Previous month:
March 2008
Next month:
May 2008

The (TV-less) Week That Was

TV Turnoff Week passed quickly, ending last night, and I realized that we must not watch as much TV as I'd thought. It wasn't very hard to make do without the tube. We were helped out tremendously by some beautiful, warm weather, so we were outdoors living it up every day. Biking, hanging out with the backyard chickens, grilling hamburgers (I showed Junior how to grill), and yard projects occupied our time. A little neighbor saw us in the yard after supper, and she came over and played with Junior for a while. One afternoon there was a Cub Scout hike at a local nature preserve, where the group spotted four turkey vultures. Inside at home we set up a jigsaw puzzle and got out the book of word searches. On Sunday Junior slept late, ate breakfast in bed, and read until noon. Noon! I'm not sure what he was reading, though it probably included Calvin & Hobbes, The Lorax, and other favorites. More and more his reading life is his own. I still read aloud to him, but I see bookmarks in various books around his room. He asked to watch television once or twice, and claimed to miss it. All in all, though, I thought it was a good week.

I did not get rid of cable, but I blocked a few channels. Junior can still watch shows on those stations, but only occasionally. He really likes Discovery's "How It's Made" and "Dirty Jobs," but doesn't need to watch them for hours on end.  Also, there are good videos at his school library that he can check out, and the public library has lots, too. With spring here and summer around the corner, I'm hoping that he'll be outside playing as much as he can.

I shut down the computer every afternoon before Junior got home from school, and that was a tremendous help. I wasn't trying to do too many things at once when the computer was off. That was a good thing that I hope to continue.

Find out how others coped during TV Turnoff Week at the blog Unplug Your Kids.

Poetry Friday: Dirda (and Others) on De La Mare

I was intrigued to read about Walter De La Mare (1873-1956) in the April 23rd "Dirda on Books," a live chat with Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. (The whole conversation is transcribed at the Post's online edition.)

Anonymous: Thanks to you and my fellow posters for your great suggestions for children's poetry. I never would have thought of Emily Dickinson as a child-friendly poet, but the Poetry Foundation does include a couple of her works in the children's section of its Web site.

In an effort to return the favor, to the poster looking for absurd but trenchant books for teens, how about Walter de la Mare? He's English, not American, but it sounds like he otherwise fits the criteria. In fact, I recently read your 2004 review of his Memoirs of a Midget, a great read in itself.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Yes, De La Mare is one of the giants of children's poetry. The recent issue of the New Criterion has an excellent essay on his work by Eric Ormsby. [Note from S.T.: It's online here.]

When he reviewed De La Mare's Memoirs of a Midget four years ago, Dirda began by saying that the poet's Peacock Pie is "one of the half-dozen best books of poetry for children ever written." High praise indeed. The local library does not own Peacock Pie, but I can probably track it down through an interlibrary loan.

On Fridays, many of the children's literature blogs talk about poetry. You'll find a roster of today's Poetry Friday participants at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

5 Things I Like About "A Visitor for Bear"

0763628077med A Visitor for Bear, a new picture book written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, is about a grouchy bear, with a "No Visitors Allowed" sign on his door, and a mouse intent on dropping in. It's one of the best books I've read in eons. I chose five highlights to mention here.

1. The mouse. He's insistent in a polite, British sort of way.

"I told you to leave!" cried Bear.

"Perhaps we could have just a spot of tea?" said the mouse.

2. Bear's cozy home, with its cast-iron stove, tea kettle, and tablecloth embroidered with bees. I'd be tempted to keep it to myself, too.

3. The harmony of the author-illustrator team. The writing and art (watercolor, ink, gouache) are smart, funny, and evenly balanced.

4. Bear's transformation. In the end, Bear and the mouse become friends, and Bear tears up his off-putting sign.

5. The book's appeal. The comedy in A Visitor for Bear will tickle both little kids and independent readers.

+ 1 more: Reading on the Candlewick web site that more Mouse and Bear books are in the works.

Literataure-Inspired Playing

In the "From Spider-Man to Smack-Down" chapter of her new book, Taking Back Childhood, Nancy Carlsson-Paige writes about a kindergarten teacher whose students "were consumed with Star Wars play" (the kind of whacking-with-light-sabers stuff that many of us know well). At story time the teacher started reading The Wizard of Oz to the class because she felt like it addressed some of "same themes of power and security" as the Star Wars movies. She also supplied the dramatic play area of her classroom with Wizard of Oz props: red shoes, a witch hat, and so on. (Aside: Dorothy's ruby slippers from the movie version are actually silver in the book, but who needs a fact-checker in the dress-up corner?)

[The teacher] said that the children gradually became immersed in the story of The Wizard of Oz—acting it out with elaborations, drawing it, making their own props—and their more rigid Star Wars play gradually dropped away.

A professor of early childhood education and conflict resolution, the author goes on to say the following, relevant to all of us who think about children's literature a lot:

Many children's books touch on themes of mastery, power, and security but contain no graphic violence, and reading these, especially over and over, can inspire play about mastery and power that comes closer to meeting children's real psychological needs.

I really liked that story of a teacher who knew how to channel her students' interests in a more creative direction. I liked the book, too; I found it informative rather than dire, despite its subtitle, "Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World."

Kids' play fascinates me. In my house, a Lego alien now lives in a vegetable-steamer spaceship. ("Mom, if you cook anything in here, will you please take him out?") The alien seems to be involved in a lot of inter-planetary battles. A couple of days ago, though, a younger friend of my son's dropped by, and she and Junior pretended to be butterflies, wafting around the yard for a few minutes.

Updated to add: Nancy Carlsson-Paige is also the mother of actor Matt Damon. Whaddya know. I missed that somehow. Here is a recent profile of Carlsson-Paige from the Boston Globe.

Southern Bookstore Blog

Lemuria Books, my favorite bookstore, now has a blog, and I didn't even know about it until recently. Yay—blog roll update time. If you're ever in Jackson, Mississippi, you absolutely must stop by the store. Driving down I-55 from Memphis to New Orleans? It's right on your way. Travelling from Dallas to Atlanta on I-20? It's just a quick little detour north.

Some years ago when Eudora Welty was still alive, I saw her shopping at the store. The blog features an update on her home in Jackson's Belhaven neighborhood, which you can now tour by appointment. (I know I've mentioned that before. I think I keep talking about it to remind myself to schedule a tour for my next visit to Jackson.)

When I was at Lemuria last week, a couple of the booksellers told me about Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana, by Rheta Grimsley Johnson (NewSouth Books 2008). Here is how the publisher describes the book:

For over a decade, syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson has been spending several months a year in Southwest Louisiana, deep in the heart of Cajun Country. Unlike many other writers who have parachuted into the swampy paradise for a few days or weeks, Rheta fell in love with the place, bought a second home and set in planting doomed azaleas and deep roots. She has found an assortment of beautiful people in a homely little town called Henderson, right on the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp.

Right now on the blog, Lemuria recommends a children's book, The Fish Who Cried Wolf, by Julia Donaldson. Sarah Dessen's young adult novel Just Listen also gets a shout out.

More Thoughts on TV

Here are some more thoughts on children and television, via a Washington Post opinion piece by Lisa Guernsey.

But a flurry of new research says we have more to learn. The problem: We're assuming that our children can make sense of what they watch, no matter how old they are. We're forgetting that huge cognitive leaps occur between the ages of 1 and 7.

Researchers, it turns out, doubt that a 1-year-old can even make sense of the sequence of information on the screen, let alone pick up the wholesome messages in "Sesame Street." There's almost no evidence that children under 5 are picking up on the moral lessons in "VeggieTales," not to mention the supposedly character-building themes of many Disney movies. And the children's shows on PBS may be more educational, but that doesn't mean that they're always getting through to young children.

Read the entire article here. Guernsey also talks about what's good for kids to watch.

If you're turning off the set this week and/or looking for a good picture-book read-aloud, check out The Three Cabritos, by Eric A. Kimmel. The Tex-Mex retelling of the Three Billy Goats Gruff stars a maniacally dancing chupacabra instead of a troll. Lots of fun.

TV Turnoff Week, April 21st-27th

We like television here at Chicken Spaghetti, but the time has come to try turning off the set for a little while. If I get brave, I am going to cut way back on the cable subscription, too. Because of homework (or, rather, his delay in doing it), Junior does not have much time to watch TV after school, but most of what he does watch does not benefit him. At 8, he's gotten too old for programs like "Arthur" and "Clifford," and that leaves us with the edgier world of cable, with its endless parade of bleeped out cursing and, er, digestive problems, not to mention advertising. (The "News at 5" shows/car wrecks/scandal-reporting are no better.) Plus, I think the frantic pace of some of the shows does not have a good effect on my fella's impressionable little brain. I have seen too many dips in behavior after TV-watching not to believe this.

The truth of it is this. Junior's TV watching benefits me. It occupies him while I cook dinner or type on the computer or read. But I had a wake-up call recently when he asked for  Sealy Posturpedic Mattress because they're more comfortable than the one he has. "What?" I said, and he repeated his request. We then had a talk about ads and how they try to sell things to people. It was not the first of this kind of talk, but somehow the message had not sunk in.

Junior groaned when I told him about TV Turnoff Week. Then he said, "That's not fair!" Not exactly the reaction I'd envisioned, but that's okay. I hope that a week without TV will help us figure out something better for him to do when he needs to entertain himself. I don't plan on outlawing the tube forever, but a week will give Junior's dad and me some time to figure out alternatives and perhaps a better TV routine.

Our plans? Spend as much time outdoors as possible. My personal goal is to spend less time on the computer. I'll just have to blog, um, more efficiently.

If you want inspiration to shut off the set at your house, I highly recommend The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid, by Ellen Currey-Wilson (Algonquin Books, 2007). It's a really funny, non-preachy memoir written by a veteran watcher of "Gilligan's Island" and countless other programs. The author knew that she watched too much TV (and had watched too much all her life), and did not want the same for her son. Her biggest obstacle is not her son's viewing habits but her own—and the reasons for them. I came across the book at Lemuria, a bookstore in Jackson, Miss., and ironically, read a lot of it on the plane home when Junior was plugged into a DVD movie. Clearly I have a way to go, too.

The blog Unplug Your Kids offers suggestions for a TV-free week, and people are registering there to participate in a blog challenge. I notice that Ellen Currey-Wilson herself signed up. Although it's not updated that often, her blog has good resources and information; don't miss it.

Good luck to all the others participating this week. When the Turnoff turns back on, I'll let you know how we fared. In the mean time, I'll keep talking about books.

Poetry Friday: "Monosyllable"

There we were in the sunny South, spring-breaking for most of the week. That's why posting was so light around these parts. We had a great time, and Junior and I covered my parents' neighborhood on bicycles. My Southern accent returned, and I heard myself saying, "Good mornin'!" to people I didn't even know.

Anyway, since today is Poetry Friday, I'm going to send y'all back to the Poetry Foundation for one more poem by Josephine Jacobsen. This one is "Monosyllable." I wanted to mention it last week, but that post was long enough. Click here to read "Monosyllable."

Our schedule is nutty until school resumes on Monday, at which point I'll rest from our vacation.

You'll find the roundup of all the Poetry Friday posts at The Well-Read Child.

In Which I Was a Read-Aloud Rock Star

But only because of Coleen Salley & Janet Stevens and Mo Willems.

Last week brought Read Aloud Day to the urban school where I volunteer as a tutor. Lots of people came in to read to each class, pre-K through 6th grades, and the book assigned to the first-grade readers was Epossumondas Saves the Day, written by Salley and illustrated by Stevens. Set in Louisiana, the book stars an opossum and resembles a Cajun Three Billy Goats Gruff. Plus, it features a whole heap of wacky Southern expressions. If you haven't tried this one at story time, I highly recommend doing so because it's such fun for a reader to ham it up. What seemed like too much shtick on an initial read-through made a rollicking read-aloud. I enjoyed hearing the first graders guffaw and chant along.

I then moved on to Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, which I'd taken along in case Epossumondas didn't fly. That was far from the case, but why stop when you're on a roll? Willems' book grabbed thirty kids' attention right off the bat and held it until the end. The Pigeon books beg for interaction, talking directly to the listeners, and the kids ate it up, yelling "No!" each time the Pigeon asked to drive. They even wanted to hear it again, so I left the book with their teacher. (And had to buy my son a new copy on the way home.)

I love tutoring, but the first-graders occasionally struggle and get discouraged. Read Aloud Day, though, well, it rocked. Everyone could join in on the fun that reading brings.