Friday, September 27, 2013

The Power of Words

Richard Scarry

Perhaps no one knows the power of words more than a toddler just starting to name the people, places and things in his or her world. Richard Scarry's Best Little Board Book Ever taps into that instinctive wish and helps youngest children take control of their needs. 

Richard Scarry understood that by naming the things around them, children begin to gain power. They can ask for what they need. They may not always get what they want (how many times have we heard them say, "I need it" when referring to a coveted toy or sugary cereal), but they can in fact get what they need, and they can be understood. 

The author-artist takes that very basic desire to communicate and gives children a way to take control of their world. As Frannie the bunny goes through a day very much like readers' own, she describes waking up, getting dressed, playing with friends--all the way through to bedtime. Scarry gives Frannie a constant companion in a little green bug (the bug, too, has a doll to cuddle with). Later, in the story Daddy reads Frannie at bedtime, the little green bug makes a number of appearances and ties the entire book together. Scarry provides enough of the familiar to make the new vocabulary easy to digest.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Readers and Writers

The truth is, it's only by writing that we become better readers. We begin to appreciate what it takes to write well. In Thrice Told Tales: Three Mice Full of Writing Advice, Catherine Lewis gives concrete examples of what effect different approaches to writing may have on the reader. She does this by putting teens--as the potential writers--in the reader's shoes. 
My Bible in high school

Perhaps you, like me, used Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers as your Bible while writing in high school and college. The trouble is, it's a great reference for research papers, but as a guide to drawing in readers (or listeners, when we had to give oral reports in front of the class), not so much. If we were lucky, a good teacher pointed us to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. But Lewis wrote Thrice Told Tales especially for teens, and lets them in on the tricks of the trade for great writers, and also gives them the tools to analyze--as readers--why a piece of writing moved them in a particular way.

A godsend in college
(It also warmed the cockles of my heart to see a sentence diagram [illustrated by Joost Swarte] in Lewis's pages--it reminded me of Mrs. Hecker, my seventh-grade English teacher at South Junior High, who taught us how to do sentence diagrams. No dangling prepositional phrases for her students!)

Lewis gives writers the nuts and bolts (such as sentence parts, as with those fab diagrams) with Three Blind Mice as her framework--a tale they know well--to get them walking. Once writers have mastered that, she let's them run--with secrets to the craft. Through the use of metaphors, similes, point of view and more, she offers up not just definitions, but their actual use in context. Because Lewis provides a loose narrative of a trio of mice with different personalities, she often offers contrasting ways of expressing the same set of facts, depending on the perspective of the three observers. She also lays out a smorgasbord of styles from a wide range of writers, such as Dickens, Homer, and Hemingway. She models critical thinking for readers, and also demonstrates for aspiring writers how the choices they make elicit different responses from readers.

Catherine Lewis reveals the tools for good writing, and encourages young people who wish to write well to practice with these tools. Thrice Told Tales is for writers, readers and teachers; it's made for dipping in and out, for mini-lessons or for first-aid "how do I get out of this mess" writing crises. Put this in teens' hands, and see how they run.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Myths to Explain Our World

Have you noticed how the days are getting shorter? How it's sometimes dark when you wake up now, and the sun sets earlier? In The Time Fetch, Amy Herrick creates a captivating mythology to explain why this is so.

Eighth-grader Edward has disturbed a Fetch in the middle of December, "a dangerous time." The Fetch collects the stray minutes, the moments you won't miss -- and disperses them where they're needed. But Edward's interference puts the Fetch's job in jeopardy. The boy needs a rock for Mr. Ross's science class, and grabs the nearest one from his kooky Aunt Kit's backyard. Aunt Kit has raised Edward and, with a sense of foreboding, tells him to come straight home and offers him some cryptic words of advice, "It's the short end of the year," when "the curtain between here and there grows thin." As odd as her phrases seem, they begin to make sense to Edward--and to readers--as bizarre occurrences whirl around the Fetch. 

Amy Herrick
Photo credit: Breukellen Riesgo
The Fetch may be Herrick's invention, but she uses the idea of time's perceived elasticity to explore age-old ideas. Edward's Aunt Kit is the first to broach the subject ("Without time everything would happen at once," says she), then Mr. Ross introduces the topic of time as the fourth dimension (along with length, width and height). This may lead neatly into a discussion with young readers of how man has always sought explanations for things he cannot understand, from the oral tradition of the Aztecs to the controversial heliocentric ideas of Copernicus. Over the centuries, poets and scientists have always worked toward and continue to strive for a deeper understanding of how the universe works and where human beings fit within it.

The Time Fetch makes a natural complement to books such as A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle and Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, to further explore the nature of time and humankind's fascination with it over the centuries. And for adults and older children with a desire to explore these ideas, Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (an MIT professor of physics and writing) is a beautiful piece of bookmaking--a series of meditations on the nature of time, to be enjoyed in short bursts, to allow time for Lightman's ideas to sink in before reading the next chapter. (This was one of the early paperbacks to use French flaps--maybe even the first.) 

Amy Herrick, whose inspiration for The Time Fetch began with a conversation with a friend about how time seemed in shorter supply now than when they were small, provides a wonderful gateway into a larger examination of how the world works.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Music Feeds the Soul

Sandra Boynton
One of the great things in life is watching a child fall in love with a song. When that happens, nothing else exists. The child instinctively starts moving to the beat and singing whatever he or she thinks the words are. Sandra Boynton's Frog Trouble gives children a songbook filled with likely candidates for a lovefest, and it includes the words so they can sing along with the CD with confidence, and with her signature animal characters to amplify the fun. 

What child wouldn't fall for Dwight Yoakam's ballad of a dog named Hank ("I've Got a Dog"), who howls to his crooner-owner's "lonesome song" and doesn't come when he's called, yet sticks by his human's side. A plucked string imitates a canine whining sound, and the spoons performed by Peter and Gordon Scott evoke the do-si-do of the best friends' dance. The Fountains of Wayne extol the virtues of "big trucks and little trucks and long trucks and tall," for "delivery or long-haul." A "downshift" in "Trucks" lowers the key for the singers, while a command to "throw it into fifth" leads to a modulation up. In the songbook, a pig in shades sits at the wheel of a red pick-up filled to capacity with apples. Later in the songbook/album, more than a dozen of Boynton's porkers star in Ryan Adams' wistful interpretation of "When Pigs Fly." 

Boynton and Ford vary tempos and tones beautifully. They follow up the soulful "Heartache Song," performed by Kacey Musgraves, and "When Pigs Fly" with a honky-tonk tune called "Broken Piano" (sung by Ben Folds) and the hilarious "Copycat," for which kids will attempt to keep pace with lead singer Brad Paisley trying to shake off the relentless feline chorus sporting identical hats and green guitars. For children who love to dance with partners, Boynton includes the choreography for "The Alligator Stroll" (a chicken crashes the reptiles' line dance).

In Boynton's equivalent of liner notes, which adults--especially teachers and musicians--and aspiring young singers and guitarists will regard as a treasured process log, she reveals that Alison Krauss was the first artist they signed to the project, for the elegant "End of a Summer Storm." The musicians' stellar work on this selection led Boynton and Ford to request that they play the entire album. With the variety of voices, moods and rhythms, these musicians provide the through line, along with Boynton's playful illustrations and design. You may also enjoy Boynton's TEDx Talk about working on the album.