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Your kids are likely a little more than half way through their summer vacation. You and kiddos resolved that this summer would be different–they would read and they would read consistently throughout the summer. Cuz you know it’s good for them (and tastes better than spinach).
But here it is, mid-summer, and everyone’s resolve is wavering. How do you jump start the reading? It’s an easy, one-step trick.
Let your kid pick the reading material.
Oh no, you wail, tearing into the street, heedless of oncoming traffic. But what if…
- My kid chooses comic books;
- My kid chooses books of less than stellar literary merit;
- My kid chooses a cookbook or a how-to book;
- My kid chooses a book with a lot of pictures;
- My kid choose a book that’s not on the AR (or substitute your school’s reading program) list;
- My kid chooses a book he or she has already read…
- or a book too easy or a book too hard or a magazine or (fill in the blank with your concern).
What if? Well, bottom line, it does not matter. Really truly, it does not matter what they read. Research shows that what matters is the number of words they read and that they read consistently.
Remember that there are many purposes for reading and therefore many reasons for “teaching” reading. Summer reading, leisure reading, vacation reading, non-school reading develops the fluency and skills that lead to lifelong reading.
Reading is not merely an academic endeavor. Think about it: How would you like it if
- someone always dictated to you what you could and could not read,
- someone always “quizzed” you on it, either formally or informally, and
- someone was always handing you books like Moby Dick (I’d run out screaming into the street!)
You wouldn’t like it one bit, would you? And would you want to read very much if that’s what always happened when you tried? You betcha wouldn’t!
Your kid’s no different.
So recharge summer reading. Let the kiddos do the choosing!
It’s what summer’s for,
If you love to read, you probably can’t imagine why someone would not like to read. But if you talk with kids, or the grown ups they’ve become, it’s not hard to find out why they don’t. Often you’ll find they were treated something like the following when they were learning to read:
First misstep is when we treat kids as little passive dummies that we adults pour “stuff” into. Ain’t so! They have lives, they have interests, they have concerns, they have thoughts about their world. They are involved.
If that’s the case, what happens when we read aloud to them or give them a “bad” book–one that’s poorly written, one that has nothing to do with their lives or worlds, one that in uninteresting? The sheer mechanical act of reading is not enough to make a reader. They probably have the same reaction that children’s book author Jon Scieszka had:
“At school I was trying to learn to read by deciphering stories featuring two lame kids named Dick and Jane. They never did much of anything exciting. And they talked funny. If this was reading, I wondered why anyone would bother.”
“Bad” books would make any thinking child wonder, “WHY bother!” Or to put the shoe on the other foot, what if you were in their position? What if someone gave you books with bad, uninteresting stories to read? After you read one, would you want to read another? Why do we ask our kids to do something that we wouldn’t even do?
There’s too many good books out there with good stories to risk losing a child’s interest in reading by insisting they read a bad one or one they don’t like. Those first years of being read to and then learning and practicing reading are just too critical.
Thanks to Anita Silvey for the Scieszka quote and check out her blog, Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac for a daily dose of “good” stories and books for kids of all ages.
Off my soapbox now,
I’ve always taken seriously the matter of choice in books, movies, music, all things cultural. Choice plays a great role in motivating readers; kids (and probably adults) want to read more if they get to choose. There is another angle to the choice factor though.
Linda Holmes’ essay on NPR, The Sad Beautiful Fact that We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything, puts another spin on choice. While not her point, it reminds me of my conviction that life is just too short to read baaaad stories. And for kids, surrounding them with good stories (that they can choose from) increases the probability that they’ll want to read another. A bad story leads to an unrewarding reading experience and can just prove their point–that reading is dumb, boring, and a waste of time.
So how does one determine if a story is good? Two factors are critical. The first is: Where is a child is developmentally (check under the tag Choosing Books to read more articles about this). And the second is: What critical elements does a story contain (or not)?
Kendall Haven in his book Story Proof: the Science behind the Startling Power of Story explains five key elements of good stories, whether for children or adults.
His five are:
- struggles, and
Good stories are character driven. A substantive character gives the reader a chance to judge relevancy, emotions, beliefs, actions, and attitudes–and a chance to create meaning. With a flat character, the story just “goes through the motions.”
Intent is about goals and motive, the what and why for the character. Actions are what the character does, the plot, the how. Actions give the story a way to explain and illuminate the characters.
Struggles, like plot or actions, are well known as a story element. The character’s struggles, though, need to be significant. Struggles are against something–a conflict, problem, something internal or external, something real, with something at stake.
Finally, details make all the other elements work. They provide enough concreteness that the reader can fit all the pieces together and remember them through mental imagery.
That’s an incredibly short summary of Haven’s work, and I can’t recommend his book highly enough. On so many levels, it will change the way you look at and evaluate stories. I encourage you, too, though, to take some stories you consider good and check them against that list. You’ll find they have all of the elements. Take some bad stories and check them; you’ll find they are missing one or more of the elements.
Here’s to all the goodness of life!
Guess that won’t do, now will it?
Questions from non-librarian folks do me good. They bring me back to the real world and out of my tunnel vision land of assumptions.
She was ordering books online as gifts for two children. One of the books was listed as a board book. “What is a board book?” she asked.
Here’s the nutshell on board books:
- They are primarily for children ages birth through 3-ish.
- They are small (usually), the better for little hands to handle them.
- They are made of heavy, thick materials so that they can endure the hazards that happen at these earliest ages when one is learning about books. These include mouthing, early attempts at page turning, and juice cup spills among others.
- They usually have a few clear pictures or drawings and few words.
- Many have no actual story. Why? Because children ages babies to 3-ish aren’t really ready for stories yet. Their eyes are still learning to focus and they are still learning to recognize the “things” of their world. They love and prefer pictures of babies and activities of their daily life (eating, taking a walk, playing with blocks, seeing a puppy, hearing a fire engine, etc.). Of course, as they get closer to age 3, shorter stories become interesting as well.
- They are also ideal as special books that begged to be played with–for instance, books with cutaways and holes for peeking through or poking into.
Board books give young children the best chances for success as they begin learning about books. Asking children to do something they are not yet ready to do (like keeping things out of their mouths or turning pages gently) sets them up for frustration–and can lead adults to fussing at them. Negative experiences and emotions get associated with the book and the reading, leading to a decrease in interest in books and reading years later.
Finally, learning takes time and lots and lots of repetition. Playing with, exploring (poking, prodding, chewing, dropping etc.), pretending to read, and yes, even being read to can happen over and over and over again with board books for many years.
Board books are real books. They are real books for real kids of a certain age with certain needs and certain interests. Simply because they are age appropriate doesn’t make them less a book. You would never give a one year old a Neil Gaiman novel to read nor What is on My Head? to a sixty-five year old, yet both are equally a “real” book.
So feel confident this holiday season as you shop for babies through three year olds, that board books are a great choice for them!
I live in one of the poorest areas in Colorado. I do storytimes at the local Head Start programs. I see kids who come from homes that are struggling. And the kids from these homes experience the wear and tear of such a life on a daily basis.
So what kind of books do I choose for kids who probably haven’t grown up being read to? Who might not know what a book is or is for? Who might not care or be interested in books? Who might have even shorter than normal attention spans?
Do I choose books by famous authors? Books with award winning illustrations? Or do I choose the shortest books? Books with the fewest words on a page? Books with sounds and lights and gizmos and gimmicks?
Nope! I choose books with “good stories.”
Let me give you an example. The Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday (so already I have one stroke against me), I visit a Head Start classroom. Actually it’s two classrooms combined into a teeny tiny reading space (two more strikes against me). And I start to read Don’t Want to Go by Shirley Hughes.
I can see the teachers look wide-eyed at me as I open this book. It’s got LOTS of words in it. And there’s nothing snazzy, razzle dazzle about the pictures.
It’s the straight forward story of a preschooler whose mom wakes up one morning with the flu. So dad (who has to go to work) takes her to an adult friend’s house for the day. The little girl’s plaintive cry is, “Don’t want to go!”
Of course, she goes anyway. She really doesn’t have much say in it. But there she meets a smiling mom with a friendly baby. The dog licks her hand, she helps the mom glue pictures into a book, she plays peekaboo and holds the dog’s leash on the way to the older brother’s school and even gets to watch a little TV with him. At each transition her cry is, “Don’t want to go!”
And when dad comes to get her at the end of the day, once again she exclaims, “Dont’ want to go!” Adults love the ending–but kids? Kids love the in-between parts. These are situations and feelings they have experienced. They would want mom up in the morning. They would want to stay home, too, not go to a stranger’s house. They would lose their mittens on the way and pout under the table and say “don’t want to” but then with warmth and understanding and careful coaxing find themselves enjoying the new moments–just like Lily.
What’s this have to do with “good stories?” An essential element of any good children’s story (for children of any age up through teens) is that the story needs to meet the kid where the kid is at developmentally.
The books that hold kids’ attention with no gimmicks or gizmos are the ones that reflect their experiences, their perceptions, their learning edges, their developmental issues, their world. These are the books with staying power. These become the classics.
Shirley Hughes understands three and four year olds. You hear it in Lily’s reactions, whether in her cry, her pout, her laugh, or her saying no and then helping anyway. You see it in the illustrations–in the postures and faces of the characters. You hear it in the details she notices (“It was a yellow door, the color of the inside of Lily’s egg,” an egg which she remembers, btw, because she dropped it on the floor earlier). You see and hear it in the reassuring manner in which the adults react to her.
The book is clean and simple. It’s a “good story” for young children any time but perhaps especially right now during the holidays. There can be so many changes on a daily basis. And change is not easy when you are little and adults run the world.
So don’t let the number of words or the non-glamour of this book scare you away. My Head Starters were dead into it, all the way through! Yours can be too! It is a winner–for groups or for just one or two in the lap–cause it’s a “good story!”
Give it a whirl!
One area of children’s books that often gets overlooked by parents and librarians is the emotional. Being a kid and growing up have never been easy. Trying to help a kid be a kid and navigate its particular waters has never been easy.
We forget as adults how hard it was to figure it all out. We forget that it’s all new for kids. And we forget that learning takes time and takes multiple tries. What is this feeling I feel? What do I call it and what do I do with it? If there’s a problem here to be solved, how do I do that? If it’s not something to be solved, how do I live through it? How do I process, understand, and make some meaning out of what’s happening to me?
It may be as “simple” as learning all the in’s and out’s of potty training (think about it, it involves way more than just getting it in the pot–there’s hand washing and door closing and seat lifting and on and on). It might be as “complex” as learning to cope with the death of a parent.
To a child, it’s all new, it all takes time, and it all can be supported by a book.
I’m always on the look-out for books that are authentically supportive of kids and their learnings, transitions, and struggles. I discovered the blog, Books That Heal, yesterday and look forward to following its reviews and tapping it for ideas for books for my library’s collection and my community’s kids.
But once kids get into novels, it’s tougher. What elements can you look for if you’ve only got time to read the jacket blurb or read the beginning and ending or perhaps a few chapters here and there?
Kelly at YAnnabe has a terrific list of 7 elements that make a good story; click here to read her take on it. (And you’ll notice that she developed her list from lots of reading, still the best method by far!)
I have to admit, I had no idea this was such a hot topic especially among writers.
But it’s one for parents, too, who want to help their kids grow in appropriate ways but without getting in over their heads.
R.L. LaFevers provides some solid insight and understandings about what makes teens tick and how that works in books for teens. It really is about more than word counts; it’s about how children and teens grow. Read her post here.
And if you missed my initial post about Young Adult vs. Middle Grade books, click here.
As children move past the preschool picture book and chapter book stages, their book choices broaden. While in grades 1-4, those choices feel fairly “safe” to most of us parents.
But somewhere around grades 5-8 a shift begins to take place on the shelves. And librarians like myself start to ask, “Does this book go into the Juvenile Fiction or the Young Adult fiction?” Sometimes the line gets blurry.
Debbie Ohi’s blog post MG vs. YA compiles helpful answers from several sources.
I would push an answer just a bit more, though, into the developmental arena.
I believe the Young Adult categorization fits best those books that deal with the developmental issues of adolescence.
What are those? One is the search for identity. Young Adult novels have protagonists who are trying to figure out who they are as an individual. They try on this and then that, not sure what really fits them. Middle grade novel protagonists are developmentally more into the concreteness of life–friends, siblings, the mean teacher, the lost dog, fairly ordinary (to an adult eye) daily difficulties. Discrete episodes are strung together to form the whole.
Another major adolescent issue is that of finding a set of values one can call one’s own. It’s a time of questioning the family’s and especially parent’s values–just because. It’s a time of pushing the boundaries and going against–just because. Combine the values search with the identity push, and the two make for an “I gotta be me” mentality that shapes choices for years. Middle graders, on the other hand, generally want to please, and they worry about being wrong or doing it wrong.
Those broad developmental ideas help me to sort out the books between Juvenile and Young Adult sections. It’s not foolproof, there are exceptions, but it works most of the time. And the closer the book matches a child’s developmental level, the more they will enjoy the book!
Other factors that can influence or determine the placement: If I find a book has explicit sex, drugs, or foul language, though, it goes into young adult. Larger print books usually go into Juvenile. And Juvenile books generally are shorter with shorter chapters.
I also “start” my Young Adult section at about grade 9 or 13-15 years old because that’s when adolescence begins. I run mine a little further up as well, up to about age 20 to cover more of the “edgy” stuff. This is a bit unorthodox but my stats support the approach; it works for our community.
Parents, be aware though, as your child hits about sixth grade, your involvement in what they read is critical. It is a mixed bag between sixth and ninth grade, varying between authors, publishers, schools, and libraries. My 8th grader, now and for the last year, has read between the two sections, but if it comes home from the YA section, I look it over first. You, too, need to evaluate what’s appropriate for your child at each stage. There are bazillions of books out there and librarians who would love to help you find the right ones for your child.
So read on!
I love a good story, a well written story, a story that stays with me. And I love find such stories to give to kids, knowing that a good story, a well written story, a story with staying power stands a good chance of helping a kid fall in love with books and reading.
But I take exception with folks who think that books must be old and “classic” in order to fulfill such a role in a child’s or teen’s life. That’s what I’m reading here from Lesley M.M. Blume at NPR. (I have to admit, however, that it’s not so much what I hear from the interview).
Sure, if it’s a book we loved (and probably still love), our excitement can be the turning point for a kid. And it’s more likely to be so if we read it aloud to them (remember, reading aloud is good at ALL ages).
But there are many excellent stories being written today. And there’s nothing magical about an older book versus a newer book for getting kids hooked on reading. The most important point is that they read.
Here’s more in posts Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe–How to Choose Children’s Books and What Makes a Lasting Children’s Story.
What have you found with your kids?
Yes, there is more to life than chapter books! They are only a stepping stone on the way to fluent reading. Certainly, none of us would want children to “get stuck” in chapter book land and never move on.
But what can we do to encourage that movement onward?
First, as adults, we need to relax a bit. If a child is reading chapter books and is enjoying them and wants more of the same, find them! Even if they are “on the same level.” Developing reading fluency is hard work. Kids need to spend some “down time” with books. If they pick it a book and they are enjoying it, life is good. Their reading will develop. At this stage, it’s the number of words read that’s the critical factor, not the level. And never, never, never forget how important the enjoyment factor is.
(As an aside, since I can’t remember the source, a study was done that showed that older gifted students who were extremely proficient readers had pretty consistently all read some “fluff” stuff extensively in elementary grades–Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, comic books, etc.).
Second, during this stage it’s an immeasurable help to read aloud. Great stories are extremely motivating. Yet most great stories cannot be written in simple early reader language. You fill that critical gap by reading aloud those great, marvelous, fun, engaging stories to your child. They hear what awaits them. They want to keep working so they too can one day read those stories. But they have to hear them to know what lies ahead.
So what can you read aloud during this in-between stage? Here’s a few ideas:
- The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander (The Books of Three is the first)
- Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
- The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (my teacher read this aloud to us in 5th grade)
- Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (yes, the same Little House author but boys love this story)
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
- Frindle by Andrew Clements
- Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum
- The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Banks
- Redwall by Brian Jacques
And finally here are a few series other than The Magic Tree House:
- Time Spies by Candace Ransom
- Encyclopedia Brown by Donald Sobol
- Soup by Robert Newton Peck (these are hysterical!)
- Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew
- Chet Gecko by Bruce Hale
- Calvin & Hobbes (yes, the comic, I know many a child who developed fluency, and a great vocabulary, reading these)
Finally, if you have an older elementary aged child, you might want to read about the differences between middle grade and young adult fiction.
Let me know what I’ve missed or if you need more!
From CNN, here’s more on what makes a good children’s story–and therefore, how to choose a good one to read, buy, or give away.
As mentioned in post “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo,” good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, with some kind of problem in-between. In the article, Allison refers to that movement as “home, away, home” and it certainly applies to many classic children’s stories.
My favorite quote from the article is: “The plot isn’t just reassuring to children but also reinforces the lessons of good parenting.” That’s one reason I recommend reading to children so highly. It’s not just about improving their chances in school. It’s about improving their whole family life and childhood.
What was your favorite book as a preschooler? Did you or do you read it to your children?
Read the entire article here.