Sunday, February 25, 2007

Books, books, books

One of the greatest challenges I've encountered as a parent of an early reader is trying to find appropriate books. The ones that appeal to him topically are often too easy. The ones that are at the right level are often too far beyond him subject-wise. Just because he's reading at a level of older children doesn't mean he wants to read about them. He's still five. The resident book reviewer here at AJ's Clubhouse, Freshhell, and I have been trying to come up with a list of our favorite books for early readers under age 9. They could be read alone books, or read together books. We're working on our lists separately but will edit them together for a joint entry at some point in the future. We'd like your input: what are your favorite books to read to your kids? What were your favorite books when you were a kid? What are your favorite kid-friendly books to read right now? Which ones have the best staying power? When is it important to have just the right book at the right moment? What are your favorites to read aloud?

If you have any thoughts on any of these questions or if you have some related questions of your own, please comment below or email me at harri3tspyATgmailDOTcom. And thanks for helping us!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fun with Reading

Recently I was asked about resources to help a bright girl who has shown no interest in wanting to read. Her school thinks she’s learning disabled but those of us who know her better think it’s more of a combination of character traits. She’s extremely energetic and physical and doesn’t like to sit still to read when she could be building something or making something or moving. She adores being read to and seems to crave the physical contact being read to implies. We think she might be afraid that if she learns to read that she’ll lose her lap time. And then there’s her older sister who is “The Reader.” She read early and reads often. If the reluctant reader sees a picture of anyone reading, she always says it looks just like her sister. We think she may not want to compete on her older sister’s turf.

And so I’ve been thinking about things that made reading fun for AJ when he was starting out. I came up with a few resources, but mostly what we had fun with was making up games to play with words. As AJ’s reading has advanced, he still likes to play games with words. He loves to do Mad-Libs. He loves jokes and wordplay. And I love that he’s learned to enjoy language as much as I do.


• Scholastic DVDs with accompanying books. These videos are fantastically done and they are very faithful to the books and their artwork. Most if not all of them have a “Read Along” feature that allows you to put closed captions on so you can read as you listen. We own about 10 or 12 of them and have had many more out of the library. We love them all.

• Videos of Between the Lions

• Sesame Street videos

• Electric Company videos


We haven’t found too many computer games that are terribly good at inspiring new readers.

• Reader Rabbit is often recommended but we found it kind of lackluster. It’s too teachy and not fun enough.

• The Dr. Seuss computer games (there are several, all good)

• Arthur computer games. AJ liked the way you could click on things and surprising things could happen. There are read to me and read it myself modes.


Read aloud a familiar book while changing some of the words and see if she can catch you. It works best if you change the word to something really silly. We started off with changing rhyming words to something that didn't rhyme, so it was fairly obvious, but then we'd substitute other rhyming words.

Read aloud together and alternate words or lines. You can do this with any book, but try You Read to Me and I'll Read to You (there are also one or two sequels). It has stories that are written out for two people alternating with cute pictures. Andy really liked them. And they're designed for early readers.

Have her tell stories and write them down and read them back to her.

Have her write the grocery list and/or give her the grocery list and have her find things at the store.

Make an Alphabet Tree based on Leo Lionni's book of the same name. Make a paper tree and cut out one leaf for each letter of the alphabet and write the letters on them. You could also do a few extras of common letters. Hang it where it is easily reached and put blue poster putty on the back of the leaves so they can be easily moved around. Have her put them together and try to pronounce it -- it doesn't matter if it's a real word. Sometimes sillier is better. Or have her make crazy letter formations and you try to pronounce it. This same game would work with those foam letters that stick to the walls of the bathtub.

Using giant floor mat ABCs or large letters written on paper on the floor or on driveway in sidewalk chalk, shout out words and have her run and jump on the first/last letter of the word (whatever you ask for).

That’s our list. How about you? Do you have any ideas for things that make reading fun?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

February Book Review

Dusty loves projects. Particularly those of her own design made with all her assorted art supplies and other found objects. She’ll make Valentine’s out of season with construction paper, scissors, stickers and bugleweed flowers. She’ll make caterpillars from fuzzy balls, feathers and double-sided tape. Dusty also loves nature and has an inquisitive mind: What’s the sun made of? Could you ever fly there? What makes snow? If it’s too cold, can you just buy a new thermometer? Why does water turn into ice? What happens if you mix all the colors together? Once they’re mixed, can you un-mix them?

Recently, I found a couple nature and science project books to capture her enthusiasm. Not only are they full of things to do, and present new concepts to her, they give us excuses to do things together, as if we need the excuse. There are probably hundreds of books like these around, filled with similar projects, but the ones mentioned below are the two we’ve been working from lately.

Interestingly, both books are listed as appropriate for ages 9 through 12 but Dusty, a kindergartener, has thoroughly enjoyed both. She has probably spent less time actually reading the text than looking at the pictures and figuring out if we have all the ingredients necessary to perform the experiments. Do we have straws? Check. Paper cups? Check. Baking soda? Check. Then let’s begin!

The Kids’ Science Book – Creative Experience for Hands-On Fun by Nancy White (Williamson Publishing, 1995) was a great introduction to science experimentation and the scientific method. Its large format and page design allows for easy-to-follow and understand projects. The book is divided by basic science concepts: light and shadow, air, water, plants, etc. There are sidebars for further study aimed at older kids (or young precocious ones) such as making predictions and drawing conclusions, facts about each concept under investigation and information about the particular scientific specialty, and history lessons (inventors and discoverers) with titles like “Tools & Techniques,” “In Focus,” and “Science Talk”.

The illustrations are simple black and white drawings that don’t distract from the text and or clutter up what could have been, in the wrong hands, a messy collection of too much information. The prose is direct and to the point. It’s neither above the head of its audience nor does it talk down to them. A sample of subjects covered include the refraction of light and making rainbows, shadow puppets, water pressure experiments, and making marbleized paper (oil and water).

The thing I like best about this book, especially considering the suggested age range, is that the experiments themselves can be understood and enjoyed by any elementary school-aged child. There is enough here to launch anyone’s interest in a particular area of scientific study without going overboard. Older children dying to know more about a concept can read the sidebars (and move on to other books on the subject).

Dusty and I did one that involved freezing water. We poured an equal amount of water into two paper cups. In one, we added a teaspoon of salt to one cup and put them in the freezer. I asked her to guess which one she thought would freeze first. We then checked back at intervals (we did not proceed very scientifically; we didn’t check back at specific times) and noted what we observed: the plain water froze quicker. In fact, even after a couple days, the cup with salt water never froze at all. We talked about why salt and salt-containing chemicals are used to melt ice and snow from sidewalks and roads. We didn’t get into too much more detail but it was there if we’d needed it. This book is one you can come back to over and over for years and learn something new every time.

We also made a volcano. We made salt dough for the outside of the plastic bottle and then added water, dish liquid, red food coloring, baking soda and vinegar. While the “explosion” wasn’t quite as climactic as we’d hoped (we’re going to have to play around with the ratios of baking soda and vinegar given in the recipe), we still had fun. We left the dough volcano outside because Dusty always likes to “see what happens” when things are left to benign neglect.

The second book, Nature Crafts for Kids - 50 Fantastic Things to Make with Mother Nature by Gwen Diehn and Terry Krautwurst (Altamont Press, Inc., 1992) was just as fun but very different in look and feel.

The book’s sections are divided by season. Each section includes a number of projects which are specific to what’s found in nature (flowers, critters, snow, etc) during a particular season as well as groupings of the same basic concepts (rain/water, sun/heat, wind) that exist during each one.

The layout is clear and colorful, with step-by-step instructions, illustrated with photographs that show certain critical steps along the way. The “ingredients” for each project are clearly listed at the top of the page. The projects include birdbaths, pinch pots with clay, wild flower candles, wreaths, and bird food. They run from the simple and easy to accomplish (bark rubbings) to the more elaborate that require a bit more planning (sand painting and sun dials) with ingredients not necessarily found in the average household.

Dusty and I haven’t done much with this book yet (it’s winter and things of most interest to her involve spring and summer activities) but we’ve enjoyed looking at it and planning future activities. It might be a book I eventually buy so we’ve got the leisure of time to do as many as we want. I have a feeling some, like making sun prints, will be done over and over.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Po Bronson’s article in the February 19th issue of New York Magazine hit home for me. The article, How Not To Talk to Your Kids is about gifted kids who are afraid to fail and as a result often don’t try things they don’t know they’ll be good at that.

This sounded familiar. Also familiar: Bronson blames the parents. Parents are praising their children too much and about the wrong things.

The article recommends some advice that appears in many articles and tomes about childrearing: praise the action, not the child. Don’t say, “You’re so smart,” but “You did a great job figuring out that hard math problem.” This should encourage further action – it rewards the action rather than the person.

Despite my knee-jerk crankiness about articles that blame the parents (it’s just too easy; our inherent uncertainty and guilt makes us willing targets), this rings true for me. I’ve had innumerable conversations with fellow academics about how we all feel like frauds, how people have always told us we’re smart and how we all feel like it was some big mistake, that people just haven’t seen what we’re really like and that someday we will be revealed and humiliated. This is exactly why my dissertation is still not finished: I am terrified to turn it in. Because once I turn it in, it will exist only on its own merits, not on the promise of my intelligence. I am afraid that the answer will be, “What were you thinking? I thought you were smarter/better than this!” The fact that this exact thing has happened to several people of my acquaintance, several people whom I’ve always considered “smart,” has not helped me feel better about it.

Perhaps AJ’s fear of failure is genetic, at least in part. Or perhaps he’s caught it from me. Some of AJ’s fear is, I think, due to temperament. He wants to be in control. And who can’t identify with that? One of the reasons I think it is about temperament for AJ is that his avoidance of new things extends to foods. If he hasn’t tried it before, he doesn’t want to try it now. I assume he’ll grow out of this eventually. Boy cannot live on hot dogs alone. And as long as his pediatrician says he’s okay, I’m okay with his eating habits.

As a parent, I try hard to praise AJ’s actions not his intelligence, to encourage him to try new things. But what do you do when other people call him smart? His preschool teacher who used to come up to me when I’d pick him up and tell me what amazing things he did that day that she’d never seen a kid that age do before? The friend we met in the library who talks about how smart he is to others in front of AJ as if he isn’t there, as if he isn’t listening to every word? Or even his grandmother, who says it almost every time she sees him? How do you handle that? We’re not guiltless either. We slip sometimes. Maybe we shouldn’t have played into his incessant demands for quizzes and grades.

I was stunned the first time AJ asked for a grade. “How do you know about grades?” I asked. “I’ve seen you grading your papers,” AJ replied. And my stickers say “A+.” The stickers did – amongst the “Good job”s and the “”Nice work!”s there were some “A+”s. How could a three year old be worried about grades?

We played along for a while, but were uncomfortable with it. But we also thought it was kind of cute and funny. Lately we’ve been trying to wean him off of it. It’s hard going.

I’m also a little afraid that AJ is coming to associate “smart” with “more work.” Sometimes it looks like more of a burden. I remember that feeling from when I was a kid. I loved my “special” classes designed to develop my skills and my creativity, but I had twice as much homework as my classmates. AJ’s teacher keeps asking him to do extra reading to her in class, but he won’t because no one else does. Part of it is because he doesn’t want to look different. But part of it is also that he doesn’t think it’s fair.

And then there’s the fear that it’s not okay to try something and fail. Nobody likes to fail, of course, but it’s a skill to be learned like any other. How do we teach our kids to fail gracefully? We can tell them that trying is what matters, but how can we convince them that failing honestly is a virtue not a vice? Such a statement doesn’t carry weight in a world of stickers and chore charts and grades and performance evaluations.

So what do you tell your kid when he comes home from kindergarten wondering why he’s the only one in his class reading chapter books by himself? I usually just tell AJ that he learned to read at a younger age than most kids and that he’s had more practice. It kind of begs the question, but it usually satisfies. AJ loves to read, but he doesn’t enjoy the difference. He desperately wants his best friend to read too. He reads her stories. She likes that. He wants to help her with her words, but she doesn’t like it when he tries. But the day she reads her first book, besides her parents, there’s no one who will be more excited than AJ. Because it means he will have company.