Bill Traylor & the Third Graders


MainAt the start of the school year in September, I found out that Ms. B. had moved up from 2nd grade to 3rd. Ms. B. was the teacher in the public school classroom where I read picture books aloud for the last two years, and I insisted on following her she invited me along to Grade 3. I happily made the switch. Ms. B. runs an efficient class in which the children seem happy, and she treats her students with respect. There are 30 kids in this year's group, much too big a contingent for the reading rug, which is both good and bad. No more elbow wars among the back-row listeners, but harder for everyone to see the pictures in the book. I try to walk around alot.

Because of weather and consequent half days, delayed report-card conferences, and so on, I've been lucky to read once or twice a month. (As a volunteer, I aim for weekly.) But we've still had a good time. Well, except for the day I read Mrs. McTats and Her Houseful of Cats, a Seussian tale of stray felines, when guffaw-inducing descriptions of dog house-training challenges (completely unrelated to the book) overtook the post-reading discussion. It happens.

Several weeks before, the class and I had had the most fantastic conversation about It Jes' Happened, Don Tate's picture-book biography of Bill Traylor. A self-taught artist and former slave, Traylor (1854-1949) began creating his art in his eighties, drawing from his memories of the Alabama farm where he had grown up and lived. The kids were intrigued, and had lots to say about the book. Since they're citified Northeasterners, I explained what a mule was; the donkey-horse crosses and other animals were some of Traylor's favorite subjects. Ms. B. turned to the computer-connected Smart Board projection system and showed some examples of Traylor's work. 

One boy wanted to know about Traylor's wife: "Is she dead?" (A very third-grade response. I remember my 13-year-old at the same age.) Others wondered what happened to Traylor's children. Were author Don Tate and illustrator Gregory Christie his sons? (No, but wouldn't that be cool?) They puzzled over Traylor's living circumstances; he was homeless at times in Montgomery, AL, and sometimes bedded down in a funeral parlor. Many seemed amazed (and relieved) that museums now held many pieces of Traylor's art.

 As I was leaving the class, one of the girls pulled me aside, and quietly asked, "Are mules really real?" "Yes, " I whispered back. "They are." I loved the idea that someone thought that the hardworking farm animals were in the same magical realm as unicorns and dragons. Maybe Traylor thought so, too.

Books

Mrs. McTats and Her Houseful of Cats
Written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli; illustrated by Joan Rankin
Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2001
(from our personal library of favorite picture books)

It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw
Written by Don Tate; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Lee & Low Books, 2012
(review copy)

For additional information, see  "Guest Post: Don Tate on 'It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw," at the blog Cynsations, and "Jes' a Hit: An Interview with Don Tate," at The Brown Bookshelf.


Best Books Season Begins! Book Lists Galore

Let it snow! For those of us who love a good list, the last two months of the year bring a flurry of online "best of the year" roundups of books. Starting in 2008, I've been collecting the lists for children's books, including links to various newspapers, magazines, journals, and blogs, as well as different literature prizes and awards given out. I update the big list often.

Here is a link to this year's page:

The Best Children's Books of 2012: A List of Lists and Awards

Also, David Gutowski collects all the "best of" lists for books (for grown-ups and kids alike) at his blog, Largehearted Boy.

Meanwhile, speaking of snow, don't miss Kids' Science Books for Stormy Weather, at Scientific American's Budding Scientist blog.


2012 Australian Children's Book Awards

The blog of Boomerang Books, an Australian bookstore, brings news of the Aussie children's books of the year, announced today.

Bob Graham's A Bus Called Heaven is the picture book of the year; it's available here in the US, too. I could live in a Bob Graham book and be perfectly happy—humor and generosity abound.

The website of the Children's Book Council of Australia, sponsor of the prizes, seems to be down at the moment. When it's fixed, I will link it here.

Added later: Children's Book Council of Australia: Book of the Year 2012 Winners


2012 "Growing Good Kids" Book Awards

GGK-seal-for-web

The Junior Master Gardener Program and the American Horticultural Society announced the winners of the "Growing Good Kids" Book Awards on July 20th. This year's blue-ribbon crop is as follows:

The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families, by Susan L. Roth & Cindy Trumbore (Lee & Low)

Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story, by Thomas F. Yerzerski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Planting the Wild Garden, written by Kathryn O. Galbraith and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin (Peachtree)

For more information about the prizes, which honor "engaging, inspiring works of plant, garden, and ecology-themed children's literature," go to the Junior Master Gardener website. Don't miss the list of classics, which includes Miss Rumphius, The Lorax, Too Many Pumpkins, among many others.


Second-Grade Read-Aloud Resource: 50 Multicultural Books...

This summer I'm spending some time thinking about the picture books I will read to next year's second-grade class. My volunteer gig at an ethnically and economically diverse city public school is an all-time favorite activity of mine, but I'm always looking for ways to improve the experience for the children. When fall rolls around, I'd like to be better prepared with a strong list of books and additional background reading of my own.

Keeping in mind prior classes will help, too. For example, when we talk about "fiction" and "nonfiction," I'm going to put the words out on index cards so the children can see them written out. In lovely and heartfelt thank-you notes from the last group, a couple of the spellers-by-ear thought I was saying "fishin" and "nonfishin," which is adorable, but note cards will go a ways to clearing that up.

In terms of selecting books, this terrific list, among others, will come in handy: "50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know,"  from the Cooperative Children's Book Center, at the University of Wisconsin. It offers a good selection of titles, broken down into age groups ( "Preschool," "Ages 5-7," etc.). I wish I'd remembered to read Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding to the 2011-2012 students. Reading through these books this summer should be fun!


Monday To-Do List

I'm borrowing this format from the What Do We Do All Day? blog, who employs it on Fridays.

Listen: Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Cool book, set in Revolutionary War-era New York and told by an enslaved girl. I am loving the history. 12-year-old Jr. and I listen to this one in the car.

Read: Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare. I am actually listening to this on audiobook, too, as I read the text. My first time with Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur. I am using a BBC Radio recording (rawther expensive at $14.95 on iTunes), and right like it.

Puzzle Over: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. Brits in India. Forster's syntax confuses me more often than I'd like to admit, but I think I'm going to stick with it. Something terrible is going to happen, yes?

Think About: Books for second graders. (I'm a volunteer classroom reader.) This year's Top Three were Bark, George, by Jules Feiffer; Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems; and SpongeBob and the Princess, by David Lewman (Clint Bond, illustrator). Several children knew the first two from kindergarten, and everyone knew SpongeBob. I'd like to find slightly longer books that the group will like as much as these for next year. Also popular was playing Mad Libs with the students.

Add: To the library list: Quinn Cummings' The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling. Due in August. Quinn Cummings! If you were a kid in the seventies, you remember this very funny writer as a child actor ("Family," "The Goodbye Girl"). She blogs at The QC Report. Hat tip: Melissa Wiley.

Recommend: 1. Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Essays, profiles from magazines like GQ and the Paris Review. The collection includes a somewhat disrespectful but fascinating piece on the Southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle. Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times, "Most of the essays in 'Pulphead' are haunted, in a far more persuasive way, by what Mr. Sullivan refers to with only slight self-mockery as 'the tragic spell of the South.'" 2. " 'Not Everyone Can Read Proof': The Legacy of Lu Burke," by Mary Norris, at The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog. A copy editor leaves a million dollars to a library. A town vs. library dispute ensues. Mary Norris is a friend of mine, and I am a huge fan of her always excellent writing and storytelling.


Farewell, Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

I was so sorry to hear this news this morning. The New York Times and other news outlets are reporting the death of Maurice Sendak, "widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century," as Margalit Fox writes in an obituary. NPR's "Fresh Air" will be devoting today's show to him.

What's your favorite Sendak book? Mine is Swine Lake, a collaboration with James Marshall, about a wolf and a pig ballet and the power of art.


Biographies

Biographile, whose tagline is "Real Stories. Real People. Great Reading.," is a new Random House site devoted to biographies. While most of the recommendations are strictly for adults, I recently wrote about some children's books from a variety of publishers.

Reading picture books together is often the beginning of a grand conversation about all kinds of subjects, from racial tolerance to fossils. Some children will be able to read the following illustrated biographies themselves, but given their rich vocabularies and somewhat higher reading levels, the books make ideal read-alouds for moms to share with kids.

To read the rest, go here. You'll also find Biographile pieces on biographies of Harriet Tubman, last night's NBCC (National Book Critics Circle) Awards, and more.


"Library Lion," "Some Kind of Love" for Second Grade

On the day after I read Library Lion to the second graders, I got shushed at the library. For real. I was talking in a no-talking room, and someone complained. Oops. Library Lion is all about knowing the rules and knowing when it's okay to break them. I better read it again. To myself.

In second grade read-aloud time, things are flowing along smoothly. I am reading somewhat longer books. We are talking lots. We've gone back to basics. I read, and they listen and then share observations. Great observations! I had been letting whoever had written a story read hers to the class after I finished up. But only girls (and the same three or four) were reading and then sometimes just making up very silly things on the spot and while it was great fun for the storytellers, it was not as much fun for the audience. I am thrilled that they are creative and interested, but I had inadvertently set up something that left out some children. And I don't want that at all!

This week's selection for the class is Some Kind of Love, written by Traci Dant and illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Marshall Cavendish, 2010). I really like this book about a big African American family reunion with lots of cousins and food and good times, told through a series of poems. Reading it just now made me miss my own cousins and grandparents. I think the children will enjoy it, too.

9780761455592


Thinking about Second Grade Read-Alouds

9780786819881Each week I read books to a class of second-grade students. Last year's group liked text-rich picture books (like Library Lion) and nonfiction about animals, even the dry "this is the leopard" kind. The current crew enjoys short and funny read-alouds, so last week I went in with Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Several of the kids knew it already, but no matter. "That was the best book you've ever brought us," said one little guy. Someone else asked, "Where did the bus driver go?" and another, "Who is the pigeon talking to?" (F.Y.I., just in case you haven't seen this contemporary classic, Willems has the pigeon directly addressing the reader.) I try to get the other children to chime in with their answers to questions like these. It's fun to hear the ideas. Up next is The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! After that, maybe Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back. None of these books takes more than a few minutes to read out loud.

The children's book expert Anita Silvey has made the case for bringing back picture books with longer texts; she wrote in School Library Journal last fall, "So much of what we see, no matter how clever it is, can be described as a joke book. Some are very good jokes, but once you’ve read the text, you don’t really need to read it hundreds of times." I agree, but...

For example, Bill Peete's much wordier picture books are full of fanciful storylines, not to mention hilarious visual humor, but I worry that if I read one, I might lose half the class to thumb-twiddling and squirming. But, if I never read it, they'd miss Prewitt Peacock's ridiculous, guffaw-inducing tail. Do I share Judi and Ron Barrett's equally funny though much more succinct Animals Definitely Should Not Wear Clothing, instead?

I know that the connection I make with the children is the most important part of our weekly story times; connection is what literacy is all about. But I do wonder about these things. And I certainly don't have all the answers!

image borrowed from Powell's Books