Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review

What to Read When by Pam Allyn
Avery Press (Penguin Group), 2009

Last night, it was my turn to put Red to bed. We read for half an hour – books she chooses – and then she gets to read to herself for fifteen minutes until lights out. Red doesn’t know how to read but she’s developed that book love that, to paraphrase a famous movie, is the start of something beautiful. It took awhile to hook her, unlike her older sister who taught herself to read at four; Red is a more physical, outward and gregarious kid than her sister was. But, the closer she gets to kindergarten, the more she’s gotten interested in being read to.

Her first choice of the evening was Harold and the Purple Crayon, one of many books her sister has graciously gifted her. Dusty’s moved on to bigger things, namely Inkheart and Harry Potter (I don't think I need a link for this one).

Harold is one of my most favorite children’s books. There are probably a hundred books in that category but Harold’s near the top. I am still envious of his power to create his world own with a simple purple crayon. He can draw a city, a tree, a dragon, nine pies (which flavors, I wonder?), an ocean. He can get himself in trouble and then rescue himself. All alone. No parents required. He has the utmost confidence in his abilities and when he’s lonely, he draws a friend.

I recently won a copy (through a contest held at the 3Rs) of Pam Allyn’s What to Read When. I was curious – I mean, we’re preaching to the choir here – to know what books she felt were important and when. Particularly, since Dusty is reading four grade levels above her own.

The search for challenging books with appropriate themes is becoming trickier. Dusty’s not ready for middle school books about puberty and sticky friendships involving boys. She doesn’t really want to know about sex and how babies are made. Trust me; we’ve ventured down that road before, inching along until the stop sign went up. So, I’m always looking for new books to introduce her to. At school, her teacher is encouraging her to read classics (rewritten for an elementary school audience, I assume) such as Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, and Robinson Crusoe.
So, when What to Read When arrived, I sat down with a pen to take notes and star new books to find for Dusty. The book is divided into three sections. The first (the preaching to the choir section) discusses the importance of reading to children, outlines how to help your child become a lifelong reader, and lists fourteen “Landmark Books” – books so important to the author, every child should read them.

The second section is a chronological listing of books to read to each age, birth to ten. The third section looks at books that fall into fifty themes. Oh, pardon: Fifty Essential Themes. Or rather, Forty-Nine, since Allyn wusses out and invites us to create our own essential fiftieth theme. I have a few beefs with that section but I’ll get to it in a minute.

First – Landmark Books. There are fourteen listed. I’ve read all of them. I’m sure you have, too. I agree with the author’s choices – only one of these books do I question as being “landmark” (Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman – is she our only token African-American heroine still? What year is this?) – but guess what isn’t there? Harold and the Purple Crayon. What is, you ask? Madeline, Charlotte’s Web, Pat the Bunny, Curious George, A Snowy Day, etc. The list ends with Harry Potter. The list is not so much wrong, as dated. And seriously limited. I don’t disagree with any of the choices but feel that way too many really important books were left out. And then, because this is a list that apparently covers the first ten years of a child’s life, I thought, gee, why bother? Fourteen books? Are you serious? Every single one of them, except Harry Potter, was written before I was born. And I’m well over forty. I suspect Ms. Allyn is, too.

I think she should have spent more time at the library, talking with librarians (and if she did, she must have gotten there via a time machine), because there are so many really wonderful books, books I consider modern “landmarks” (Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, for example; or The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle – which is not mentioned here at all), that have been written since 1966, that may get overlooked if one used this book as their main guide. Which, of course, it shouldn’t. It’s not a bad starting point for a parent who is not necessarily a hard-core reader. But it’s a decent place to begin.

So, I won’t belabor the point. More recent books show up elsewhere.
The second section is, to me, the most useful section. It divides books up by ages – and subdivides them by subject and/or theme. Books listed for birth to two include Goodnight Moon (on the landmark book list and published in 1947), some Eric Carles, some books about words and numbers and faces. The usual.

Since Dusty is my oldest child, and my most challenging in terms of her reading level, I was particularly interested in the lists for eight, nine and ten year olds. These lists include fiction, nonfiction, cooking, poetry, science, humor, plays, and art, among other categories (they differ for each age). Many familiar books are here: Bunnicula, Captain Underpants, David Macaulay’s Castle, Where The Sidewalk Ends, etc. But, these sections were also filled with plenty I was unfamiliar with: Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, to list a few. Almost every book listed under “Books for Building Complex Thinkers” (Age Nine), Dusty’s read already. But, just having three in that category that she hasn’t read gives me three more books to introduce to her.

The final section is entitled “The Fifty Themes: All the Best Books for the Moments That Matter Most.” A tall order. My biggest problem with this section was the way the headings – the themes – were alphabetized. “The Challenges and Joys of Siblings” is under C. I’d put it under S for sibling, since that’s the theme, not “challenges”. Ditto with “The Complexity of Sharing.” I’d also put that under S for Sharing rather than C for Complexity. What. Ever. You’ll have to refer to index to find what you’re looking for. A very strange choice.

I think that while this book attempted to do too much, it’s not bad. It’s a good place to start. While I’d agree that “Adoption” is a good theme (if it’s relevant to your situation), I’m not sure I’d equate it to “Bath Time.” Which underscores my biggest issue with this book: it’s trying to be all things for all ages. Readers, and parents, would have been better served with perhaps a series of books that really encapsulated the best books for narrower age groups.

Reading aloud to each age group is also different. When I read to Red, I’m frequently interrupted because she likes to point out letters. Or, I stop and ask her what c-a-t spells. With Dusty, I’m interrupted because she wants to know what a Receiver is and why it’s not necessarily a good thing to be one (The Giver). She likes to think ahead, guessing what might happen next. She might stop to look a new word up in the dictionary. I think that’s the kind of information parents need. Kind of the literature version of the What to Expect series on the care and feeding of babies and children. My children (almost five and eight-and-a-half) have different reading requirements, different expectations. Not that the introduction of What to Read When is lacking, I think the book's attempt to be all things is.

That said, there are plenty of books my children haven’t read that are listed here and that’s worth it for me. It’s not a bad reference at all but as a hard core reader raising hard core readers, it’s just not quite enough. Or too much. I can’t decide.


Jeanne said...

Hmm. If readers of this site ever wanted a group project, I see a book we should write--recommendations for pre-teens. Because there's lots of stuff to read that's not about young adult topics, just like it's possible to dress your little girl in non-sexy styles. We've already collected a lot of titles here.

Harriet said...

I think books of lists are nearly always problematic in this way. The best lists are dynamic. Maybe a book isn't the best medium in that case. I do think Harold is a stunning oversight. I do recommend Edward Tulane, however.

Unfocused Me said...

I echo the Edward Tulane recommendation. Why do you assume that the "classics" recommendations are in bowdlerized versions? I'm pretty sure I read Treasure Island and Kidnapped around third grade (my father is here this weekend, I should ask him). I'd happily give them to Unfocused Girl if she weren't so anti-pirate. I probably read Robinson Crusoe at that age, too, but I'd probably want to reread it before giving it to her because I'd want to be ready to talk about race as it relates to the relationship with Friday, etc. Now that I think about it, it might be time for Tom Sawyer, too. Can any of you think of a female character like Tom that might be age appropriate?

Harriet said...

I think I read Treasure Island in 4th grade. And The Three Musketeers too, which I adored. And The Count of Monte Cristo. Or maybe that was later. But my brother read them at a younger age than I did in children's editions and loved them too. He was a bit of a reluctant reader, so grabbing him with a good story but not scaring him off with unfamiliarity was important. The edited versions worked for him and sucked him in enough to make him want to read the full versions later. But there are some dreadful ones out there. When AJ was much younger, we got a version of Dickens' Christmas Carol with beautiful pictures for children. I hadn't realized that the text had been so shortened -- all of Dickens' beautiful, evocative language, all those phrases I could remember forever are gone. So I read from the adult version and let him follow along in the pictures in the book. But there are also, I think, some abridged editions that do a better job.

As for a female character like Tom, Mr. Unfocused, Jo March in Little Women is the first one that springs to mind from historic novels. Has UG read E.L. Konigsberg's A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver? It's about Eleanor of Aquitaine and it's a fantastic book. Her other books are great too -- I'm guessing she's probably read some of them -- but I think UG might like Eleanor especially.

FreshHell said...

Unfocused, the closest "Tom"girl I can think of is Pippi Longstocking. Has UG read those?