Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review: Juvenile Story Writing (1922) and Writing For Young People (1950) by Mabel Robinson

This month, I have read two nonfiction books about writing, both by children's author Mabel Robinson (1874-1962). In addition to being the author of Newbery honor books Bright Island (1937) and Runner of the Mountaintops (1939), Robinson also taught an advanced fiction writing workshop at Columbia University from 1919 to 1945, which is said to have resulted in the publication of over 200 books. The two writing guides, Juvenile Story Writing (1922) and Writing for Young People (1950), were published at either end of her teaching career, and reading them together has given me some interesting insight into the changes in children's literature after World War II, and the way these changes did or did not influence Robinson's opinions on writing.

Juvenile Story Writing begins with an explanation of the purpose of writing for children and explores the sources authors might use for inspiration. It devotes a chapter to each of four types of children's stories - Adventure Stories, Fairy Tales, Animal Stories, and School or College Stories - and provides a list of examples of each. The remainder of the book then focuses on different aspects of the craft of writing (characterization, dialogue, plot, theme, chapter arrangement, etc.) and it concludes with a chapter on writing about child characters in books for adults. Throughout the text, there are long excerpts from books which must have been popular at the time. Some are familiar even today (The Story of Dr. Dolittle, Little Women), but most have fallen into obscurity.

In the Foreword for Writing for Young People, Robinson explains that she had originally intended to simply republish Juvenile Story Writing, which had gone out of print. When she read it, however, she determined that it was outdated and needed revision. In this revised edition, Robinson removed all of the book lists and many of the excerpts she had used in 1922 to illustrate different aspects of successful writing for children. She did keep pretty much every reference to Dr. Dolittle, almost to the point of annoyance, but in other instances she either removed the examples altogether or included passages from her own books to illustrate her arguments. Though she never identifies them by title, Robinson also relies heavily on student work from her course at Columbia to explain how authors find inspiration, determine which point of view to use, and develop their personal styles. The commentary on aspects of the craft of writing remains virtually unchanged, but new genres are added (mysteries, biographies, "home" stories)  and there are additional chapters at the end of the book addressing style as well as the day-to-day work of a writer.

What was most interesting about reading these two books side-by-side was how much difference 28 years makes to the credibility of Robinson as an expert on children's writing. Though her opinions on how children's authors ought to write do not seem to change significantly between 1922 and 1950, my confidence in her authority was much stronger when I read the second book. With two Newbery honor books under her belt, and examples from her own work to back up her arguments, she is no longer just a teacher of writing putting together a potential text for her own class, but an accomplished writer with real, concrete advice to give and a confidence behind her delivery that, in light of reading the second book, seems to be missing from the first.

I also noticed how much more she had to say about the different genres and types of stories in the 1950 book. Her 1922 advice about writing animal stories, for example, felt very bland and ordinary, but in 1950, it is almost forceful, as she suggests that all people ought to love animals, and waxes poetic about her own dog and the stories she writes about him, including 1949's Back-Seat Driver. Her comments on mysteries, comics, school stories, and fantasy (which replaces fairy tales) are similarly personal, nuanced, and authoritative. The 1922 book is certainly valuable as a textbook for writers, but all those years of experience teaching her writing workshop clearly make the 1950 book the superior volume.

In terms of the literature itself,  I was surprised by the limited number of genres available for children in the 1920s compared with the 1940s. The genres Robinson covers in the 1950 book are much closer to those still being published today, while some named in the 1922 edition (college stories, for example) barely exist at all anymore. I also wondered about some of the references Robinson removed when she revised the book in 1950. Walter de la Mare's poems and The Secret Garden are both still widely read today, but both only appear in the 1922 book. By the same token, a Kipling short story called "Little Tobrah," which was completely unfamiliar to me, was kept in the 1950 book, along with a novel by J.M. Barrie entitled Margaret Ogilvy. I couldn't tell whether Robinson just thought these books were too excellent to exclude regardless of their obscurity, or if she believed these would be stories that would stand the test of time. Either way, it did make me think about how difficult it is to know, at your own point in history, which books from your time period will become the classics of the future.

I own both of these books and intend to keep both, as my husband and I are both big fans of Mabel Robinson's novels, and we are curious enough about the history of children's books to dig more deeply into some of those 1920s book lists. I don't think much has changed about the qualities of great writing since 1950 (or, really, since 1922) so I also think her advice is valuable for contemporary writers, and that even those so-called outdated references in the 1922 edition are worth analyzing for those who aspire to write. That said, Juvenile Story Writing is available free online, so if I were going to purchase just one of these, I'd stick to Writing for Young People. It's a great resource for understanding how to evaluate a children's book, as well as a handbook for good writing, not just for kids, but in general. Obviously, authors looking to publish today will probably need to consult some newer books to find out about the 21st century publication process, but otherwise I think Robinson is as worthy a writing instructor as one is likely to find.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bout of Books 20

Bout of Books

The last Bout of Books of 2017 begins on Monday! If you're not familiar with this wonderful read-a-thon, here is the official blurb:

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, August 21st and runs through Sunday, August 27th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 20 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

This is my sixth time participating, and I'm hoping to use the week to get ahead for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge and to read through some of the digital ARCs that have been accumulating in my NetGalley and Edelweiss accounts. Sign up here to join the fun!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading Through History: A Picturesque Tale of Progress, Beginnings I by Olive Beaupre Miller (1957)

A Picturesque Tale of Progress is a nine-book set of children's history books by the same author as the My Bookhouse series. Originally published in 1933, and reprinted in the 1950s, these books follow the history of human beings around the world from the stone age through the exploration of the Americas. This first book, Beginnings I, starts out with a fictionalized narrative of what life may have been like during the stone age. Using technological advancements (development of tools, discovery of fire, etc.) as a guide, the text traces the development of the human race through its most primitive stages, and then shifts its focus to ancient Egypt. The book ends with the decline of Egypt after many centuries of great power and prosperity.

Though I still have two years before my oldest is required to attend school, I'm starting to evaluate potential homeschool resources. We recently purchased this set at a used bookstore, and I decided the easiest thing to do - especially given this month's nonfiction focus for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge - would be to simply read through the whole thing and write up my thoughts. I don't expect to get through the entire set during this month, but we'll see how things go.

My first impression of this book, for the first 75 pages or so, was that it was very readable. At that point, I was considering it as a possible resource for first grade. The characters the author creates to represent different types of primitive people felt very relateable (even if they had silly names), and I found everything very easy to follow.

When the focus shifted to real historical figures, however, it seemed like there was a big jump in reading level. The book is very detailed in its treatment of Egyptian history, naming every pharaoh in succession and explaining how each one contributed to the culture of his time. As it goes on, this section of the book also incorporates a variety of first-person accounts and folk tales, involving the gods worshiped by the ancient Egyptians and narratives recorded on papyrus scrolls discovered centuries later.  It is a lot of information, and after a while, my eyes completely glazed over. A few key figures jumped out at me as very interesting and appealing to learn about, especially Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh and Akhenaten, the first pharaoh to promote the idea of a loving, all-knowing God, but much of the rest of the text seemed unnecessarily detailed. Though there are illustrations, I felt like I really would have benefited from a chart to help me keep track off all the Thutmoses and Amenhoteps. And I also questioned whether every single one of these pharaohs was significant enough to merit a mention.

I did like the summary at the back of the book, and I think it would be very beneficial for me to read the summary of each book before introducing it in our homeschool. It contextualizes all of that information to give a sense of what the author is really trying to convey, and helps clarify which details are really paramount to understanding this time period and which are secondary. When I was a kid, I had a really hard time reading history texts because I could never figure out which were the key names, facts, dates, and events. I definitely want to be able to teach my kids how to read history and actually get something out of it, so it helps a lot to have that quick summary to keep me focused.

Having finished this book, I can say that it is definitely too much for an early elementary school student, so we'll be saving the series for the middle grades when we'll want a bit more detail. I'm looking forward to the next volume, Beginnings II, as it includes a lot of Biblical history, which will hopefully be a lot more familiar to me!

Monday, August 14, 2017

The RAHM Report for 8/14/17

It's been a busy week, filled with proofreading crossword puzzles (my very part-time freelance job), writing the preface for my book, catching up with mom friends, and visiting the OB for a routine check-up for baby #3. When I wasn't doing those things, I was trying to read! Here's this week's report. 

Finished Reading: 

  • Caught Up in a Story by Sarah Clarkson
    The flowery writing style slowed me down quite a bit, so this short book ended up taking me several days to finish. I like the author's main arguments and will have more to say in an upcoming review.
  • Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?; And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?; and  Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? all by Jean Fritz
    I still have a couple of these to read and then I'll do a post about the series. Probably the middle of next week.
  • Juvenile Story Writing and Writing for Young People by Mabel Robinson
    These are two editions of the same book, which I will be reviewing and comparing in a post at the end of this week, hopefully.
  • Here Come the Dolphins! and Here Come the Whales! by Alice E. Goudey
    I read these aloud to Miss Muffet (age 3 years 8 months). I've already reviewed one book from this series, and I don't think I have anything new to say, so though these are nonfiction, I probably will not end up reviewing them for Old School Kidlit. 
I also want to mention Confessions of a Domestic Failure by Bunmi Laditan, which was on my currently reading list last week. My digital library copy expired and there were a lot of holds, so I didn't get a chance to finish it, but I did make some comments (mostly positive) on Goodreads. 

Currently Reading: 

  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
    I haven't touched this in a few days, but the descriptions are so lovely that I know I will eventually finish it. Since it's a re-read, it's just not a priority.
  • Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
    I keep this book on my nightstand, telling myself I'll read it each night before bed, but I forget how tired I am in the third trimester and so I haven't touched it all week. I'll probably have to choose a day to make it a priority and just zip through it.
  • The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland
    I'm reading the ebook of this on my phone and I'm really enjoying it. I expect it to be one of the first books I finish this week.
  • A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings II by Olive Beaupre Miller
    I started this early last week and have not been great about keeping up with it so far. I still plan to finish it before the end of the month.
  • Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson
    This collection of essays and articles by Newbery author Katherine Paterson is my favorite of my current reads. There's a good chance I will have finished it by the time this post is live! 
I'm linking up today with It's Monday! What Are You Reading? hosted by Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date

Friday, August 11, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: The Beach Before Breakfast (1964), The Frog Prince Continued (1991), Knots on a Counting Rope (1987), Wemberly Worried (2000)

Here's another batch of picture books for the Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. These are my choices for #6  a book set at the beach, in the ocean, or by a lake (The Beach Before Breakfast), #23 a book by Jon Scieszka (The Frog Prince Continued), #24 a book featured on Reading Rainbow (Knots on a Counting Rope), and #32 a book about starting school (Wemberly Worried).

The Beach Before Breakfast by Maxine Kumin, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard

The Beach Before Breakfast is very wordy and very poetic, and though Miss Muffet sat through it, and it was a pleasure to read aloud, I'm not sure she got much out of it. Weisgard's illustrations were the main appeal for me, and since neither I nor my kids have ever been to a beach, this seemed like a good way to introduce the experience. Personally, though, I think McCloskey's Time of Wonder and One Morning in Maine do a better job of conveying a similar summertime mood.

The Frog Prince Continued by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Steve Johnson

This is a humorous fractured fairy tale telling what life is like for the frog prince and his bride following their wedding. Jon Scieszka isn't really an author whose work I particularly like, so this book was really just okay for me. I like the structure of the story, as it has the repetition of form that is common to many fairy tales, but I'm not crazy about the artwork, and I don't feel compelled to share it with my kids even after they get to know the original tale. It's the kind of book that I would have used with first and second grade class visits in the library, particularly with groups that were hard to engage, but it's not something I personally need to have in my own collection.

Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Ted Rand

This is a book I always see at libraries and book sales but had never read until now. An American Indian grandfather relates to his grandson the story of the boy's life, in which it is revealed that the boy is blind. I thought it was a poignant inter-generational story, but many other reviewers have been quick to tear it apart for its apparent inaccurate portrayal of American Indian culture. I liked both the style of writing which was very poetic and the use of light and shadow in the illustrations, but probably not enough to want to own a copy. I did think it was interesting that this is the exact same trio that created Here Are My Hands, but the two books are totally different.

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes

Miss Muffet is on a Henkes kick, so we've been reading and re-reading his mouse books. This one is not quite as clever as some of the others (namely the Lilly books) but Miss Muffet has obviously been thinking about it because out of the blue one day, she said, "I am a brave child. Wemberly worries a lot, but I never worry." It reminded me of the time a parent in the library told me she would never read this book to her child because it would introduce the concept of anxiety and cause her to become fearful. Clearly this was not the case with my daughter - for her, it simply reinforced her own resilience. Henkes really is the best at empathizing with preschool emotions and describing them in a relatable way. And though we don't intend to send our kids to school, Henkes is also very good at reassuring kids with anxiety surrounding that transition.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Reading Through History: A Book of Americans by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet, illustrated by Charles Child (1933)

From Columbus to Woodrow Wilson, this lighthearted poetry collection introduces dozens of personalities and groups of people who contributed, for better or for worse, to the history of the United States. Accompanied by caricatured illustrations of each figure, the poems give little glimpses into the lives, quirks, mistakes, and triumphs of presidents, pioneers, scientists and statesmen.

A Book of Americans was published in 1933, but there is very little about it that makes it feel outdated. Each poem is surprisingly contemporary-sounding, with lots of jokes about the foibles of these historical figures and subtle admonishments about the treatment of Native Americans and slaves. Even the poems which represent a larger group, such as Indians or French Pioneers, or Puritans, give a personality to these segments of the population and have some clever or poignant insight about their role in the development of our country.

What I liked most, though, is the very even-handed way the authors seem to view American History. There is no shying away from negativity - James Buchanan is all but torn apart, for example - but neither is there any romanticized urging for the next generation to  correct all the wrongs that have gone before them. The authors seem to accept historical happenings matter-of-factly, and their poems simply convey the facts of these events in an engaging style and format. The final poem of the collection, "U.S.A." also indicates the poets' reasonable understanding of their own place in history. "All our novelties and platitudes," the end of the first stanza proclaims, "Will be Rather Ancient History in 2033."

Later, the final stanza of the poem goes on to say:

So instead of prophesying 
(Which is fun, but rather trying)
Who they'll pick to be our great ones when the books are on the shelves,
Here's the marching panorama 
Of our past and present drama 
-And we shan't know all the answers till we're history, ourselves.

Thinking about our current political climate, in which so many are concerned with being on "the right side of history" this struck me as a particularly clear-headed and rational way of  considering our own place in the timeline of significant events. I like that the book doesn't emphasize the here and now as superior in any way to days gone by. It's all a part of the history of the same country, and it's all worth knowing, even if we don't fully understand our role until we're gone. I prefer this outlook to the alarmist "we must stop reading about old white men!" messages much of the children's literature community seems to have adopted.

When we study American history in our homeschool, I look forward to supplementing our lessons with some of these poems. They are a great way to introduce the different characters who will appear in our history books, and they would make good memorization exercises too. This book also covers some people who might not get much attention in history books at all, such as the first real Americans  ("They were only babies. / They didn't care. / Peregrine White / And Virginia Dare.") and Nancy Hanks (whose ghost might ask "Where's my son? / What's happened to Abe? / What's he done?") While not an essential resource by any means, I think A Book of Americans will be a welcome addition to our curriculum and a fun way to bring history to life.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The RAHM Report for 8/7/17

This past week I finally caught up on my Goodreads challenge. I accomplished this mainly by reading through an entire box of beginning reader books to preview them for my three-and-a-half-year-old, who has suddenly started reading. But once I got through those, I spent the rest of the week catching up on my own reading. Here's what I read and what I'm reading next.

Finished reading:

  • Up at Butternut Lake by Mary McNear
    This was a decent women's fiction novel, but heavier on the romance than I really wanted. Reviewed on Goodreads.
  • Murder at Vassar by Elizabeth Atwood Taylor
    I read this mystery only because it was set at Vassar. I have no interest in the rest of the trilogy.  Reviewed on Goodreads.
  • Teaching from Rest by Sarah Mackenzie
    My husband brought this home, and it's popular in the Catholic homeschooling world, so I read through it. Not impressed. Reviewed on Goodreads
  • Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
    I'm reading the omnibus edition of this book, which also includes the sequel, Raising Demons. I have finished the first book, and just started the second. I'll review them both together when I finish. 
  • A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings I by Olive Beaupre Miller
    I read this book for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge and to start familiarizing myself with the resources we have collected for our homeschool. I have the review scheduled for the middle of next week. 
  • What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?; Can't You Make Them Behave, King George?; and Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? all by Jean Fritz
    I had never read any of these, so I'm doing a review of the series (or as many of them as I can read) for Old School Kidlit. I'll probably wait to post it at the end of the month.

Currently reading:

  • Juvenile Story Writing by Mabel Robinson
    I'm hoping to finish this and also read Robinson's later work, Writing for Young People, and then write up a review for Old School Kidlit. 
  • Confessions of a Domestic Failure by Bunmi Laditan
    I had forgotten that I put this on hold but decided to give it a try when my turn came up. The reviews are very mixed, and though I have laughed a lot so far, I'm not quite sure what I think of it yet. 
  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
    I'm slowly making my way through this old favorite. Bradbury's writing is just so pretty. 
  • Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
    I haven't read much yet, but I just love Jackson's sense of humor. 
  • The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland
    It seemed like it took forever for a local library to order this, and then I had to wait for my turn on the hold list. I'm sad to see this series end, but I am looking forward to one last summer in Pruet, Massachusetts. 
I'm linking up today with Book Date and Teach Mentor Texts / Unleashing Readers for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seeking "Authentic Value" in Books for Young Children

This month, for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, I am re-reading Juvenile Story Writing by Mabel Robinson (1922). The book is not written for children, but rather about the art of writing for children. I copied the following quotation from Chapter I, The Question of Writing for Children:

"Consciously or unconsciously, [the child] increases his experience every time he opens a book. The accretion may result in daydreams and the acquisition of a set of false standards, or it may have authentic value. Autobiography gives us plenty of evidence of both results. Since this is true, the book which gives the child experience outside of his personal limits should be carefully scrutinized in the making and in the using."

As my husband and I build the library of books our children will read as they grow up, I think a lot about the question of "authentic value." There is a common belief in the larger children's literature community (including librarians, bloggers, publishers, teachers, etc.) that the only truly important indicator of the quality of a book is whether a child wants to read it. The key to raising eager readers, this argument holds, is to let them read whatever they want without judgment from adults. In the seventh edition of his popular The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease writes, "Allow children to choose the books they wish to read to themselves, even if they don’t meet your high standards." Let them select their own books, praise whatever they choose, and voila! they will love to read.

What is forgotten when we enter this mindset, however, is the notion that books have a very strong influence in the life of a child, not just when it comes to entertainment or education, but also in terms of values, standards, and morals. Children - especially young ones, like mine - internalize everything they read, making stories a part of their play, their lexicon, and their understanding of how life works. The more limited a child's experience, the more powerfully a single book can impact his understanding of the world, for better or for worse. If the books given to young children contradict the family's values, or reject natural law, or employ crude humor, children simply accept these as representations of the larger world, without their parents necessarily even realizing they have done it. Therefore, I absolutely believe, as Robinson does, that all the books I share with my children ought to be evaluated carefully, and that the books which are read aloud to them, and the books which they read independently should always be held to a high standard. As Leila Marie Lawler pointed out in her recent blog post at Like Mother, Like Daughter ("Thoughts on getting the reluctant child to read, with 7 practical suggestions"), "When it comes to what our children read, everything needs to be excellent."

When I evaluate books to decide whether to purchase them - or even to borrow them - for my kids, I find that I focus on excellence in two key areas: values and aesthetics. When it comes to values, I seek books that have a point of view which is consistent with our family's culture. In our case, that means avoiding books which promote moral relativism, political activism, media franchises, and other agendas that are either inappropriate for children altogether or at odds with what we believe. We do occasionally put away books for the future that are less black and white in the values they espouse, but for early childhood, we focus on establishing our identity as a family and understanding how we, as the Fitzgeralds, look at the world. 

In terms of aesthetics, I think about the depth and beauty of a book's text and illustrations. I look for beautiful language, written in a style that is unique to the talents of the specific author, instead of a more generic, commercial, narrative voice. I want the books my kids hear to be pleasant to read multiple times, and to reward them with opportunities for new insights and observations upon multiple re-readings. I also pay a lot of attention to a book's format and to the care that is put into its appearance. Illustrations which are merely functional, or serve to decorate without enriching the text are not as desirable as those pictures which work together with the text, and which give the child reader a reason to pore over each page. 

Even beyond these two areas, however, a children's book with "authentic value" will ultimately be a solid stepping stone on the way toward a larger goal of being able to appreciate the works of great literature handed down to us by generations past. Childhood reading is important, not just for motivating kids to want to read, but also because there is only a very short window of time during which the foundation can be laid for appreciating books and the worlds and experiences they contain.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, August 2017 (Nonfiction)

Today marks the start of month 8 of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge!

This month we're focusing on Nonfiction.

To participate, read a book or books connected to this month's theme with a publication date in the decade of your birth or before. Post about it on your blog, or wherever you typically review books. At the end of the month, I will publish a link-up post for you to share your reviews from the month.

Feel free to share what you're planning to read here in the comments and/or on social media using #oldschoolkidlit2017. Happy reading!