Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Five Great Books for Boys Not About War

We have a wonderful bookstore near here, and I often take the big kids on dates to it, to wander the aisles and pick out one little treasure to take home. Simon will do a little bit of gender bending, but not a lot. Mostly his tastes are pretty classic "boy." And he likes series. So I often find myself poking around the boy series, and they all seem to go like this- troll war, owl war, bear wars? Hmm, Greek god war, oh, there's a cat war there.

They are all great, epic series, I am sure, but Simon is only 6 and not that into war. So! Here, benefit from my searches, 5 great middle great books for boys not about war.

1) Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey

These are hilarious books. Robert McCloskey, of Blueberries for Sal fame, draws a sort of milder Dennis the Menace type character who lives in Ohio and stops snake oil salesmen and gets in trouble with infinite doughnut producing machines at his uncle's diner. It's 6 small town stories, very innocently but funnily written. It was published in 1943, so though I'd say it was progressive for its time, there are still some odd depictions of race, and the rest of the tone reflects the time it was written. For me this is a positive, and Simon found it novel, and not so unrelatable as a lot of early 20th century boy adventure novels.

2) The Neddiad, by Daniel Pinkwater

We just got this book last weekend, for two reasons. One, I am a shameful book judger by the cover, and this is a great cover. Love the doodle turtle. Also, the little staff recommendation card under the book said "Tom Robbins for kids!" I didn't need to know anything else- I love Tom Robbins.and think Jitterbug Perfume is one of the most tragically underappreciated great works out there.

As you can tell from the title, this is an epic (NOT in dactyllic hexameter, you'll be relieved to hear). Nedd is moving from Chicago to Hollywood, with no regrets of course, because he wants to be like Dartagnan from the Three Musketeers, and go away to have adventures. I don't know that I would exactly say this is Tom Robbins for kids, but as I said, that's a pretty high bar for me. But this is definitely for kids who like that sort of thing- matter of fact appearances of Yiddish shamans, saving the world with a "French substitution," and Galapagos turtles. You know if you have one of these kids.

3) Boom, by Mark Haddon

Another book by an author better known for his adult fiction- Mark Haddon also wrote the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fixture of book clubs all over the country circa 2008. Is it just me, or are more and more adult fiction authors dipping into not just YA, but children's? And apparently he made a couple of efforts before this one really took off.

Jim, our narrator, and his best friend Charlie, discover there are aliens in their small British town. Of course there is conspiring, loads of plot, and some zaniness. It's very tonally like Men in Black, and of course there's a very happy ending. Great for a little something different. As I said, I'm not sure why this book didn't take off the first time around. It's not Great Literature, but it's a great boy book; the friendship between the two boys is particularly well drawn, I thought.

4) Great Brain, by John Fitzgerald

You don't really need this reviewed for you. I'm just reminding you. Right! The Great Brain! That kid who lives in a Mormon frontier town in Utah, but is not a Mormon, scams his buddies and brothers out of money by being clever, has great escapades along the river. There's a whole series, of course. This is a lot like Homer Price- earlier, so more context, and harder vocabulary (shhhhh, don't let on there's learnin'), and plenty more beating up, but not graphically or cruelly so.

5) Lawn Boy, by Gary Paulsen

This book somehow weaves its way from a bum present by a grandmother of an old lawn mower to a wrestling sponsorship arranged by an ex-hippie stockbroker. I still don't exactly know how, but what I love about Gary Paulsen is how clearly he shows the perspective of the character he is writing. It's terribly wry, which might fly over the heads of some of the younger readers, but I actually found this one very approachable for my particular 6 year old. If not this one, Paulsen is quite prolific- try another one.

Our hero here is a capitalist through and through, and this is his triumphant journey. I doubt that is going to sell this book to your adventure wanting boy, so, hey, wrestling!

Monday, May 28, 2012

And the winner is...

Two things this Memorial Monday evening-

First, dress like a book character day-

Tock the watchdog from Phantom Tollbooth(little mini review for you here- love the book; he loved and thought it hilarioud, but it was a bit too much idiom understanding requirement wise for a 6 year old, even a verbose one such as the one pictured here. It'll keep, though, and I hope he'll pick it up again when he's older.) and Nancy Drew. Both had a great time. Boy do I ever love that day at school. Tons of Pippi Longstockings, Red Ridinghoods, and of course Harry Potter characters. The best part was so many I had never even heard of who the kids clearly knew so well.

Second, look who's a poet and knows it?

That's Claire Helen, reading her award winning poem at the ceremony our public library had last week. She was bursting with pride, and I was too. She invited her school librarian, and I'm kicking myself for not getting  a picture of the two of them together.

I know, I know, I have not been around to nearly the degree I promised. But I had a very inspiring conversation this afternoon with a blogger who actually knows what she's doing, and now I'm determined to blog more often too. Tomorrow, 5 great middle grade books for boys not about war.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

RIP Maurice Sendak

I think the question to ask today is not who has a special association with Maurice Sendak, but who does NOT have a special association with Maurice Sendak somehow? His reach was so broad- picture books, novels, even a production of the Nutcracker. Not my favorite, but a whole ballet! Impressive. My Facebook page is covered, today, with the quote from Where the Wild Things Are, when Max leaves. "Oh please don't go. We'll eat you up, we love you so..." And I can't think of a mother I know who has not used that expression to describe her love for her children at least once.

But my special association is with an even wilder, stranger book of his. In the Night Kitchen was the first book Simon ever read to us out loud-

Mickey, our dreamer/hero, wanders through the night, diving naked into "morning cake" batter, narrowly avoiding being baked into it by three Oliver Hardy lookalike bakers, and saves the cake by flying to a giant bottle of milk in a plane he made out of dough and bringing some milk back. Not before diving stark nekkid into the milk, of course.

Not exactly three adorable bunnies trying to steal some cabbage, am I right?

But I love it! It's so weird. We'd just gotten the book, and I hadn't read it in ages, if at all. Simon was so teeny, and he liked to "read" books to us, ones I thought he'd memorized. As far as I knew he could kind of recognize his name, and maybe sound out "Mac sat" in a BOB book. But he pulled this one out, never having seen it before in his life, and just started going. "Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing's the matter!" How can you not like that?

I don't have a picture of the event, but Sendak has been such a part of my children's lives I made Penny sit down this morning so I could take a picture of her reading her own favorite Maurice Sendak:

Oh please don't go. We'll eat you up, we love you so...

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

How to start a book club with your kids

I have been thinking about confessing something to you all. Lots of those books I have been reviewing down there, I didn't just read for the blog. I read them for the mother daughter book club I am in with Claire Helen. Ours is quite strong, a year after we started, and I've heard of several people who were in them but they faded away or disbanded. Here are some tips and questions you should ask yourself to organize yours so it sticks and is fun for everyone.

1) How big should my club be?
This requires more finesse than you would think! Since it's parent and child, the numbers can get out of control very quickly. If you have too few people, everybody thinks they have to come to every single one, and they feel too much pressure and decide not to do it. If you have too many, the meetings are chaos, nobody wants to host, and it's hard to get discussion really going. We have 6 girls and their moms. I think we could handle 2 more pairs, but not more. This way everyone feels obliged to read the book and participate; meetings are not too chaotic, and you don't dread your turn to host. I don't think we should ever dip below 5, to avoid it just being a mandatory book themed playdate.

2) Who should I invite?
I didn't think about this one too much when I started ours. I just picked some moms I liked and some girls who seemed like they liked to read. But upon reflection we lucked into a few things. The kids do not all need to be the same reading level, but they do all need to be interested in the same level books. It doesn't matter if everyone can read Wrinkle in Time  by themselves(some of our girls have their moms read parts of the books to them), but they should all be interested in having it read to them. Our club has a variety of different tastes, but everybody is willing to at least try different genres. The discussions are much more interesting if the girls want to be there and don't dread reading the books(even if they don't always like them).

It's nice but not at all necessary for the girls to know each other ahead of time- the girls in our club all go to school together, though they weren't in the same class at the founding. It's better if it's not just one or two cliques at school. Book clubs can be such a wonderful break from the social morass of elementary school, and I'd hate to see a book club just be an extension of the playground. It could be anything- swim team, dance class, old preschool friends. If the girls don't know each other well, be sure to give it a few meetings before deciding they don't click. Our girls took awhile to get in the groove of being a group, but now you wouldn't know who knew each other from before or not.

3) How often should we meet?
As often as you want, of course! We meet about every 7 weeks. If you stretch it out too much, the kids don't think of it as a "thing" they really do and will have to reacquaint themselves with what book discussion means each time. If you meet too often, some of them are going to freak out and feel pressured(not to mention the parents might want to read something besides young adult literature in their free time!). I think meeting every 5-6 weeks is ideal, but of course we all get busy, and the real key here is to be flexible.

4) Where should we meet?
We rotate houses, so each pair hosts once or twice a year. If you live in a less drizzly climate you might be able to go to a park, or maybe you have a community gathering spot that is perfect for these sorts of things. Personally I like the rotating homes thing because the girls just love seeing each other's houses, and we're not restricted by food or scheduling rules, but it does mean someone has to take on the job of hostessing each time. I originally proposed the the hostess gets to decide what day and time the book club will be, but in practice we have ended up using doodle polls. The hostess suggests 3 or 4 dates, and we go with the one with the most votes.

5) How much structure do we need?
I think this is really the most important part, and it's determined by the make-up of your group. At our meetings, the kid hostess is supposed to have a question or two to start discussion. Mostly they do, sometimes they do not. The grown-ups definitely have to help the discussion along. Some of them have been pretty halting, and some of them just take off, which is wonderful to see. We usually try starting a discussion for about 15 minutes, and if it hasn't taken off by then, let it go for a while. Usually it does, and they talk about the book for a half hour or so before going off to play (usually the play is about the book- for Swordbird this time, they were all pretending to be...wait for it...birds.).

Sometimes the hostess gets really into hostessing- for A Cricket in Times Square our hostess recreated the newsstand from cardboard and household objects. Sometimes the hostess does nothing, and the tenor of our book club is that that's ok too. Maybe you have a group of uber crafty friends who would enjoy egging each other on; you know your people. Our group works well for our members because expression about the book is celebrated- Claire Helen dresses in costume for each meeting and beams to the approving comments from the moms and kids- but not required. I know of another book club that has an hour of discussion/free play, and then a couple moms take the girls off to do a craft or activity related to the book they read that month for the second hour.

6) Should we have food?
I'm going to break form and just answer yes or no- YES. Have food. Remember- half the point is to keep the kids excited about reading and books, and hungry kids are grumpy kids. But make it easy. Nobody wants to host the equivalent of a Christmas party every couple months. We order pizza from the same place every time, and then the hostess does or does not add to it. I made a waffle bar for Polly Horvath's Everything on a Waffle which went over well, but is about as much effort as is necessarily a good idea for these things.

7) How old do the kids need to be?
I started ours when the girls were late 6- early 7, and I think that is about as early as you could really get a book discussion going and have at least some of the girls read the books by themselves. But if you are chomping at the bit with preschoolers, by all means form a book-themed playgroup, and watch it blossom into a strong book club as the kids get older.

8) Hey, why is yours all girls? Do you think it needs to be just one gender?
I dunno. Maybe. Up to you. I will tell you that whenever Simon is ready for one, I will probably go all boys for him. There are phases when boy and girl literary tastes often diverge quite a bit, particularly in early elementary school. Maybe you will see that as an opportunity to broaden your child's horizons, and to you I say good on you! You have to decide if you want to take on that challenge as well as whatever other challenges your particular book club presents.

9) How do we pick the books?
Why, visit beanlet.blogspot.com, of course! Other, less superior ways- there are a squadrillion lists out there. Look up Fountas and Pinnell lists for the zone you're interested in. Have the kids bring suggestions. Try three different mystery series in a row(may I suggest Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and Hannah West?). Read Newbery medal winners from the 70's and the 2000's. Ask your school librarian. Ours is wonderful, and I bet yours is too. Sky's the limit here. I would suggest involving the kids somehow. We tend to discuss as mothers a few choices, and then bring them to the girls for a final decision. We also pick a few in a row, so the girls can get ahead if they want to, and so we don't have to spend half an hour of every meeting talking about what book to read next. I know several successful book clubs who pick once a year the twelve books for the year. I think a whole year might be hard with young children, since their taste and ability can change so fast. But 4 is a safe bet.

That's it, I think. Have a wonderful time! Any other questions? Leave them in the comments!