Saturday, January 31, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet: January 2015

In this new monthly feature I'll be recording my experiences reading with my toddler daughter. These will include my observations of her behavior with books, a current list of favorite titles, and tips from my experience that may help other parents.

New Book Behaviors

Since she turned one, Little Miss Muffet's interest in books has increased exponentially. Because she is completely mobile and working on becoming verbal, she can interact much more freely with the books she owns and borrows from the library. I see her doing all kinds of interesting things with books every day. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Morning reading. On many mornings, Miss Muffet wakes up, grabs a book, and "reads" to herself for a little while before we even know she is awake. I have started leaving a few sturdy board books in her sleeping space so she can get to them easily when she wakes up. It's a much better start to the day than fussing or crying!
  • Paperbacks. Miss Muffet loves paperback books. I gave her two review copies I was finished with and she has explored them fully, including folding and ripping many of the pages. It's nice to be able to hand her some books that she is allowed to destroy in order to keep from destroying every book she encounters.
  • Preferences. As she becomes less of a baby and more of a toddler, Miss Muffet is also starting to make her preferences known. When she wants a particular book to be read, she will throw it or bang it against something until a grown-up takes notice. If the story ends, and she wants to hear it again, she immediately starts to cry until she is either distracted by something else or someone begins the book over again. I think she could easily listen to the same book 25 times in a row.
  • Labeling. Though Miss Muffet does like to listen to a story, she has started interrupting frequently to point out pieces of the illustrations and ask me to label them, Often, she will say "Whassat?" or "Da?" and if she likes a particular word, she will point to that item several more times so I will repeat it for her. I see this paying off greatly in her vocabulary development; there are now dozens of animals and objects she can recognize by name, even if she can't yet say the words.

Five Current Favorites 

We read a lot of books, but some always rise to the top of the pile. These are Miss Muffet's current favorites:

  • Baby Pig Pig Talks by David McPhail
    We borrowed this board book from the library because of how much Miss Muffet enjoyed another from the same series, Baby Pig Pig Walks. This is a very short and simple story where Mama tries to get Pig Pig to talk, but instead of repeating her words, he assigns his own baby talk names to things. Then, in the end, when he is scared by a dog, he says Mama. Miss Muffet refuses to say my name unless she is angry, so the fact that I am asked to read it 20 times a day is a bit torturous, but it goes back  to the library very soon... 
  • Can You Say It Too? Growl! Growl! by Sebastien Braun
    This is a short lift-the-flap book, also from the library. It focuses on animal sounds. For some reason, Miss Muffet got the idea that every time she opens a flap, she should scream at the top of her lungs. Even now that I know to expect it, I still laugh hysterically every single time it happens, which probably does nothing whatsoever to discourage her. There are others in this series, and I plan to seek them out on our next library trip.
  • Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
    I consider this a picture book for preschoolers, so having a 14-month-old sit still and listen to it repeatedly amazes me. Surprisingly, it is not the monkeys who catch her attention, but the peddler himself, and his colorful caps. I am trying to teach her to point her finger, shake her fist, and stomp her feet like the peddler does when he begs the monkeys for his caps back. So far, she just seems to like watching me do those motions, but I know one of these days she will surprise me by joining in.
  • DK My First Word Board Book This was one of her favorite books of 2014, but now that she is so into labeling, it has taken on a new significance for Miss Muffet. I get tired of reading the same labels over and over again, so I try to incorporate songs with as many pages as possible. On the food page, we sing "Going on a Picnic" and on the Farm page, we sing "Old MacDonald" and on the transportation page, we sing about every vehicle to the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus." And occasionally, when I can't take it anymore, I hide this book.
  • Highlights Hello Magazine
    We have subscriptions to both Babybug and Highlights Hello. The first issue of Hello that we received has a story in it about sitting in a big, soft chair, and Little Miss Muffet absolutely loves it. We usually read the whole magazine at least once a day (it's short), but sometimes we do an encore (or five) of just that one story because she can't get enough of it.  

Three Tips from Mom 

When I worked in the library, people would always tell me how much trouble they had getting their toddlers to sit and listen to them read. Here is what is working for me right now:

  • Read when the mood strikes. Sometimes we start a book, and it becomes clear immediately that Miss Muffet is much more interested in something else. In that case, we set the book aside and try again later when she is more receptive. 
  • Always read when asked. If Miss Muffet brings me a book, I almost always read it unless I am in the middle of something that can't be interrupted. I don't always indulge every demand for repeat readings, but I will usually do at least two encores before trying to move her attention to something else. 
  • Talk about the pictures. Sometimes instead of reading a book straight through, we choose a page or two and just spend some time with the illustrations. I name objects for her to find, or ask her to label items I know she has the words for. This kind of interactivity often keeps her engaged better than reading what is written. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reading Through History: The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence (2001)

The Thieves of Ostia takes place in June of the year 79 A.D. Flavia Gemina is a young Roman girl who lives with her father and who has a talent for solving mysteries. She and her friends - a Christian named Jonathan, a mute boy named Lupus, and a slave girl named Nubia whom she purchases to rescue her from abuse - are troubled when they learn that family guard dogs are being beheaded and left to die in their neighborhood. When they learn that a local man’s daughter died of hydrophobia (rabies) after being bitten by a wild dog, they are sure he is to blame for the terrifying killings, but they must first find proof.

Despite the ancient setting, the writing in this book has a strong contemporary vibe. The dialogue is written very informally, and the way the characters interact with one another is similar to the way tween friendships are portrayed in novels set in the present day. Readers will feel at home with the characters, which in turn, will help them become invested in the historical details intertwined with the plot.

Interestingly, and unexpectedly, this book is considerably darker and more violent than the front cover on either the paperback or hardcover edition suggests. Lupus, the young boy who is mute, has had his tongue cut from his mouth. Girls are routinely rounded up on the streets and sold into slavery. Beheaded dogs are described in detail, and some of the children witness a brutal suicide. Some of these scenes would definitely be too graphic for a fourth or fifth grader, even though the reading level and characters would be a perfect fit. Parents and teachers will want to use their discretion when suggesting this book to specific readers.

Though the story is fictional, the historical events in this book occur as they really happened. Though the mystery can be enjoyed by any reader, this series will be that much more fun to read for kids who are simultaneously learning about ancient Rome, as they will understand references to place names, rulers (like Vespasian and Titus, his successor), and events. Kids should also be prepared for an overwhelming desire to read the second book right away, as the ominous epilogue talks of the peace and safety the children will enjoy in Pompeii over the summer.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reading Through History: A Long Day in November by Ernest J. Gaines (1971)

On a November day in the 1940s rural South, six-year-old Sonny wakes up to find his parents' marriage in turmoil. His mother, convinced that Sonny's father Eddie loves his car more than his family, decides to move to her mother's house down the street, dragging Sonny along with her. Desperate not to lose his family, Eddie spends all day seeking advice from friends and a local woman who practices voodoo, before ultimately sacrificing his car for  the love of his wife.

This slice of life story is fabulously well written. By telling the story through the innocent eyes of young Sonny, Gaines is able to provide an unbiased account of both parents' actions, leaving room for the reader - ideally a middle school student - to draw his or her own conclusions. What is for Sonny just a really long day is for the more sophisticated reader an opportunity to understand what it was like to live on a sugarcane plantation during this time period, and a study on human relationships and what drives people to behave as they do.

Though the novel itself is short, there is much to discuss and dissect that can easily encourage multiple re-readings. Kids in grades 6 to 9, especially, will have much to say about the decisions made by each character, and will delight in the final scenes where Eddie makes his choice and follows through. Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but once kids find out that this is essentially a book about breaking up and making up, they will be all over it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Reading Through History: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

Daniel, who was once a blacksmith's slave, has been living among a band of rebel outlaws in the mountains above Judaea for some years, waiting for Rosh, their leader, to find a way to free his people from the Romans, who were responsible for the death of Daniel's parents. When Daniel unexpectedly meets his old friend Joel and Joel's sister Malthace, he inquires about the health of his ailing grandmother and demon-possessed sister and finds himself pulled back into community life once more. While living in Capernaum and working as a spy for Rosh, he begins to learn about Jesus of Nazareth, whose message of love stands in direct opposition to Daniel's desire for revenge on the Romans. Daniel must choose whether to follow his anger or his heart.

Like Pharaoh's Daughter, this book includes fictionalized references to a Biblical figure, but these do not cause the theological conflicts created by Pharaoh's Daughter's rewriting of the Moses story. In fact, when Jesus speaks, even when he is talking with characters invented by the author, he uses words that have been attributed to him in the Bible, or words containing messages consistent with scripture. He is presented in a way that is consistent with Christian teaching, and which will not offend readers, whether they believe in him as the Messiah or not.

Not only does this book portray Jesus favorably, it is also inclusive of the various factions and figures who make up first century society in the holy land. Zealots (including Simon the zealot), rebels, women, children, thieves, and slaves are all present and each group is represented by at least one fleshed-out character who contributes something to the main plot. This book is as much a portrait of the time period as it is a specific story about Daniel.

This book includes two very effective metaphors. One is the bronze bow itself, which serves as a password for Daniel and the young men he recruits for Rosh's army. It refers to a line from the Song of David -he trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze - and serves as a powerful representation of Daniel's desire to best the Romans. The other is Daniel's attitude toward a Roman soldier with whom his sister falls in love. His treatment of this specific soldier changes throughout the story as his overall attitude toward Roman rule changes. This book would be a wonderful text for helping young readers better understand the role of metaphors in narrative writing.

There are many themes and lessons to explore in this story, and each reader is likely to favor a different interpretation of events. Daniel's struggle to choose between Rosh and Jesus raises important questions about peace versus violence, belief versus unbelief, and accepting versus shirking one's responsibilities. It also provides opportunities to discuss how we treat the weak, the old, the disabled, and the needy in society. This book is not just entertaining; there is much to learn, both academically and morally, from reading it.

Two final notes:
  1. Coincidentally, The Bronze Bow was the winner of the 1962 Newbery Medal, the same year in which The Golden Goblet received a Newbery Honor. 
  2. I listened to portions of the audiobook, and the narrator has a great voice, but an unfortunate problem sticking with one pronounciation of Capernaum, which is very distracting.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reading Through History: Pharaoh's Daughter by Julius Lester (2000)

Pharaoh's Daughter is a retelling of the childhood of Moses (whom Lester calls Mosis for reasons explained in the author's note.) In this version, Moses is the grandson of Ramses III (Ramesses) and he has an older sister, Almah, who is taken from his Hebrew (or Haribu) home along with him and becomes a special object of Pharaoh's affections. The story begins with Moses confessing to a murder, then backtracks to explain how it all came about.

This novel was written during the author's personal conversion from Christianity to Judaism. Since the story focuses heavily on the clashes between the Haribu religion and the Khemesian belief that Pharaoh is God, it is plausible to suggest that this tension in some way reflected Lester's questions and misgivings as he came to terms with his religious inclinations. Outside of the characters' constant references to their differences in religious thought, there actually isn't very much to this book. It is a short novel, with half devoted to Almah and the other half to Moses, bookended by a brief prologue and epilogue. Though this book tries to focus on Moses as a mere man rather than a religious figure, its reimagining of his childhood is too similar to the known story to be truly interesting. It seems that the author wanted to tell a story about a female character during this time period and just used the story of Moses as an excuse to do so.

Though the print in this book is rather large and the reading level is appropriate for fourth or fifth graders, references to lust, nudity, concubines, violence against children, and incest might make it too mature for elementary students. Many of these elements seem gratuitous. Lester explains the nudity in his author's note, and claims there could have been more, but it's still difficult to see the value of describing Almah's naked dances, or the way Pharaoh and her own father ogle her as she performs. It's equally difficult to understand why Moses's fictitious older sister should feel that she would never marry any man other than her own brother. It seems odd to fabricate a sibling relationship which probably did not exist in history simply to hint at an incestuous relationship.

The Pharaoh's Daughter provides a lot of historical documentation, including a glossary, and the author addresses the reader before and after the story, accounting for many (but not all) of his storytelling decisions. The glossary is extremely useful, especially since the author uses Egyptian and Hebrew words for many commonly known people and places (Abraham and Sarah, the Nile, the Sphinx, etc.), but the explanations given by the author do not satisfy my qualms with many of his decisions.

Young readers and educators wishing to explore the life of a religious figure through fiction might be drawn to this book, but it is unlikely to provide what they are looking for. The Moses in this book is not the Moses of the Bible, and Lester's attempts at completely humanizing him often border on the scandalous. Nothing of significance happens in the story until nearly the end, and even then, the only major event is the murder mentioned within the first few pages of the story. It seems that Lester might have done better to write this story for himself, as a component of his conversion, and tuck it away in a drawer for personal use and nothing more.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Reading Through History: The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw (1961)

Ranofer, an orphan, lives with his older half-brother, Gebu, who is abusive, untrustworthy, and dangerous. Though Ranofer wants nothing more than to make beautiful items of gold, Gebu will not allow him to be apprenticed to a goldsmith, nor does he provide him with adequate food or shelter. When Ranofer learns that Gebu's activities are even more sinister than he suspected, he and his friends Heqet and the Ancient, try to expose his wrongdoing and win Ranofer the right to choose his own destiny.

Though Ranofer's story does not center on one specific historical event, it is rife with opportunities to learn about the daily working life of ancient Egyptian men. Descriptions of Ranofer's work as a porter for the goldsmith and later as a stone cutting apprentice give strong details to illustrate the physical demands and personal dangers of the kind of work that was necessary in this society. Ranofer's difficulties convincing his brother to allow him to follow his passion, and his problems being heard by his elders in general, help to highlight the culture's distinct hierarchy and the relative unimportance of the young as compared with the more skilled laborers. There is also great emphasis on the religion of the time and place, with much discussion of khefts (evil spirits) and bas (souls of the dead.)

The Golden Goblet refers to an object which is central to a mystery Ranofer must solve in order to bring his evil half-brother to justice. The mystery requires a good bit of backstory, and thus takes a while to gain momentum, but the chapters of exposition are truly necessary to provide the reader with enough information about Ranofer's world to understand the actions he takes in the latter half of the story. Though the story is narrated in the third person, it is limited to Ranofer's perspective so his every worry, joy and secret are freely available to the reader, as are his intimate thoughts about his friends and the rare opportunities he has to work with gold. While the mystery is central to the plot, the overarching themes of the story have to do with courage, coming of age and doing the right thing. Clear distinctions are drawn between good and evil, and Ranofer must make hard high-stakes decisions to secure the future he wishes for himself. Though the setting is long ago and far away for young readers, the storyline is timeless and universal.

The Golden Goblet lacks any author's note or bibliography which might have provided insight into what is historical fact and which details the author invented. Therefore, it is recommended that young readers assigned this book for specific educational purposes be provided with information about Egyptian culture as part of their lesson. The Golden Goblet would make wonderful pleasure reading for kids who have become interested in Egypt because of Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles. As compared with Riordan's commercial fluff, this book is well-written, morally edifying, and heavily rooted in historical fact. The content is probably appropriate for readers as young as eight or nine, if they read well and are not troubled by the occasional descriptions of Gebu hitting Ranofer, but the target audience seems to be middle school, when issues of identity and finding one's place are so central to a young person's life.