hairball and says, “I thought we were done doing things the stupid way.” In the voice of Antonio Banderas, no less. Once my husband and I went to a thrift store and pawed through an absolute vat of stuffed toys and found such lesser-known varieties as a camel, a snake, and Thing One. (We never did find Thing Two.)

My husband often buys me plush toys to replenish my supply, so often that I now have quite a start on a new collection, including dogs, cats, a turtle, a walrus, bears, assorted armadillos, a sloth, and an ambiguous creature that I call a pandacoon. But Trauma Bunny is special. 

She was a rescue rabbit. Dan found her at the store where he works, but not in the toy aisle. Rather, the innocent creature was in the pet food aisle, crammed and crushed behind a giant bag of dog food. Naturally, Dan bought her and brought her home to me. After all she had been through, I named her Trauma Bunny and gave her useful work to do – sitting on my printer and guarding my cellphone and headphones. She likes being needed and having a responsible job, in addition to just being cute.

Trauma Bunny is a comfort object, the psychologists would say. Far from being prized possessions of children alone, comfort objects – plush toys, blankets, and other soft, soothing items – have their place among many a grown-up’s life. Wikipedia defines a comfort object as “an item used to provide psychological comfort, especially in unusual or unique situations.” It says nothing about them being for children only.

I also have friends that have collections, some of them quite extensive, of plushies and other comfort objects. One friend, a large, burly ex-cop had a plush bunny named “Sweetie Rabbit.” Another even has a “My First Bacon” plushie that talks, or at least says “I’m bacon” when you squeeze it. (Most of my comfort objects have genders as well as names, but, frankly, I don’t see how to assign gender to bacon.)

Trauma Bunny does give me comfort. I am comforted to know that, even though she had a difficult past and troubling experiences, she found someone who noticed her plight and brought her to me. In a way, we help heal each other.

I don’t know how much healing my friend gets from his plushie bacon, but everyone needs a little comfort object now and then, even if it’s only a breakfast food.

The Parents Who Didn’t Read and the Daughter Who Did

Everyone knows that the easiest way to raise a child who reads is for the entire family to read. The child should see the parents reading, lots and often.

But that’s not the way it happened in my family. Oh, my folks could read; they just didn’t.

I never remember my father reading anything when I was a child. He got his news from the television. He might thumb through an issue of American Rifleman at the car wash. But he didn’t read books while we were kids.

(Later in life, when he was bedridden with bone cancer, a family friend who worked for the library would bring him bag after bag of Zane Grey and Max Brand and Louis L’Amour novels, which he devoured. But I digress.)

Despite the lack of reading that went on in the house, there was always plenty of stuff to read. Little Golden books and Bible stories at first. I learned to read at my mother’s side, as she read storybook after storybook to us girls. Although she didn’t read for herself, she read for us.

My sister read some. Being a very literal person, every year she would start to read Under the Lilacs while sitting under the lilac bush in our backyard. (I don’t know if she ever finished it.) When she reached the horse-mad stage, she read Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and anything else equine-related she could get her hands on. Her reading tastes were largely satisfied with that.

I think the thing that turned me into the voracious reader I am today was not the example of my parents, but the sheer amount of literature that was available. Our parents purchased sets of children’s books. (I can’t remember what was in that series now besides Under the Lilacs and Uncle Remus Stories, which gave me fits with the dialect.) We had collections of Nancy Drew books and Tom Swift books.

My mother had a subscription to Reader’s Digest, but I don’t remember her reading it, or the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that sat in fat rows on our bookshelves. When we weren’t making Christmas trees of the magazines by folding the pages, I read them and the Condensed Books. That’s where I acquired my taste for true adventure, I think. It’s not that big a leap from “Drama in Real Life” to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I first discovered To Sir, With Love as an R.D. Condensed book, then devoured everything I could get my hands on about teaching, my career goal at the time.

We also made extensive use of the public libraries and the ever-awesome bookmobile, since my parents’ middle-class income couldn’t keep pace with my reading tastes. And there were used book stores, too, where I could swap a grocery bag full of books for another.

There was no way my parents could screen my reading matter, so they didn’t even try. I didn’t receive a very balanced reading education or a very sophisticated one. I read whatever interested me, from novelizations of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to histories of Russia. I discovered Dr. Seuss and The Hobbit and Erma Bombeck. “Serious literature” I got from school, but love for reading came at home.

Having parents that read is a good thing, and no doubt it does help turn some children into reading mavens.

But if you ask me, letting a child explore reading at her own pace and through her own interests can be as effective as any planned course of literature or example of parents perusing the Great Books.

It worked for me.


The Grinch-Hating Grinch

Don’t get me wrong. I love Dr. Seuss. But I think the latest adaptation of the Grinch makes two too many.

I used to check out his works from the Bookmobile until my mother insisted that I get at least one book by another author at every visit. Although my all-time favorite was Green Eggs and Ham, I had a soft spot in my heart for How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I was young enough to be thrilled when the book was made into a cartoon that was shown every Christmas from 1966 on. Who could possibly be better than Boris Karloff to narrate and voice the Grinch? And the uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft to sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (Trivia note: You may know Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger in all those cereal commercials.) It was perfect just the way it was.

Since then there have been two other versions, both big-screen adaptations, a live-action version in 2000 starring Jim Carrey, and the other this year, a CGI animated movie with the main character voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. I have not been to see either one and have no intention of seeing them when they are shown on TV. I am a total Grinch about any version except the real Grinch.

There were difficulties in making the 1966 version. The original Grinch was a poem of only 32 lines. To make it into a cartoon that would run 30 minutes (or however long it was without commercials) required some creative stretches. The Ravenscroft song was added, of course, plus a lot of comic bits featuring the dog Max, the Whos singing around the tree, and extended visualizations of the Grinch preparing his Santa suit and maneuvering down Mt. Crumpet. They all fit neatly into the narrative. Not one moment seemed out of place.

The Jim Carrey live-action version ran 105 minutes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s, 86 minutes. No matter how clever their additions to the basic plot, they could only serve to clutter Seuss’s simple plot and spot-on characterizations. At over an hour each, that’s a lot of stretching.

That’s the problem with remakes or reboots or reloads or whatever they want to call them. They almost never live up to the original. Bedazzled, for example, was a perfect little gem starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I didn’t mind the gender-swapping of having Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil (with Brendan Fraser as her hapless foil), but the broader style of humor, including throwing away one of the best gags in the original, was in no way better.

There are other examples. Think of The Thomas Crown Affair, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or any of the Inspector Clouseau movies. None of those were necessary. The movies were just fine the way they were. (The only really good update – and it was an adaptation, not a straight remake – was when the ultra-serious Zero Hour was morphed into the uber-comic classic Airplane!)

I do understand the motivations behind these remakes, primarily money. Proven classics should be proven box office hits the second or third or fourth time around, and the producers, directors, and writers don’t even have to think up new plots and characters.

Then there’s the excuse of “introducing a new generation of young people to a classic film using stars they’re familiar with.” Jimmy Stewart and Gene Tierney stand the test of time and so do many others. It’s too bad that most people only see their work if they take a film class in college.

At any rate, I boycotted the Jim Carrey Grinch and will do the same for Benedict Cumberbatch’s. If that makes me a Grinch, so be it. I realize that my singular protest will affect them and their box office prospects not in the slightest. I shall do it anyway.

For the memory of Dr. Seuss, if nothing else.

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

Mysteries Change, and So Do I

I grew up reading mysteries. I still remember a book of short mystery stories for children. One was set at a circus and involved a missing snake. After looking in baskets and anywhere a coiled snake might be, the children notice that an acrobat’s pole falls to the ground with a dull thud instead of a metallic clang. Suddenly they realize that the missing snake is stretched out full-length inside the pole! Ta-da! (I also remember that the book was missing a few pages, which made one of the stories even more mysterious,)

That of course lead to Nancy Drew, the go-to mysteries for tween girls at the time. So they were written decades before. So the characters were unbelievable stereotypes. They were mysteries and I read them anyway. And collected them relentlessly, out of order because I usually got them in used book stores.

Murder Letterpress

I got my first taste of the real thing at my grandmother’s house in Florida, when I was 11. DisneyWorld didn’t exist yet (yes, I’m old), and the attractions near Orlando were limited. There was the zoo in Kissimmee, St. Augustine, Busch Gardens, and an alligator farm. Not much else. In between road trips to the attractions, I discovered Grandma Rose’s shelf of real, grown-up murder mysteries. Agatha Christie and Rex Stout provided my introduction into the world of real mystery literature. (Recently I’ve reread a few Nero Wolfe classics like Some Buried Caesar. They still take me back.)

Over the years that followed, I came up with several categories of mystery authors – those whose books I would borrow from the library or buy used, those I would buy in paperback, and those rare, special authors whose work I would buy in hardback. Authors sometimes moved from one category to another, depending on whether the quality of the books stayed high.

Robert Parker, for example, started out as a paperback author, moved to hardback, then back to paperback when it seemed like he was only phoning them in – for example, when he spent too much time detailing what color athletic shoes and their swooshes Spenser and Hawk had on. When he branched out into other series with other lead characters, I stopped reading him altogether.

Since the advent of ebooks, I no longer buy hardbacks or paperbacks, but the categories still exist in terms of price. Sue Grafton is on my buy-immediately, read-immediately list. Sara Paretsky used to be, but I found the last two of her novels unsatisfying because of the endings – which involved silly stunts to trap the villain.

I’ve mostly given up on cozy mysteries, too. For a while I did read Diane Mott Davidson, Charlotte MacLeod, Rita Mae Brown, and a few others, but somehow I lost interest. Now I understand there is debate in the cozy mystery world over whether cat characters should talk or not. I prefer not to get involved.

I find that I am reading fewer mysteries these days, because many of them seem excessively formulaic – lead character is pursuing a serial killer who has targeted said character’s friends or relatives. Cozy mysteries have been really reaching for odd occupations for the detective character – librarians, innkeepers, golfers, crossword puzzle enthusiasts (are there really that many murderers who leave crossword clues?), and many, many cooks. It used to be interesting to get an inside peek at the workings of professions, but the thrill is gone.

I still like books in other genres that have mystery elements. One of these is the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. Her lead character, who is part fairy, pursues quests usually involving stolen children or murdered fairies (or various other supernatural species).

Since I have cut back on reading mysteries and have been finding them less satisfactory lately, I’ve decided that what I need to do is write the kind of mystery that I want to read. I have begun to do so. I have 15,000 words already, plus a rough and fluid outline, which sometimes changes when my characters don’t do or say what I thought they would. (I’ve heard writers describe this phenomenon many times, but it’s interesting to see it happening in my own work.)

My working title is Cold as Stone. Wish me luck. Perhaps someday I will make it into someone else’s borrow, paperback, or hardback categories.

A Story From the Art


Usually you think of a writer writing and then an artist creating illustrations or a piece of art for the cover – one on every page, if it’s a children’s picture book. And usually that’s the way it goes.

But every once in a while the natural order of things goes awry. Every now and then, a writer must take a piece of art and shape a story to fit it.

Once it happened to me, when I was writing and editing reading passages for children’s textbooks. The tasks assigned were annoying enough – stories that were required to have certain numbers of parts of speech or phonological items, with restricted vocabulary and very specific reading levels.

Then one day we were given an already existing children’s story, one that had seven or eight illustrations that had been drawn specifically to go with the text. We were told to select four or five of those pictures and write completely new text to go with them. We could rearrange the pictures – put them in a different order – and we could choose which ones to use or eliminate. But that was the assignment: Take the pictures and then write the story. If it seems totally backward to you, it did to us as well. Of course the stories still had to have certain lexical  components, be entertaining, and provide a message or lesson for the readers.

I remember the set of pictures I was given. The illustrations showed a young girl in a tropical setting, at one point with her sitting on a throne. In my story, the little girl claimed that she could speak to animals. No one believed her and she was thrown in jail for lying.

The little girl really could speak to animals, however, and she called upon jungle friends to rescue her. The people who had jailed her discovered that she really had this unusual ability all along. They apologized profusely and threw a big party for her and she sat in the seat of honor.

It was a particularly difficult story to write. The pictures did not lend themselves to any story other than the obvious one about a jungle princess and her animal-filled realm. It was even harder to think of a tale that would convey a message.

What I tried to show in my story was that just because something had never been done, that didn’t mean it was impossible. And if someone made a claim, it was better to test the claim than merely assume the person was lying. I thought the idea of speaking to animals and having the animals rescue the little girl would also appeal to children.

One thing that is particularly frustrating about writing for textbooks and  other sorts of publications is that one never knows what happens to the fruits of one’s labor (at least until the internet, with number of views and “like” buttons and comments fields). Was the story accepted by the higher-up textbook folks? Did it get changed in the editing process? Did they even like what I had done with the illustrations? Did it make it into print? Most of all, I wondered whether any children read my story, perhaps enjoyed it, or understood what I was trying to say. To this day, I have no clue.

Writing in those circumstances is like dropping your work down a well. You never hear the splash, or even know if there is a bottom to the well.

I like to think that somewhere, some child liked my little stories, whether or not they learned about diphthongs or consonant clusters from them.

I also wonder about the illustrations. Did they get passed along to yet another writer who had to invent yet another story to go with them? If they did, I would certainly like to have seen what they came up with. It was an interesting exercise. But did it result in something educational or entertaining or even interesting?

Personally, I believe that children’s books should be written first and illustrated later. I also believe that requiring writers to abide by rigid rules makes it less likely that the story will be appealing. And if the story isn’t appealing, I believe it is less likely that the children who read it (or are supposed to read it) will get anything from it.

To me that’s not the way children’s literature should be written. But then textbooks aren’t really literature, are they?

Should Kids Be Taught to Read?

For years now, the debate has raged: How should children be taught to read? Some people are saying that the real question is whether children be taught to read.

What do we actually know about learning to read? How do children learn to read? The answer is a bit fuzzy at this point. Phonics, whole language, and natural reading all have their proponents.

But with brain imaging improving seemingly every day, neuroscience is starting to clue us in on how the brain processes language, in both speech and reading.  “A study in the Journal of Neuroscience,” testube tells us, “found that the area in the brain that reads words is right next to the part of the visual cortex that recognizes faces. So just as one area of the brain can quickly identify a face, another can quickly read a word.”

Not that that really helps solve the problem of reading instruction. It will likely be quite a while until info from brain imaging makes its way to the classroom.

The common wisdom is that speaking is a natural process that children learn automatically, for the most part. Reading, however, is another story. Learning to recognize meaning in squiggly marks on paper or a computer screen is much less intuitive. Not all children accomplish it. Not all adults have either. The Department of Education reports that 32 million American adults can’t read.

Naturally, not all children learn to read at the same rate. Some pick it up by age four and others not until the later elementary grades. Teachers suggest that students only really begin to read for meaning in about the 5th grade. Until then, the work of decoding words, sounding them out, or memorizing them has simply taken too much of the brain’s attention.

Still, everyone agrees that reading is important. Children who learn to read have distinct advantages over those who don’t, and adults who can’t read are at a real disadvantage in society.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the advantages of reading are not what you might expect. While reading certainly develops the vocabulary and entertains children with imaginative stories, some have suggested that reading offers other benefits as well. An article in Bustle says, “According to a the British Cohort Study, kids who read for pleasure at a young age tend to test better than their peers in all sorts of subjects… yes, including math.”

Other benefits include greater understanding and empathy for people of other lands, cultures, races, and so forth. If children read books or articles about people and cultures different from themselves, they have a better basis for openness and tolerance.

Now, however, some people are saying that children do not have to be taught to read: that they “pick it up” on their own. One name for this is the “unschooling” movement. Interesting articles on the subject, particularly by Dr. Peter Gray of Freedom to Learn, have appeared in Psychology Today‘s blogs.

As Gray describes it, “precocious readers appear to be children who grow up in a literate home and, for some unknown reason (unlike even their siblings in the same home), develop an intense early interest in reading.  Interest, not unusual brain development, is what distinguishes them from others.”

According to the theory, learning to read can best be done in a mixed age group where children can see the benefits that older students get from reading, get some informal help from those older students, and at some point discover that they need to read on their own in order to accomplish something they want to do.

Another of his suggestions is that, far from being detriments to reading, electronic devices and practices such as texting and emailing give children lots of practice and lots of motivation to develop their reading skills.

Most important is allowing children to learn to read at their own pace, in their own good time – not to push them. If a child likes phonics word games – great! If she doesn’t, find another way to make reading enjoyable and necessary, or, better yet, let her discover her own.

Admittedly, this version of learning to read does not fit in well with the current educational system. It is mostly being tried by homeschoolers and alternative schools. It is possible that it could work in today’s classrooms, but not without significantly modifying them.

Lots of various kinds of reading material – preferably high- interest – should be readily available and most likely chosen by the students rather than assigned. This would of course play hell with the teacher’s role, standardized textbooks with stories carefully calculated to introduce only certain letters or words at a time, and high-stakes testing for reading ability.

Given that, it’s unlikely that this new style of reading education will spread very far very fast. But schools are still turning out many adults – graduates or drop-outs – who are functionally illiterate. Until more is known, teaching reading may well remain guesswork in large part. but if you worry that your child is not learning to read quickly enough to suit you or the school system, the usual teaching methods may not be the answer.

Some children seem to need to follow their hearts and their interests when they are ready and have a need to read. This is not likely to be the solution for all children, just as phonics and whole language are not. If children are going to read as adults, for fun, for business, or just for daily life, they must develop the idea that reading is a worthwhile activity and not a chore.

And maybe formal teaching isn’t always the best way to do that.







Books, etc.: Creating a Lifelong Reader

The other day I saw an article on the web, “Raise Lifelong Readers With These Handy Tips.” (http://blog.theliteracysite.com/raising-readers/?utm_source=social&utm_medium=trnfan&utm_campaign=raising-readers&utm_term=20150713)

It was a good article, and I had to admire the author’s pseudonym, Paige Turner. She (or he) said:

Booklovers are not born. An interest in reading and a delight for stories found within the pages of a book is something that has to be carefully fostered.

For kids who learn an early appreciation for reading, the benefits can be extraordinary … readers have a huge advantage from early on!


The advice in the article was all good: Read to your children, take them to libraries, be a role model, etc.

My mother didn’t know how to teach reading. But she read to me and my sister, as far as I can recall, every day, one on each side of her, nestled on the sofa. We went on frequent trips to the “bookmobile,” a library outreach trailer, and on special occasions to the library itself – even the big one downtown. This ample supply of reading material was supplemented with trips to a favorite used book store. We grew up surrounded by print.

Paige offered good advice, as far as it went, but it omitted one important point, in my opinion:

Love of reading starts before a child can read.

If you wait for your child to learn to read before you share reading experiences with him or her, it may be too late. It takes reading together to make a non-reading child into a reader.

I honestly can’t remember a time when I was a non-reader. Despite Paige Turner’s statement, I was very nearly a born booklover.

My mother didn’t follow all Paige’s good advice. I never remember either her or my father reading for pleasure. (My father did, much later, when he was ill with bone cancer and couldn’t get out of bed. Again the library outreach stepped in, and a dear friend who worked for them, brought him stacks of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.)

To me, print is important. Picture books are good, but I think one thing (among many) that my mother did right, was to expose us to print at an early age. Even though we couldn’t read the black marks on the white paper, she read them for us. One thing this promoted was consistency. The story was the same every time, and that lead to the idea that the little black letters had something to do with how the story went.

Without being told, we were learning what reading was, even if we weren’t yet being taught how to do it. The words stood for something – something familiar and delightful, a magic so enticing I couldn’t wait to learn how to create it myself. So I didn’t wait.

Many years later I worked in a bookstore. Often a parent would come in and ask, “How can I get my child to read?”

“How old is the child?” I would ask.

If the child was a teenager, I would offer some suggestions, but inwardly shake my head. For most of them, I knew, it was too late.

That’s one of the reasons I adore the Harry Potter books, flawed as they are – they made reading cool, provided an experience so enthralling that even non-readers, pre-teen, teen, or even adult, would make the effort for a chance to experience the wonder.

(It’s also why I’m glad that the movies didn’t come out until years after the books began their epic sweep.)

Alas, reading is growing more difficult for me. I’ve had eyeglasses since the age of three and my eyes are now on a definite downswing. All the books I collected when my vision was more reliable are becoming blurs to me now.

I certainly need new glasses, and as soon as I can afford them, I will get some. (That’s another thing my parents did right that Paige didn’t mention – regular vision checkups and new glasses as needed.) And I’m intensely grateful that e-readers let you change the type size all the way up to humongous.

But if I’m truly going to be a lifelong reader, I probably ought to start learning braille now.




Books, etc.: Revisiting the Old School

Sarah Seltzer recently wrote on Flavorwire that, as the title of her article says, “We re-read our favorite books as kids and why do we stop as adults?” (http://flavorwire.com/518840/why-do-we-re-read-our-favorite-books-as-kids-and-why-do-we-stop-when-we-get-older)

She says, “[A]ll the reading I do is for a different homework — the social kind. Even popular series like The Hunger Games and the Sookie Stackhouse series make my reading list at least partly to keep me ‘up on the conversation.’”

My experience has been different.

Reading is never homework for me, and really wasn’t when I was a child either. If a friend has read a book that I haven’t, I simply ask what it’s about and what they thought of it. Voilà – conversation.

I certainly did re-read more as a child than as a grown-up. My mother had to insist that when I went to the library, I take out something new in addition to Green Eggs and Ham.

But I – and many of my adult friends – continue to re-read books. Sometimes it’s books we loved as children, and other times it’s children’s literature we’ve just discovered, and still others it’s books we’ve recently encountered. Without even a book group to keep us up to date, my friends and I pass around recommendations. Right now I’m reading Libriomancer on a friend’s advice. Do I care if it’s less trendy than Grey? I do not. Will it make my re-reading list? I won’t know until I finish it.

A while back, I wrote in this blog about “comfort books” – books we return to again and again, for familiarity, for memories, for new insights, for reminders, for nostalgia, or for just plain fun.

We each have our own list of comfort books. My friend Leslie and I both go back to anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (at least yearly) and Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. I go back to Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and David Sedaris, and even nonfiction like The Hot Zone and Angela’s Ashes None of these are beloved books from my childhood, but touchstones of my adult life. (Some of them don’t fit the usual definition of “comfort,” but it is, in a way, comforting to me that they retain that spark of awe when revisited.)

When my tastes change (as they have over the years), my re-reading list changes too, though my old favorites remain there for me. Recently I’ve grown tired of the mediocre memoirs and formulaic novels that sell for $1.99 on B&N, and gone looking for books that fill me with wonder when I first read them and are worth a second – or third or fifth – reading. And I’ve found some. Life of Pi (which I just re-read). The Book Thief. Egg and Spoon.

(Do you have any suggestions for books of similar quality? Please, please leave them in the comments section.)

Not that revisiting one’s childhood reading is a bad thing, for as Seltzer notes, there lurk new insights and a mature appreciation of the author’s craft.

Two books from my earlier reading days recently crossed my path again. These are books that endured multiple readings in my teen years – To Sir, With Love and Up the Down Staircase – both tributes to my enduring interest in education (as I would now say) or (at the time) my desire to become a teacher.

Neither book was a waste of time to re-read, and neither, although familiar, spoke to me in the same way it did all those years ago. Re-reading them was both comforting and newly challenging. They stood up to their repeat performances.

Both startled me by their references to high school students as “children.” I suppose to the school system they may be, but I think of many if not most of them as young adults, or at least kids or teens. (I also was taken aback by the word “pupil.” Is that still used in some parts of the country? To me, they are students.)

Some aspects were new to me. As a teen (raised in a lily-white suburb and attending a lily-white school), I noticed but missed the depth of the comments on race in To Sir, With Love. While I understood that Up the Down Staircase highlighted the bureaucracy of the education system in a large city high school, I was clueless about the application of that to all schools, even mine.

“Re-reading offers something that few other cultural experiences do, really: a mix of gentle stability and sharp new insight,” Seltzer says. “Taking the time to re-experience the art we loved best in our past can be a way of spending time with ourselves, and though its rewards are mostly unseen, that may make them all the more important to seek out.”

Now that I can’t argue with.

But I would add that my re-read list keeps growing longer as I grow older. It’s not just childhood favorites that are worth re-reading, but any book that has become beloved to me. And falling in love with a book is definitely not something I’ve left behind. New love can happen at any age.

Now where did I put my copy of Green Eggs and Ham? Ah, there it is – right next to the Lois Bujold.