Sunday, August 16, 2009

Read to Get Ready for School

The five year old daughter of my niece starts kindergarten tomorrow. (They live in California where they don't wait until after Labor Day to begin the school year.) Elise, like five year olds across the country, is excited about going to school but she is also a little bit worried about what to expect. She will do fine, I am sure, but I know how she feels. If it is any consolation to those of you who are starting school soon, I have never met a teacher who did not worry about the start of the new year. I know I will have trouble sleeping the night before school starts--both from excitement and from worry that things may not go as smoothly as hoped.

To help Elise and her mother and everyone else, here is a list of some of the picture books that I use at the start of the school year to help ease the worries and find the fun of school.

The two authors who come to mind first are Kevin Henkes and Rosemary Wells. Both of these well-loved authors have written many picture books about school. Look for Wemberly Worried and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse for those of Henkes' books that most relate to school worries. He has so many books from which to choose that you could spend weeks with them and get good advice for being young from them all. Wells is similarly talented in making life a little more understandable. The titles that first come to mind from Wells that relate to school are those about Timothy (Timothy Goes To School) and the stories about Yoko.

For those young ones with a good sense of humor and the ability to understand that rumors are often wrong, the Black Lagoon books by Mike Thaler (titles include The Librarian from the Black Lagoon, The Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon, The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, and many more) can be a great deal of fun. If your child will be scared off by tales of a librarian who laminates children and other evil school personnel, you might want to wait until they are safely ensconced in school routines before introducing these books, but keep them in mind when you want to laugh about these early school jitters.

Speaking of jitters, A Very Full Morning by Eva Montari uses gentle illustrations and a rabbit with expressive body language to make the point that everyone worries about the first day of school. This little rabbit named One Tooth can't sleep the night before the first day of school, but she dutifully gets up, gets dress, and heads off to the classroom. The illustrations are soft but the angles they take convey the worry inherent in the day. The surprise and reassurance comes on the final pages. One review I read warned that this might add to worries of some so read it to yourself if you worry about your worrier. (Pre-reading the picture book you are about to share with your child is always a good idea. Of course sometimes the persistent "read it now" is more important than that judicious scan.)

Froggy Goes to School by Jonathan London starts with an all too familiar dream. Froggy dreams that he forgets to put on his pants before setting off to school. After surviving such a humiliating dream, the real school day can not help but go smoothly.

The School in Murky Wood by Malcolm Bird distracts young students from their school worries by getting them looking for the monster students who use the school in the night time. These goofy looking monsters come out when all of the kids go home. They have classes that are similar to those that the humans take but with distinctly monster-ish twists. When I read this to a class I prepare myself for reports of monster track sitings for many days to come.

If you have a child who loves playing with language, Butterflies in my Stomach and Other School Hazards by Serge Bloch is just for you. Each page features a familiar idiom that applies to a young boy setting off to school. He "gets up on the wrong side of the bed" with "butterflies in his stomach" about going to school. He is asked about his "long face" and meets the "Big Cheese" principal. It takes a wise teacher to get to the root of his biggest concerns. It took a talented artist to depict each idiom as a literal statement while helping the reader to understand the implied meanings. This is a book that is worth reading again and again for there is much to discover and discuss on each page and in each surprisingly simple illustration.

Do you have a real worrier? The Worryworts by Pamela Edwards is not about school but it is about the wonderful world of worry. Wombat, Weasel, and Woodchuck want to go out to wander the world but they worry about what could go wrong. What if a whirlwind from the west whisks them away? What if wasps wander around them? Every what if is addressed with a wonderfully wacky solution. This book is one that our school counselor uses often with students who are worriers. It is a delight to read aloud because it goes well out of its way to use "w" words wildly.

I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas is a little too saccharine for my usual taste and the illustrations are a little too pastel. Nonetheless, I get a little misty-eyed when I read this reassuring little tale. Owen the pig is worried about being left alone at school. His mother tells him that she loves even when he is not with her and then gives concrete examples. It is sweet and sappy and sometimes just what is needed.

If you are up for reading something longer than a picture book, the Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park are funny stories about a mischievous little kindergarten girl. (In later books in this very large series she heads on to first grade.) Some folks get upset by her wild behavior and bad grammar but others love to laugh at her antics and find consolation in her coping skills. These books are written as first chapter books so if you read one to your beginning reader, she may take off with them on her own. (Boys are not as likely to want to try these books at first glance but I have had several boys that read them all once that first reluctance was gone.)

See my earlier post about Jump Start Camp for a few more titles that you might want to try as well.

Parents need reassurances about the first day of school, too. I am sorry that I don't have any books just for adults to help you cope. Enjoying any of these books with your child should offer you plenty of support. Take a minute on the first day of school to meet some of the other parents and get comfortable with the school. You will be spending a lot of time there and you need to feel as comfortable as your child does.

A Room Full of Laughter

Years and years ago I saw a book called Children's Faces Looking Up. This book by Dorothy Dewit is out of print but is something of a classic of storytelling ideas. Unfortunately, I did not grab a copy of the book when I first saw it. (I had no idea at the time that I would "grow up" to be a school librarian with an interest in storytelling.) The title has stuck with me and comes to mind often when I am telling stories or reading to a group of children. Those faces looking up are one of the greatest joys of my job.

An even greater joy, however, comes when the entire class spontaneously bursts into laughter. That doesn't happen often. Usually there is at least one child who is either disengaged or just does not get the joke.

On Friday at Jump Start Camp, the magical room full of laughter occurred while I read Monkey With a Tool Belt by Chris Monroe. I have read this book several times before and while the kids always enjoy the story, I have never had such a simultaneous roar of laughter.

The monkey in the title is named Chico Bon Bon (for the rest of the day several children called themselves Chico Bon Bon--it is a catchy name, don't you think?). He is never far from his trusty tool belt which is illustrated in great detail, pointing out tools like a monkey wrench, a donkey wrench, a turkey wrench, and other real and imagined tools. In this first of the tool belt series, Chico is captured by an appropriately evil-looking organ grinder. Chico uses his tools to mastermind an escape. It was when we got to the part of the escape that involved a large hammer coming in contact with the organ grinder's big toe that the room burst into laughter.

Is there any better sound than 19 children laughing with pure delight?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Getting a Jump Start

This week my camp is designed just for the folks who will be in Emerson's kindergarten this fall. We have 19 four to five year olds (mostly five), all of whom are worried and excited about school.
This is over 50% of the class that will start in September. Mrs. B., the music teacher, and I are thrilled to be getting to know so many of them and begin some very special friendships.

Let me start by saying, that we are favorably impressed with this group. Yes, we have had some tears and some behavior that could have been better but mostly we have had happy, helpful, clever, charming children share the past four mornings with us. This morning's recess included soccer players, monkeys on the monkey bars, folks (mostly of royal lineage) setting up housekeeping while making sure all the rock/dishes were washed and put away, and a stealthy few who were doing secret reconnaissance missions. How's that for variety?

One of my favorite things about this camp is getting to know the incoming kindergarten students in a relaxed atmosphere. We spend a lot of time outside plus have time for stories, games, songs, and crafts. Some of these times are more relaxed than others. Today we had what may have been the greatest chaos of any Jump Start Camp to date. We had a brilliant idea to make rain sticks using items we found in the general camp left overs. There were this wonderful, heavy cardboard tubes that we knew would be perfect. Then we found some parachute material in bright colors, some strong rubber bands, and rice beyond its optimum eating potential. Perfect? Not quite. We underestimated how much rice the kids would feel they needed to make the best rain sound. Our counselor and junior counselors had to go do other things, so Mrs. B. and I were on our own for much of the time. The kids needed help with the rubber bands. They needed help pouring rice. Those who finished first decided to test the rain sticks with vigor. A cup of rice easily overcomes a simple rubber band when the it is shaken with enthusiasm. Out came the rice--often flying in every direction or, to one camper's delight, in a nice square on the floor. This is when members of administration decided to visit the camp for a meet and greet. Let me say, that we have a wonderful new head, assistant head, and admissions director. They jumped right in to help the kids make their rain sticks and then listened to the more rain than people who live their entire lives in a rain forest probably ever hear. The kids loved the craft. They loved the cleaning up even more. So chaos was fun.

Just to sneak books in here, let me briefly mention a few of the books that we have enjoyed this read. Getting ready for school is a popular topic with this group.

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child is one of my favorites. I like it so much that I overlook the fact that the two characters in it are now best known for a TV series. Lola is convinced that she does not need or want school. It is up to her big brother Charlie to counter her arguments that she does not need to count or read nor does she want to be all alone at school. The illustrations of all of Child's books are fabulous collages and this is no exception. It is a humorous, friendly way to address many of the concerns about school.

Minerva Louise at School by Janet Morgan Stoeke never fails to get a laugh. It shows school as seen through the eyes of a chicken. From Minerva Louise's point of view the school is a barn with the farmer running his laundry up the flagpole. She finds nesting boxes (cubbies) and is impressed by how decorated they are, though she worries about an egg (baseball) that seems to be neglected by its mother. The kids loved catching all of her mistakes and then thinking of what else might confuse a chicken.

One of our campers is named Simon so he was particularly impressed with I Don't Want to Go to School by Stephanie Blake. Simon (in the book, not our camper who is very much a boy) is a rabbit who tells his parents "No Way" when they announce that he will soon start school. This phrase is repeated throughout the story. It did not take long for every child listening to me read to join in every time Simon said "no way!" My favorite part of the story is that after his mother leaves Simon first cries a little but is soon drawn into the school day, having so much fun that when it is time to go home, he says, "no way!"

There are many more books about school, but those are the ones we have read and enjoyed in Jump Start this week. We are ready for school to start. I hope others are getting into that mind set, too.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Schwa Worth Knowing

Last night I finished reading a unique middle school/young adult novel--The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman.

It is unique first and foremost because good, humorous, realistic novels for boys of this age are few and far between. This is narrated by an eighth grade boy in a style and voice that rang true for me. (Of course, I have never been an eighth grade boy, but it surely sounds like the eighth grade boys I hear talking in the halls of school.) There are other books that try to capture the voice of middle school boys who are toying with the idea of being interested in girls, but aren't quite sure where to begin. The first that come to my mind are those in the Bingo Brown series by Betsy Byars. The immediate difference is that while Bingo Brown narrates the story the voice is all too often the voice of the female author. It is more of a book about a boy that is written for a girl. (It is also a favorite of mine. You might want to read those books and compare.) While girls will like the Schwa, this books is clearly by and for males.

The premise of the story is not unique--Calvin Schwa is a boy who is looking for his long missing mother and trying to figure out his own place in the world. The development of that idea is unlike any I have ever read. As Anthony (Antsy) Bonano tells it, the Schwa is nearly invisible even while in plain sight. People just do not notice him. He seems to appear out of nowhere, surprising even teachers, despite his hand waving in the middle of the classroom. There are some great scenes of the boys (Antsy and his two best friends Howie and Ira) testing how invisible the Schwa is, proving the effectiveness of what they dub the Schwa effect. Things get complicated when both Antsy and the Schwa are interested in the same girl and more interesting when the Schwa sets out to be noticed by the world. Antsy steps in to heal their friendship and help find Calvin's mother. The story is touching at times, but not too often as the boys know they must rise above sentimentality.

For all that going on, the story is uniquely funny. The chapter titles give away the twisted humor that runs through the story with titles like "Vortex in Aisle Three--Can Someone Please Clean Up the Ectoplasmic Slime?" and "The Weird Things Kids Do Don't Even Come Close to the Weird Things Parents Do". (Isn't that last title a bit of truth that is often overlooked?)

Read The Schwa Was Here. You will laugh and then want to go put a schwa somewhere just to spread the joy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Hunger Games

This morning I finished a young adult novel that was compelling from the first chapter to the final words that promise a sequel. I found it very difficult to put down and can clearly understand why I have seen more than one middle school students re-reading it for the umpteenth time.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins draws on classic literature like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game. In this future society located in what used to be North America, the twelve outlying districts must submit one boy and one girl to participate in the annual Hunger Games. The participants are chosen by a random drawing to be sent to the Capitol where they will compete to the death for honors and wealth for themselves and their district. They essentially are sent out to hunt each other, using whatever skills they have accumulated in their short lives. Some of the children in the more affluent districts train for the event; those from the poorer areas learn survival skills from necessity.

The games are the government's way of reminding all the districts that their should never be a rebellion because the government has the power to crush all who question them. Years earlier there were thirteen districts who dared to unite to try to destroy the dictatorship of the Capitol. District 13 was destroyed entirely. The remaining districts are carefully watched and kept subservient.

Kitmiss, the narrator of the story, steps forward to go to the games when your younger sister's name is drawn. Kitmiss has long been breaking the law by sneaking into the woods with her friend Gale to hunt for the animals that keep her family alive. Joining her is the baker's son Peeta, a boy who she scarcely knows except for a memory that when her family was starving he gave her some bread. The spectacle that they now join reminded me first of The Miss America Pageant with its carefully choreographed show, right down to clothing designed to show off the special qualities of the districts and the high pressure interview session. Then it becomes the lowest possible reality show. The twenty four young people are set out in harsh terrain to not only kill off their opponents but also to survive all that a carefully controlled version of nature has to offer. Yes, just as Survivor and other TV shows do, the contestants have sudden obstacles thrown in their path and horrendous twists of rules and fate are carefully coordinated by the Gamemasters. The entire nation is forced to watch all of this on live television and in highlight summaries throughout the several weeks of the competition.

This could have been a gruesome book, as tortuous to read as the story it tells. But it is not. It is exciting and thought provoking and ultimately a tender love story. Pick up this book when you have time to devote to it. You will not welcome the call to supper if comes when Kitmiss and Peeta are close to starvation.