Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

Unlike the other fantasy titles I'm reading this year, which were chosen in order to broaden my reading horizons, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was chosen out of pure curiosity. I remember trying to read it as a child, as I loved the film version, but I could not get into it. Now I keep seeing it mentioned in different homeschooling and book-related Facebook groups I am in, usually with positive comments, so I decided it was time to try again. While I easily breezed through it this time, however, I am still not all that impressed.

Typically, I like to read books before I see their film adaptations, as I prefer to conjure up my own ideas of how the characters look, sound, and move without the influence of the actors who portray them, and because the book is usually better. In this case, though, if I had read the book first, I'm not certain I would ever have wanted to see the film. The writing style is very straightforward, to the point that it is almost all telling, with no showing. Part of this may be due to the fact that the book is meant to be more of a fairy tale than a work of literary fiction, but to me, it felt like the author spent a lot of words on minutiae but continually skipped past the most potentially exciting parts of the book with just a few sentences.

Elements of the story that I love from the film version - the conceit that the entire story is a dream starring people Dorothy knows, the antagonism of the Wicked Witch of the West toward Dorothy, even the red ruby slippers - are completely missing from the book. While I knew better than to expect the film and the book to be identical, I was surprised and disappointed that the things I have always considered to be the heart and soul of the Wizard of Oz story are not actually part of the original work at all. Honestly, it is amazing, now that I've read the source material, that the creators of the film were able to make such a wonderful, iconic movie out of such a drab and boring tale.

I also did not care for the illustrations. The copy I have is the 100th Anniversary Edition, which reproduces the pictures - including 24 color plates - exactly as they appeared in the first edition. Unfortunately, these images just look old-fashioned and unappealing. The figures are almost grotesque in appearance, and made me feel uneasy. There are some pages where the illustrations come right up over the text, making it difficult to decipher. The illustrations do break up the text nicely but otherwise, I probably could have done without them.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is probably easy enough to be read independently by a third or fourth grader, and I suspect, particularly if they haven't seen the movie yet that this audience will enjoy it more than I did. Still, compared with quest stories like The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this book just feels shallow and somehow incomplete. This is one of the few situations where I would say to see the movie, and skip the book.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Tips for Watching Videos with Toddlers (with a List of Our Favorites!)

In September 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics made some changes to its guidelines about screen time for young children. One of the new guidelines states that "Co-engagement counts" and that "For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential." I started allowing Little Miss Muffet (now 2) to have a very small amount of screen time sometime between 18 and 24 months of age. Today I want to share some tips that have helped me make the most of co-viewing videos with her.

  1. Choose videos with minimal commentary. Not all, but many of the first videos I watched with Little Miss Muffet were nature videos, which were either silent, except for the sounds the animals naturally made, or set to instrumental music.  The benefit of the limited soundtrack is that I could make my own comments about what we were seeing on the screen without having to pause the video or talk over a narrator. Because I was directing the commentary, I could then draw Miss Muffet's attention to details I knew would especially interest her, or to new information I wanted her to learn.
  2. Connect each viewing session with a book or activity. Watching random videos might have some educational value, but it's even more likely that your child will learn something if you watch videos with a specific purpose in mind. When Little Miss Muffet was really into Jim Arnosky's Little Lions, we started watching this video about lion cubs at the San Diego Zoo. Now she knows what they eat and which toys they like to play with. When the National Zoo's panda cub was born, we would check in on the Panda Cam a couple of times a day to see what the cub was doing. Now that Miss Muffet's favorite book is Owl Babies, we like to watch the video adaptation, too, and this has really contributed to her memorizing almost the entire story word for word. You don't need to have an entire lesson plan  to accompany a video, but even just a simple book, craft, or game should be enough to reinforce the video content your child consumes.
  3. Interact with content. Watching a video is never a passive experience for Miss Muffet. We discuss everything that is happening on the screen. We identify colors and animals. We count how many birds are in the sky, or how many tusks an elephant has. We dance along with Michael Rosen's rendition of We're Going on a Bear Hunt, and identify the speaker of each line of dialogue in Owl Babies. Very occasionally, she will be allowed to sit alone and watch a video, but it's always one we have seen before, and usually, she will do at least some of what I have modeled for her even if I am in the next room and not directly involved in the presentation. 
  4. Set limits. This is another recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics. For me, setting limits means we don't watch videos endlessly without a plan. I will usually select a number of videos that we will watch, or a set amount of time that we will spend watching. Typically, the maximum number of videos we watch in one sitting is three, and I doubt we have ever watched more than 20 minutes total in a single day. She asks for screen time much more often, but I stand firm in my limitations and suggest other activities instead. Videos are provided solely at my discretion, and never simply because she wants to watch one.

  5. Build a playlist. Always pre-screen videos before sharing them with your child and plan how you will use them. I usually do this during nap time. I search for videos on topics that we have been discussing a lot, or of books that we especially like and save them for later viewing. This way, I am never scrambling to find appropriate content while Miss Muffet is watching, and I can also anticipate what is coming in the video as we're viewing it so I can tailor my commentary accordingly. By building a playlist ahead of time, I always know that I am sharing content of value that does not include any age-inappropriate material.

Little Miss Muffet's favorite YouTube videos are below:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, January 2016

We have been snowed in for the last few days, and before that we had a good cold spell, so we have had lots of time to cuddle up with good books. Here's what Miss Muffet and Bo Peep enjoyed in January.

Busting Boredom with Books

Little Bo Peep (just turning 4 months) is getting to the age now where she is beginning to desire entertainment in addition to bottles, snuggles, and clean diapers. When she is fussing and nothing else seems to comfort her, it usually works to give her a book to look at. If she's lying on the floor, I will stand up Black and White by Tana Hoban, or the Alphaprints ABC book she got for Christmas and just let her take in the images on the pages. She kicks her legs, coos, and even reaches out to try to knock the book over. It's so nice to see even a small baby beginning to have her own relationship with books.

Singable Picture Books

Little Miss Muffet (age 2 years, 2 months) has suddenly started to demand that all picture books be sung, whether they have a tune or not. Rather than start making up tunes for every book under the sun, we have been borrowing a lot of singable picture books from the library - and revisiting the ones in our own collection - to satisfy this new fascination. Here are some titles we have recently enjoyed:

  • The Babies on the Bus by Karen Katz
  • The Seals on the Bus by Lenny Hort 
  • Row Row Row Your Boat by Iza Trapani 
  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star illustrated by Julia Noonan
  • Lullaby and Good Night by Julie Downing 
  • Old MacDonald Had a Woodshop by Lisa Shulman and Ashley Wolff
  • Mockingbird by Allan Ahlberg and Paul Howard
  • Mary Wore Her Red Dress and Henry Wore His Green Sneakers by Merle Peek
  • Hush Little Baby by Margot Zemach
We borrowed Lullaby and Good Night from the library, but it has become such a special favorite that we had to order a copy of our own. It has beautiful illustrations, and the music for each lullaby is worked into the pictures. It also just happened to have a version of I See the Moon, which is a song we already love from Marylee's 1, 2, 3 Sing with Me! album, so it was an instant hit with Miss Muffet - and with me, too.

Highlights High Five

Last year, we had a subscription to Highlights Hello, and we loved it! I saved all the back issues to share with Little Bo Peep, but now, thanks to Grandma, we have a new subscription to Highlights High Five for the new year. The stories are a bit longer, and there are more of them, and the magazine also includes activities to do at home, as well as more complicated hidden pictures puzzles. Miss Muffet loves to flip through her "manganize" all "by self" and she even tries to follow along with the audio version, though it often moves to the next page before she is ready and she does not turn the page as directed. The hidden pictures are so far too difficult without a lot of help, but the stories and rhymes are just right. I look forward to watching her learn to master the new activities in the coming months!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Reading Through History: Downright Dencey by Caroline Dale Snedeker (1927)

One day, while walking home from school, young Quaker girl Dionis "Dencey" Coffyn joins in with some of her schoolmates in throwing stones at a boy named Sam Jetsam, who is universally disliked by all the children on Nantucket because his mother, Injun Jill, is frequently drunk and might be a witch. When her stone hits Jetsam and draws blood, Dencey becomes immediately contrite, and begs the boy to forgive her. At first, he resists, even when Dencey visits him at his home and offers him gifts, but then he decides she can have his forgiveness if she will give him her copy of Pilgrim's Progress and teach him how to read it. Though Dencey will be in serious trouble with her own family if she is caught, she can't bear the thought of not being forgiven, so she agrees to this plan. Thus begins the friendship that will serve to convert Jetsam and rescue him from his squalid and abusive living arrangements.

Though I was skeptical at first when my husband recommended this book, it ended up being quite manageable and enjoyable. Though the friendship between Dencey and Jetsam is at the center of the story, there are many other intriguing plot points that kept me reading: the history behind Dencey's parents' marriage, the differences between Dencey's Quaker beliefs and those of her Congregationalist grandfather, the abuse of Jetsam by Injun Jill and the community's willingness to look the other way, the influence of the War of 1812 on children whose fathers were sailors, and the day-to-day routines of a Quaker household. Each of these threads provides valuable insight into a slice of history which most kids today probably will not encounter in their regular social studies lessons. The story also celebrates the good of religion, showing the ways in which patience and love toward a non-believer, or toward someone whose life has involved great pain, can slowly bring about conversion.

The language in this book is a bit rough in some places, especially by contemporary standards. There are racial epithets and other strong language, and Injun Jill's drunken tirades are not easy to swallow, especially knowing how badly she treats Jetsam. These are not flaws in the book, just illustrative details that help the reader understand the characters' motivations and actions, but it does make me think a reader ought to be over the age of 10 or so before attempting to tackle this book. The second part of the book regarding Dencey's parents' marriage, and Jetsam's and Dencey's own thoughts about possible marriage as they mature, also may not appeal to a younger child.  I would probably not choose to read this book aloud, either. There is so much dialect that I could hear well enough in my head but would have no idea how to speak out loud and have it sound the way it is intended.

Downright Dencey reminds me a lot of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, and I think reading the two books together and comparing them would make a great middle school language arts assignment. This book will also be of interest to anyone who has read Honey Bear by Dixie Willson, as the illustrations in both books are by Maginel Wright Barney. The pictures in Downright Dencey are limited to small black and white drawings at the start of each chapter and one full-color cover image, which is not necessarily what I expected when the cover said, "Illustrated by Maginel Wright Barney," but it was still worthwhile to check out this different style from Barney.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)

On the night his entire family is murdered by a man identified only as Jack, a toddler wanders out of his house and into the nearby graveyard. Here, he is taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, ghosts who were buried there many years before, and given the name of Nobody, or Bod for short. Bod is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, which allows him to move freely through solid objects and gates while he is in the graveyard. Silas, the graveyard's caretaker also becomes guardian to Bod, and ensures that he has food, shelter, and an education. As he grows up, Bod uncovers more and more secrets, first about the graveyard and then about the man who took the lives of his parents.

I tried to read this book the year after it won the Newbery, but being wary of ghost stories, I had a hard time getting into it. This time, I also didn't like the beginning of the story that much. It took me a couple of chapters to warm up to the characters and the concept. Early on, I kept telling my husband, "I get why the writing is good, but I don't think I like this book." But as Bod got older, things started to get more and more interesting, and I began to become invested in the question of what would become of Bod as an adult, and how he might ultimately come to terms with what happened to his parents.

What I also love about this book is the way it incorporates history. The ghosts in the graveyard come from many different time periods, so they speak, dress, and even teach differently, depending on their experiences as living people. Because they are ghosts, though, they also have a sense of the history of the graveyard itself, which becomes increasingly important to Bod as he considers his own place within it. I loved the way all of these people come together to create a society within the graveyard, and to protect Bod, whom they all love. I also love the storyline involving Scarlett, a little girl with whom Bod plays as a child, and with whom he reunites as a teen. I actually think I would have liked even more scenes with Scarlett, as that friendship - Bod's only relationship with someone from the outside world -  is so compelling.

This book really is well-written, and it's different from a lot of other middle grade novels, in both style and subject matter. That said, it also made me question how much of what I have loved about books like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are creative decisions made by their authors and how much are just tropes of the fantasy genre. Silas, for example, reminded me of Dumbledore and Gandalf, while Bod's desire for revenge on "the man Jack" mirrors Harry's relationship to Voldemort. It probably doesn't matter much, as these tropes are used differently in each story, but it makes me realize what I have missed out on by not reading fantasy as a kid, and continuing to avoid it as an adult.

The Graveyard Book is probably most appropriate for middle school readers, due to the violence which begins the story, and the sophistication of Gaiman's writing. There is also a graphic novel adaptation in two volumes, which would be an interesting companion to the novel, but only after enjoying the novel. Part of the fun of reading this book is imagining the characters for yourself, an experience you just can't have when an illustrator lays everything out visually. I also think it would be neat to pair this book with Spoon River Anthology, which is a set of fictional epitaphs for the dead residents of a small rural town, written in their own voices.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Reading Through History: Veronica Ganz by Marilyn Sachs (1968)

Veronica Ganz is a horrible bully, and most of the kids in her school and neighborhood know better than to cross her. Only Peter Wedemeyer, a new kid who keeps teasing Veronica, is wily enough to outsmart her and avoid being beaten up. This makes Veronica terribly angry, and she begins to try setting traps to catch Peter, only to find the tables turned on her when she least expects it.

As I scanned through the reviews of this book on Goodreads, I noticed that a number of readers really wanted this to be a story to help kids deal with bullies, and to teach them how to behave properly. Interestingly, it is precisely because the book does not do this that I found it so enjoyable to read. This is not a story about how kids should behave; it’s a story about how they often do behave, told without politically correct apologies and Very Special Lessons. There are allusions to the fact that Veronica’s home life is not great. Her father is out of the picture, and her mother has been known to hit the kids when they misbehave. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to conclude that Veronica acts as she does at least in part because of her negative feelings toward her family, but this is not spelled out for the reader, nor is the reader lectured about kindness, tolerance, or diversity. It’s just a story, refreshingly unburdened by the contemporary notion that every book is poised to make or break the reader’s entire childhood by its portrayal of unpleasant happenings. There is no implication that Veronica is a role model; rather, she makes an interesting character because of her outrageously bad behavior.

Veronica Ganz was published in the 1960s, and is connected, at least by setting, to Marilyn Sachs’s novels about Laura and Amy. (I own some of these, and will review them eventually.) All of these stories are set in the 1940s, a fact which would not necessarily be apparent to contemporary readers, but which is interesting, especially given that the story focuses on a girl who beats up boys.

By today’s standards, this book might be seen as a terrible thing to recommend to a young girl, but I will certainly allow my daughters to read it when they reach the target age group, as it is well-written, different from many other stories at this level, and a great study in human behavior, both good and bad.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book Review: 26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola (1999)

26 Fairmount Avenue was published in 1999, and it was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2000. Written by beloved children’s illustrator Tomie DePaola, this is a memoir about the year his family built and moved into their new house on Fairmount Avenue. In child-like voice, dePaola tells of his experiences surviving the 1938 hurricane and seeing Disney’s Snow White in the movie theater. He tells of his favorite actresses, Mae West and Shirley Temple, and his rejection of kindergarten after discovering he won’t learn to read until first grade. Most of all, he conveys his love for his extended family.

There are a few biographies at this reading level, but no other memoirs that I can think of, so this book is already a rare gem in that sense, and the writing makes it even more so. DePaola clearly remembers his childhood very well, and he is very good at reflecting upon it with an eye and an ear for what would appeal to today’s child reader. Though much of the information is filtered through an adult sensibility that knows how to organize and explain it, the entire book reads as though the reader is trading stories with another kid. The narrative voice is really perfect for the beginning chapter audience, but it is also written in an artistic style that is suitable for reading aloud.

On a personal note, I enjoyed this book’s authentic representation of growing up in a Catholic family. As with all other details about young Tomie and his family, their religious faith is simply presented as another fact of their lives. Though it does not seem that the religious content would turn off a non-religious reader, it is nice for young Catholic readers to see their beliefs represented in positive ways, and especially by an author they probably already know and love.

This book is a perfectly gentle introduction to 20th century history for the newest readers. The follow-up titles, of which there are seven, are also worthwhile reads.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872)

Princess Irene is eight years old, and lives in a large castle-like house in the countryside with only her nurse, Lootie, for company. (Her father, the king, is often away, and her mother is dead.) Irene is very sheltered, because, although she is not aware of them, subterranean goblins lurk in the mountains outside of her home, lying in wait to exact revenge on the humans who have banished them. One rainy day, Irene goes exploring in the halls of the castle, and she comes upon a beautiful woman with a spinning wheel sitting in a tower room. The woman identifies herself as the princess's great-great-grandmother for whom  Irene was named. After this meeting, things change for Irene. The very next day, she convinces Lootie to keep her out much later than normal, and the two meet Curdie, the son of miners, who has the gift of driving away goblins by reciting verse. After Curdie recues Irene and Lootie from goblins on that night, he goes onto uncover a plan that endangers the princess. At the same time, Irene becomes better acquainted with her grandmother, who ultimately enables her to save Curdie as well.

Considering that this book was published in 1872, I was surprised to find that it made for fairly quick reading. This is helped significantly by the fact that the author addresses the reader directly at the start of the story, helping to ease the reader out of the real world and into the fantasy world he has created. (I am someone who usually has a hard time understanding any world which does not directly mirror the real one, so this sort of slow immersion in the princess's world was very helpful for me.) The descriptions, though somewhat old-fashioned in tone, paint beautiful pictures of the author's vision of Irene herself, her nursery, the mines where Curdie's family works, Irene's grandmother, and Curdie's own parents. It is also easy to conjure up grotesque images of what the goblins must look like, which adds just enough of a sense of fear to the reading experience to be fun without causing nightmares.

There is a ton of Christian imagery in this book, and though I knew to look for it, many of the references are so subtle, that I know I didn't grasp their full meaning on this first read-through. The theme of believing without seeing is the most overtly religious message in the book, but there are also hints at the importance of love, forgiveness, and keeping one's word that certainly support a Christian worldview. I don't think I enjoyed this much as I have enjoyed the Narnia or Lord of the Rings books, but I could certainly how it would have influenced Lewis and Tolkien in their own work, and I definitely think readers who enjoy Lewis and Tolkien will also love MacDonald.

In terms of sharing this book with kids, I would say it is appropriate for kids as young as four or five to hear as a read-aloud, but I would caution against having this be their only experience with the book. This is a story that has many layers and can be appreciated differently at different developmental levels.

I have some unanswered questions left after finishing this book, and I suspect it will probably be necessary for me to read the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, in order to find out their definitive answers.