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April 2008
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June 2008

A Chicken's Bad Hair Day

When we bought Lovey the hen at a chicken show back in January, she was a beautifully groomed show chicken. The lovely tuft of feathers on her head made her irresistible to Junior and me. We had to take her home. She is a White-Crested Black Polish chicken; Polish are known for their crowns of feathers, which also prevent them from seeing too well. I suspect that Lovey had not spent a lot of time outside of an indoor pen. She was not worldly. She lacked skills. You can see her remarkable hair-do in the photo, below left.
When it rains, the hair-do is not so easy to maintain. And when a beauty queen has been totally corrupted by a free-spirit Blue Orpington named Fuzzy, the crest really suffers. Fuzzy, our other hen, has taught Lovey this: try to get out of the coop and free-range at all costs. When you see a person/chicken servant coming out of the house, pace back and forth by the gate of the run in a dramatic fashion because people exist to feed you and otherwise enable your constant eating. When it rains, stand out in the bad weather and let your hair-do get ruined because there's a remote chance someone may let you out to look for bugs and other delights.  Also, if you lay an egg, go ahead and step on it with your muddy feet, because who cares?
And thus, we have a situation depicted on the right. After yesterday's heavy rains, today is dry and Lovey's crest will spring back to life, but some of the dirt remains. I think this means and Junior and I are going to have to give her a shampoo one day soon. Having shed her show-chicken ways, Lovey does seem to enjoy worm-hunting and hanging out with Fuzzy; she now scratches in the dirt with abandon. Still, I feel a little like we turned Miss America into a commune-loving hippie.

Readers who enjoy chicken picture books (and, really, who doesn't?) should look for Big Chickens Fly the Coop, written by Leslie Helakoski and illustrated by Henry Cole. It's a very silly story about four hens who take some risks in their desire to get out and about. They all agree about how nice it is to stay home until one says, "We would always stay home...except...we've always wanted to see the farmhouse." And off they go. I'm going to keep this one in mind for a preschool read-aloud. Preschoolers love a raucous good time, which these girls definitely have.

Blogs to Visit, May 8th

Household repairs around here are so loud that the cat has squeezed his big self behind the bread box in an attempt to hide. I hate to tell him how visible he is. At any rate, here are some blogs to check out while I, too, am going to hide from the noise by running around town this morning.

Here in Franklin. That's Franklin, Tennessee, y'all. Observations on life, in the form of short essays like "Gas Is the New Lunch." The blog is written by my cousin-in-law, a fellow cut-up at family reunions. One day you'll have to ask us about the bus to the cemetery. (It wasn't a funeral.)

Read. Imagine. Talk. "Ideas about raising thoughtful readers, children's literature, education, and whatever else comes to mind..." by a Bank-Street-educated teacher and mom.

What Do We Do All Day? This blog about the sweet adventures of a Brooklyn mother and her preschool-aged son reminds me of days with Junior when he was a little guy. The blogger reviews "urban picture books," too, like Adèle and Simon and At Night.

Elsie and Joe Deluxe. A thoughtful blog "in which [they] tell you about [their] many works in progress: homeschooling, teaching, writing, recorder playing, knitting, spinning, home renovation, gardening, anything else that comes up."

Reading Programs: News and Ideas

Over at Educating Alice, Monica Edinger expresses some skepticism about Renaissance Learning's so-called "groundbreaking" report on what children are reading. Monica writes,

Please.  All this report tells us is what books kids are reading for their school’s Accelerated Reader program.

Accelerated Reader is Renaissance Learning's school-based computerized reading incentive program. Last year I ran Deborah J. Lightfoot's "Get Your Books AR Listed," an article that previously appeared in the Authors Guild Bulletin and the SCBWI Bulletin. Given permission by Deborah to reprint it here, I thought her instructive piece brought up issues that authors needed to know about.

“I bought this book for my daughter, but since it wasn’t on the AR book list at school, she never got around to reading it.”

Magyk: Septimus Heap, Book One, by Angie Sage, was the book not read. An online reviewer posted that comment in 2005, shortly after Magyk's  publication.

The reviewer’s remark troubled me. It was the second time I had heard the mysterious “AR book list” blamed for a young reader’s rejection of a book.

The first instance involved work of my own. While visiting a clutch of elementary schools, I asked whether their libraries had (or would acquire) my book Trail Fever, a biography for readers 9 and up. It complements fourth-grade history studies—one of the main reasons I wrote it.

“I’ll check,” said the librarian. Then, with an apologetic shake of her head: “It’s not on the AR list, so we won’t buy it for our library. The students don’t read books that aren’t AR books.” She added: “A lot of authors don’t know that.”

Read the entire article by Deborah J. Lightfoot here. (Note: Magyk is now listed at AR.) The comments section of that post includes positive remarks about the AR program.

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, also addresses these kinds of reading incentive programs in the latest edition of his book. You can read an excerpt here. He writes,

I have written and spoken both favorably and negatively about these computerized programs but in recent years I've grown increasingly uneasy with the way they are being used by districts.

In other reading news,  Reading First, a key component of No Child Left Behind, has been found "ineffective." From USA Today:

A $1 billion-a-year reading program that has been a pillar of the Bush administration's education plan doesn't have much impact on the reading skills of the young students it's supposed to help, a long-awaited federal study shows.

The results, issued Thursday, could serve as a knockout punch for the 6-year-old Reading First program — Congress has already slashed funding 60%. Reading First last year was the subject of a congressional investigation into whether top advisers improperly benefited from contracts for textbooks and testing materials they designed, and whether the advisers kept some textbook publishers from qualifying for funding.

Read the whole article by Greg Toppo here.

From my own, admittedly limited experience as a volunteer in two elementary schools (one a city school where NCLB is very much a factor, the other suburban with generally high test scores), I see evidence of lots of children reading. At the city school, I particularly enjoyed some fourth-graders' essays inspired by Patricia Polacco's Mrs. Katz and Tush. I stopped by a hallway bulletin board and read the neatly typed pieces about the kids' own favorite older people. One girl wrote about her 21-year-old sister, another about her uncle in the Army who had died. (I'm guessing in Iraq.) I loved one from a boy who talked about his grandmother, his "oldest friend" who played "checkers and Xbox" with him. "The best thing she taught me was how to climb a tree," he concluded.

Book Adventures in the City

One of the most fun aspects of blogging about children's books is meeting up with other kid-lit bloggers. On Saturday I met Adrienne of What Adrienne Thinks About That at the South Street Seaport in New York, where we hoped to get aboard the Ambrose. That's the vessel that Brian Floca depicted in the awesome Lightship, winner of the Cybil award for best nonfiction picture book of 2007. Unfortunately for us, Saturday was a cleaning day for the Seaport ships, and we were forced to be landlubbers.

So, Adrienne, her friend Tracy, and I ventured up to Bryant Park, which is behind the New York Public Library (the one with the lions in front) and got to hang out, drink coffee and iced tea, and chat about books and chickens. Adrienne gave me a tip on a new series that she thought Junior would like (Sandra Markle's "Insect World"). We also peeked in at the library's beautiful and impressive main reading room.

I'd thought there was a big kids' book extravaganza at Bryant Park, but that is next Saturday (May 10th), when a bunch of events for Children's Book Week take place. So much for my fledgling business as a tour guide. I was happy to meet Adrienne and Tracy, though, and have a chance to explore the city with kindred spirits.

On the train ride home, I read a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri's new short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, which is excellent and well-deserving of the great reviews it's pulling in. (At Sepia Mutiny you'll find a review and links to other articles on the book. I'd agree with the Alice Munro comparison that a Village Voice writer made.)

Children's Literature Programs, PEN World Voices Festival

Book lovers in New York right now have a chance to see and hear many authors from around the world at PEN's World Voices festival. Among the participants are Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Janet Malcolm, Bernhard Schlink, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, and Mario Vargas Llosa. For a complete schedule, see the PEN web site; you'll find blog reports there as well. Also, the MetaxuCafé literary site is covering many of the events.

The following are programs that involve authors who write for children.

  • Sharon G. Flake, Jutta Richter, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Peter Sís talk about "the public and private lives of children." Elizabeth Levy moderates. (Scholastic Auditorium, 556 Broadway. Thursday, May 1, at 6. Free. No reservations necessary.)
  • Pam Muñoz Ryan and Senegalese author Fatou Diome on the role of storytelling in "growing up a writer." (French Institute/Alliance Française, 22 E. 60th St. Saturday, May 3, at 5. For tickets, call 212/307-4100.)

One roundtable (for adults) I'd like to hear (but won't get a chance to) is "Books That Changed My Life," with Annie Proulx, Philippe Grimbert, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Catherine Millet. (New York Public Library, Fifth Ave. at 42nd St. Sunday, May 4, at 4. For tickets, call 212/868-4444.)

PEN American Center, the festival's sponsor, is "an association of writers working to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship."