Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Read, Kiddo, Read!

James Patterson, the mega-bestselling author for adults and kids (and the only one to be on both the adult and children's book bestseller lists simultaneously!) has launched a fabulous new website about kids, books and reading. Called "Read, Kiddo, Read!" (http://www.readkiddoread.com) it features a veritable smorgasbord of delights and resources for getting kids reading. Of course there are recommended book lists - organized by age, and category, with wonderful reviews by the superb Judy Freeman and attendant information and recommendations like "If you love this book, then try..." There's also a great community sprouting up that you can join. Members can post their own recommendations and ideas on blogs, chat in forums, generate links, add video etc. There's a newsletter, and wonderful regular postings by Judy Freeman with topics like "Almost Can’t-Miss Sure Shot Books…for Boys" and "Great Books Under the Tree 2008." Finally, there are author interviews - and I'm proud to say I participated in one with my mother. From the RKR home page, click on the blue "The Interviews" button to the right of the RKR logo, and ours is the first interview link at the top of the page. Hats off to James Patterson for leveraging his extraordinary talent and success for such a great cause!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why Books Make Great Gifts

There's a holiday marketing campaign going on right now called BOOKS=GIFTS. The program was organized by Random House, with many other publishers joining the effort. The goal is, of course, to emphasize that books are a more ideal gift than ever this holiday season, with the struggling economy. Many high profile authors like Christopher Paolini, Judy Blume and Maya Angelou are doing very short video clips that share their perspective on why books make great gifts, the gimmick being that each one says "Books make great gifts because... (fill in the blank for each author)," and then "Give... (blank)."

My mother and I recently shot one of these ourselves to contribute to the campaign. We had to keep it short and sweet and commercial - i.e. specific to the Julie Andrews Collection, so we leaned into our logo: "Books make great gifts because words lead to wisdom and wisdom leads to wonder. Give the gift of wonder."

In fact, there are several important reasons why books really do make great gifts, especially for kids, this year and any year... Here are just a few:

* Books are evergreen - they keep on giving, well beyond the day they are received. They give with each read, and if they are subsequently shared or passed down, they keep on giving. They are like presents that can be opened over and over again.

* Books send a message to the recipient beyond that of the book itself. They tell the reader, "I care about you. I think of you as this sort of person, and therefore I think you would enjoy this book."

* Books educate, inform and inspire. They broaden consciousness and perspective. They also cultivate curiosity, nurture the imagination, and promote a sense of wonder.

* Books provide outstanding long-term value for a relatively low cost.

* Giving young people books as gifts subliminally underscores the connection between reading and the joy of receiving, thus strengthening the association between books and pleasure.

* There are countless types, genres, styles, subjects and authors to choose from, maximizing your opportunity to find something uniquely suited to each recipient.

* If you are overwhelmed by options, or not sure where to begin to find the right book for a loved one, there are myriad resources to help. Your local bookseller is trained to help match the right book to the right person. You can also explore Amazon.com's "listmania" lists and "Customers who bought this book also explored..." feature. You can pick up a copy of the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, American Libraries magazine or any number of other publications dedicated to reviewing books. There are even websites geared to helping people find books they love - one to explore is www.goodreads.com.

So give the best gift of all this year. Give books!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Heard Any Good Books Lately?

Sam's requirements for his "free read" were as follows: Funny, non-fiction, well-written.

Did I mention funny?

After a good deal of thought, we zeroed in on an old favorite from my childhood - Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals." It's certainly funny, and I knew Sam would respond to the nature study aspect... plus we thought that it's Corfu setting wouldn't hurt, given that Greece and Rome are a big part of this year's curriculum (OK, ancient Greece and Rome, but still.)
The problem was that Sam was daunted by the density of the book - not to mention the smallness of the print.

Sam is a distinctly aural learner. When he was just three, we learned he had strabismus, a condition in which the eyes do not team properly. Physically, this appears to be nothing more than a "lazy" eye, one that occasionally turns in slightly when he is tired or stressed. My mother and I have the same thing. ("Oh, but it's not genetic..." the western pediatric opthamologists told us - that's another blog.) What is actually going on, brain-wise, is a whole lot less subtle. When the eyes do not team, the brain must constantly choose which eye to use in any given moment, and the vision is only ever out of one eye at a time. Activities like reading can be therefore be supremely fatiguing. Though vision therapy has made a huge difference for Sam, under the circumstances it's amazing that he reads as much or as well as he does.

His ears are another story. He is a passionate musician with perfect pitch. He has an uncanny ear for mimicry and accents, and his memory of things heard is infallible. The psycho-educational assessment he took in 6th grade affirmed this, and the psychologist recommended that, given the predominant role his ears played in his learning and retention, he should consider recording his spelling words, for instance, and listening to the playback as opposed to studying the words on a sheet.

Sam is, therefore, a perfect candidate for audiobooks. And since he had just received a new iPod for his birthday, this seemed the perfect opportunity to give it a shot. I was elated to discover "My Family and Other Animals" on Audible.com - just put up this year - with the venerable English actor Nigel Davenport narrating. We played a sample and Sam nodded. We downloaded it to his iPod.

After listening to the first chapter, Sam pronounced, "This is great. It's slower than reading a book - but SO much better. It's like being read to!"

He's now on chapter ten. This may be a revelation for him.

NB: For visual learners, the graphic novel could be a similar revelation - though slower on the uptake in terms of adaptations of classics...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Small Triumph

Yesterday Sam told me he'd confronted his English teacher about the reading choices.

"Mom, the opportunity just presented itself," He said. "She asked what we liked and didn't like about the book. I said I like the quality of the pages - they're nice and sturdy - and that it was a fairly quick read, but that I didn't like the book itself because it was depressing. And that, since fifth grade, pretty much all the books we had been assigned to read were depressing and were making me not want to read anymore."

"What did she say?" I asked.

"She said my next read could be a free read - my choice," he answered. Then he added, "Although she did say there would be at least two more depressing books we'd have to read this year. And of course I have to finish this one first. By the way, all the other kids agreed with me when I spoke up. They all said, 'Yeah, me too!'"

Well! It's a start. It's one thing to hear this from parents - the best that seems to have done is generate some minor sympathy and the suggestion that we are over protective and babying our son. But to hear it from the kids themselves... I have to hope that if you're an educator for the right reason - that you care about kids - this may resonate somewhere. Most of all I'm proud of Sam for speaking up - and thrilled that his efforts were rewarded by a "free read."

Wonder what he'll choose?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Open Destiny

It's happened again. The otherwise terrific school where my son Sam attends 7th grade has assigned yet another dark, depressing book for required reading.

In fairness to them, I appreciate what the school is trying to do. The "spiral curriculum" takes the kids up through history, and integrates their learning in all areas with the time period they are currently studying - so it stands to reason that this term's reading should include something about the Mayan culture. But why must these books always be so relentlessly dark?

The day Sam began the book, he woefully announced, "Well, I'm on page 7 and already there have been five deaths - woops, make that six. Oh, now the parents have died. We're up to eight." At least he has a sense of humor about it.

But for me, being hell bent on trying to reinforce the connection between reading and pleasure so that my kids will continue to love reading, and seek it out as a preferred activity, this is something akin to sabotage.

In "Raising Bookworms" I talked about going through this same experience with him in fifth grade. One book after another featuring war, death, destruction and children in peril. The year culminated with a book titled "My Brother Sam is Dead" - a worthy book, but the title alone was enough to send my Sam, older brother that he is, straight back to the TV.

I also wrote about being inspired by Barbara Feinberg's book, "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories and the Mystery of Making Things Up," in which she wrestles with the same issue with her kids. She writes: “I have realized what is missing in those books: Open destiny.
It’s from a line in a Grace Paley story. She describes how she hates stories that move from point a to point b, toward an ending that’s fixed before starting out. You know, contrived. She says she hates that absolute line between two points…not for literary reasons, she says, but because it takes all hope away. ‘Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.’”

God knows I am not advocating censorship. I do believe these assigned books are important reading, and I know many kids who find it reassuring to read about people whose lives are harder than their own. I also know they provide important lessons, not only in history but in awareness, compassion, perspective. But with only so many hours in the day, and most of them allocated to school work - classes from 8 - 3:30, an hour or more of homework, often a music lesson or a vision therapy appointment afterwards - there is precious little time left in a day for elective reading of the kind he loves, the kind that feeds his spirit and makes him want to read more, let alone for time to just noodle and be a kid. And I worry that for a sensitive young man like Sam, this relentless darkness will only serve to push him away from books altogether.

So I will reach out once again. To the school, to the teachers, to Sam especially - to keep the dialogue open, and I will continue to surround Sam with the books he loves: the comedies, the fantasies, the biographies. In this way, perhaps I can keep his destiny open.. as a reader, if nothing else.