August 2007


Today I serendipitously found another quote to share. I’m a fan of author Mem Fox, and I just picked up her book Reading Magic (Harvest, 2001), for parents, teachers, and librarians, about the importance of reading aloud to children. She harangues us, humorously and in some detail, about the structure of a story that grips us, and how she picks the words she chooses to tell her stories. She writes:

If anything could be more important than the first line of the story, it’s the last line. If our story reading is as mesmerizing as it should be, the last line will be akin to the final amen at the end of a church service and will provide this kind of reassurance to the child: “Good-bye for now, go well, God bless you, take it easy, you’re safe with me, I love you very much, see you soon.”

When I heard Fox speak several years ago, she discussed this very topic, describing how she chose the words for her book Where is the Green Sheep? (Harcourt, 2004; illus. by Judy Horacek). When she read the passages from this book aloud, she did it slowly and hypnotically. “Here is the sun sheep. / And here is the rain sheep. / Here is the car sheep, and here is the train sheep. /[pause] But where is the green sheep?”

It’s a book I read to groups of babies and toddlers all the time now, and they love it. When you read this book silently, it doesn’t seem like much; when you read it aloud, though, in just the right, slow, foot-tapping rhythm, it’s close to perfect. Green Sheep is a gentle lull of rhythm and rhyme; it keeps asking, “but where is the green sheep?” And, so, where is it? The last lines: “Turn the page quietly – let’s take a peep… [pause] / Here’s our green sheep, fast asleep.”

When I heard Fox speak, she read excerpts from several successive versions of this book. She spent a lot of time making little changes in the wording, honing and sharpening each line. For all of us who love good picture books, it was a wonderful lesson in how putting the exact words together in exactly the right way can show us just how a few words can give each young listener the right feeling, like a hug, when a story ends.

Do you want to do the right thing about making your library friendlier for Spanish speakers, and to the Latino community in general, but aren’t quite sure how to begin? If you go here, to the WebJunction site, you’ll be able to download a PDF document called “Evaluating Materials for Latino Children and Young Adults,” an excerpt from a new Neal-Schuman book, Serving Latino Communities by Camila Alire and Jacqueline Ayala. This brief article gives an overview of important points to think about when adding titles – most particularly, that “Latino culture” is not one big thing that’s all the same. There are dozens of nationalities and groups included in that blanket term; there are important linguistic and cultural differences between a rural Mexican family and a Dominican from the big city. Also, a book by a U.S. or British Anglo author that has been translated from English (there are a lot of these out there) and one written in Spanish by a native speaker may be received very differently by the people you’re trying to reach.  This article is an excerpt, and it just sort of ends, but it’s still worth your time to read.

Another site worth visiting is the Barahona Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents at the California State University, San Marcos. Here’s a useful database of recommended books in Spanish for school and library collections, sorted by title, subject, grade, and/or age, and searchable in both English and Spanish. There’s also a list of books in English about Latinos and Latino culture. If you’re working to serve Latino members of your public better, pay a visit.

How is technology changing children? Most people I know don’t really believe that kids are any different than they’ve ever been, but others claim that technology encourages them to multitask, to scatter their attention more than ever, and yet manage just fine. I’ve heard it claimed that techno-savvy children have gained an almost mystical ability to assemble impressions and ideas from the fragments of word and image that the world around constantly bombards them with into new ideas that make sense.

I’m a great believer in synchronicity & serendipity. This morning I opened a book and read a passage at random. Here it is: a quote I found in a book called Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood, edited by Jackie Marsh (RoutledgeFalmer, 2005). The quote’s from Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood (Vintage, 1994):

Childhood… was an outgrowth of an environment in which a particular form of information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be psychologically assimilable ways. The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.

In the early 90s, when Postman wrote these words, the Web was in its earliest stages, and most children had no access to it. Today, of course, in the Web 2.0 era, in the age of Facebook and MySpace and Wikipedia and all the other online destinations, children can not only be clonked on the head by chunks of information from a thousand places, but can generate chunks of it themselves to toss at other kids.

Adults have less control over managing and sequencing information in the era of Web 2.0, obviously, and this loss of control affects the way children build the world they live in. Are children assimilating this mess of out-of-sequence fragments well and building new worlds out of them, or just spending hours online because society & their peers tell them it’s a cool thing to do without much of a constructive result, or because they just want to play games? What do you think?

Every so often, someone claims that babies can be taught, from birth (almost), to be toilet trained. Here’s the latest iteration of that claim – the “diaper-free” movement. These are babies that parents encourage to let them know when they are about to pee or poop. The parents then hold their children over the toilet or (as you’ll read in this story) the sink, or even a tree. These parents say they want to lessen the “environmental impact associated with diapers” or who saw parents who didn’t use diapers while traveling abroad.

Are such practices developmentally appropriate? Who knows? Child development experts disagree. But somehow I bet these parents of diaper-free babies end up with just as much dirty laundry.

To keep this relevant to libraries, by the way, here’s a book for your library’s collection on raising babies diaper-free: The Diaper-Free Baby by Christine Gross-Ioh (This link is to the Amazon listing).

The folks at the Minneapolis Public Library have a great page on their site called ELSIE , or Early Literacy Storytime Ideas Exchange. It’s a booklist of titles particularly suited to reading aloud to preschoolers, and it identifies which of the six pre-reading skills (if you’re familiar with ALA’s “Every Child Ready to Read” program, you’ll know these skills) each book helps young children gain. It also includes some fingerplays and songs.

While the list is very incomplete, it should inspire you to look at the picture books, somgs, and activities you use in your library programs and match them up with the six skills. Which books encourage vocabulary building and which build phonological awareness? For example, I often sing “Down By the Bay” with the kids, encouraging them to give me the name of an animal, which I then must rhyme. Rhyming = phonological awareness, dressed up in a song. (One of my rhymes: “Did you ever see a bear / wearing purple underwear / Down by the bay?”) If you’re presenting baby lapsit programs and toddler and preschool storytimes, are you telling parents and caregivers between stories and songs about these skills and how they work?

“Environmental print” sounds like something a librarian might use to combat global warming, but it’s actually a way to encourage literacy in young children, especially children growing up in print-deprived homes. The modern (or should I say post-modern?) child is surrounded by advertising and product logos; a child who can’t yet read print seeing the Golden Arches and saying “McDonald’s” is a common experience. Children learn to “read” those familiar symbols, and adults can help them turn their ability to comprehend everything from signs to cereal boxes into real literacy skills.

Take a look at a page on teacher Vanessa Levin’s site, http://www.pre-kpages.com/environmental_print.html , that gives ideas to other teachers, parents, and librarians about using print and symbols from the world around them to help kids learn early reading and concept skills. For example, she shows the front of a Cheerios box that’s been bound into a classroom book called “What’s for Breakfast?”

Remember that many families have no books in their homes (see the previous posting), along with parents who aren’t readers. Reaching them through advertsing and logos may be the most relevant way to reach them. All we can do is hope that we can somehow reach these children and put books in front of them, too.

One in four Americans say they read no books at all last year, says a new Associated Press – Ipsos poll. Here’s the story on CNN.com  (http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/wayoflife/08/21/reading.ap/index.html?iref=newssearch). Someone does a poll like this every few years, and the outcome always seems to be written up in a depressing way. I’m sure we’ve all heard that book sales haven’t been growing for a while. But library circulation continues to be strong just about everywhere, so I’m not too worried.

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