Tuesday, November 30, 2010

mermaids and appeal

Earlier this month I went to an inspiring workshop with Olga Nesi about using appeal terms to talk about and teach students to describe books.  (see this article from School Library Journal for a quick introduction to the concept of appeal terms http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/885803-312/its_all_about_text_appeal.html.csp )

I was thinking about this workshop as I read yet another mermaid book.  Books can feel so different, even when a description of plot or topic makes them seem related.  Here are the two "mermaid books" that I read this month.  One is current, and the other isn't.  Libraries can be like that...

Appelt, Kathi. Keeper. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 2010.
Kessler, Liz. The Tail of Emily Windsnap. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.

A description could make them seem closely related but their appeal is miles apart.  I would recommend them both - but not to the same reader!

Ten-year-old Keeper heads to a sandbar in a small boat along with her dog BD and a seagull named Captain in order to find her mother, a mermaid who left her when Keeper was only three. 

After twelve-year-old Emily discovers she is a mermaid during 7th grade swim class she is determined to find and rescue her estranged father. 

Keeper is a compelling book with a quiet and timeless feel.  The entire story takes place over one complex and multi-layered day surrounding a rich cast of characters that explore many kinds of love.

The Tail of Emily Windsnap is a lively romp through school and family on shore (or at least in a boat) and under the sea with recognizable if eccentric characters and a comfortably resolved plot. 

Both books are wonderful in their own way.  The Tail of Emily Windsnap will leave some readers begging for more (and I will stock the sequels in my library), but years later the reader won't really remember why.  Keeper on the other hand is the kind of book that the right reader will want to go back and read again, and will tell their very special friends (as I am telling you) that they just have to read it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A subject that is avoided

As part of a scavenger hunt in my school library fifth grade students were asked to find a book related to their religion.  The students were directed to notice the Dewey hundreds posters above the non-fiction shelves before they began, so there was a strategy provided for finding these books.  To my chagrin, many students couldn't find anything appropriate (in their minds) in that section and instead returned with books about Italy, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.  It hadn't occurred to me that the word "religion" would be a vocabulary word! 

On reflection I realize that the "R" word is almost never spoken in school - despite the inclusion of the "G" word in our daily recitation the Pledge of Allegiance.  I flashed back to a lesson I co-taught last year to a third grade class.  We were using Google-Earth to explore Jerusalem, a city that is studied for one month during the third grade.  We were identifying certain important buildings in the city, and the question arose of the meaning of certain symbols in Google-Earth.  I ended up making a chart for the class with religion / place of worship / symbol.  A lot of important vocabulary was discussed and the students left with a sense of excitement around learning more about this fascinating city. I thought I had done well by this class.  As the class was leaving an adult (an educational assistant that was assigned to one of the students in that class) pulled me aside and said "I can't believe that you just went there!"  The concern seemed to be that I might get into trouble for mentioning what seems to be a taboo subject. 

Perhaps we (teachers and librarians) should not be shy about teaching about things that exist.  Religion is a big part of news almost every day, and our students deserve to know what is meant by words like religion and faith.  Confusing religion, nationality, and culture is not acceptable if our young people are going to have a chance of knowing what is going on. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Short Picture Book - Good for Tweens

Night of the Gargoyles by Eve Bunting is a wonderful book that just doesn't quite fit into a pigeon hole so it often doesn't get read in the classroom or even the library.  Today I had a small group of 5th and 6th grade students - all English Language Learners - who needed to wait in the library for a few minutes before returning to their class. When one asked me to read to them (possibly hoping to delay their return to the classroom) I reached for Night of the Gargoyles.  "It had been on my mind," I told them, "because it is a favorite spooky story that somehow I didn't get a chance to read during the Halloween season."
"So now's your chance!" was the (kind of) snappy comeback.  The group settled into the meeting area for a story.  Some of them commenting as they settled in around my rocking chair that they "felt like little kids."

Then from the first page they were all gripped.  Atmospheric yet detailed pictures.  Rich descriptive vocabulary. Even the dictionary style definition at the beginning, clearly signaling that this is not a little kids book pulled them in.  Finally it was an invitation to look more carefully at the built world around them. They left the library talking to each other about what they had seen on buildings both real and in movies. And all with almost no time stolen from their day (or mine.)  This was a magical interlude.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What are picture books for?

Some of the most memorable and beloved books in my library are picture books. As an elementary school librarian I am one of the lucky ones that I get to surround myself with the art, words, and deep thoughts of picture books.  Yet once my children are independent readers they seldom choose picture books to read.  So how do I keep these books, some of the best art and literature in my library, from languishing on the shelves? I talk to anyone who will listen about picture books and what they are for.

Picture books are for sharing.  The unspoken assumption behind the format is that this is a book for a reader and a listener (or a class).  The traditional oversize format is not really comfortable for a child reading alone.  Often the words - the reading level, the vocabulary - even the size of the print - are not appropriate for the independent reader.  Great picture books beg to be read out loud!  They want to be performed, sung, whispered, shouted, and shared. I would even say that if you have only read a picture book silently to yourself you haven't really read it.

So who will borrow the wonderful, thoughtful, artistic books from my school library?  I try to convince the classroom teachers that they can teach so much (comprehension strategies, writing style, even content) with picture books, but most of them are engaged in reading novels.  So I turn to the students.  When I explain what picture books are really for, many students are excited to try out the role of reader! It seems like almost everybody has a younger sibling, or a cousin, or somebody to babysit (or help mom babysit.)

At first I gave extra borrowing privileges to students that told me they were reading to a younger child.  Now I let everyone borrow two books a week.  Often one of those books is a book to read to someone else. Does everyone who borrows a picture book follow through and read to someone else?  Of course not.  But the intention of reading to someone else can make a student feel entitled to read a picture book without feeling out of place.  And once the book is opened the words and pictures will sell themselves.   

Who will you read to today?