21 June 2010

The Scent of Lemons

I recently read The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan; I truly enjoyed it for a number of reasons having to do with hope, enlightenment, and a better world view. One aspect I especially appreciate is the balanced tone. This is no easy feat when you consider the overall theme of the book: the prospect for Mid-East peace.

The author alerts you to his intention in his introduction. He sets as his goal the use of actual source documents as opposed to speculation. He wishes to suppress his own voice, since his voice has no weight in this story: what follows is admirable. When he focuses on Bashir, he uses Bashir's words and his paradigm. When he discusses Dahlia, he uses her point of view, her writing. When he tackles the delicate issues between them, he uses their words to each other, spoken as uneasy friends. He supplements with third-party writings and a review of events. Tolan's "handling" of the issue is to not have handled it at all, but to have laid the facts of the matter before his readers. In addition, he has done so while retaining the emotion, the angst, the pathos of both points of view. I came away with compassion for both sides, with love and respect for both families. I felt, in a small degree, the weight of the problem; I stood in the middle and was emotionally pulled in two directions. What better way to experience the nature of this thorny problem? I have learned more from this book than from all my previous reading combined. I cannot say when I have been better served.

Tolin looks at the lives of two families whose opposite but similar histories weave around the same house. A lemon tree, planted in the house's courtyard by the Arab family, becomes a delicate and poignant symbol of their shared and troubled dilemma. By chance, the two families lives intersect, when events bring Bashir, the Arab and Dahlia, the Jew, together in a tenuous friendship. Tolan makes a fine effort to retain a balance without which this story cannot be credible.

20 June 2010

A Fine Line

My friend Lisa and I were discussing books the other day and I asked her to name her very favorite book ever. To an avid reader this is an unfair question. It's a little like asking which of your children you love best: you like them all in different ways, corresponding with their different personalities and charms. Faced with the impossibility of this task, we tried instead to determine why one book is better than another.

I argued, "Does not the fine use of words make one book better than another, one author better than another?"
"No," she countered, "The plot makes the book."
"Ah, but how does an author develop a plot? Through the skillful use of words."
"Okay," she conceded, but then offered up an insight too: two very different handlings of a similar plot or event can produce very different but likewise satisfactory stories.

This would suggest a few things:

1) A fine use of words develop a fine story.
2) A good story lends itself to fine description.
3) Poor use of words can equal a bad telling, no matter how good the subject, but...
4) Erudite words with no real point are, well, pointless. (Scholars do it all the time!)
5) Words need to paint a picture.
6) Monet and Rembrandt are equally compelling in their genre.
7) Ergo, a good story and good telling are equally important.

When you pick up a book, ask yourself a few questions:

Do I find the style and use of words appropriate, i.e. entertaining, descriptive, vivid, etc.? Can I "see" the characters, for example. Do I understand them; do I understand what drives them? Can I feel mist (or spiders) on my face, smell the lavender (motor-oil), etc.?

Does the story interest me? Does it captivate me? If I am interested I can still leave off at the end of a chapter. If I am captivated, I am just finishing the last chapter the next a.m.

Am I willing to put up with some dragging of the plot? (Please say no.) There is sometimes a point in a book where you sort of regain consciousness - where suddenly you are aware that you are reading. Too often it is because the author has gone on and on about some small thing and your boredom switch was flipped. "Oops, here I am flipping ahead to see how many pages before the chapter ends and therefore I must have fallen out of the story." You know the point I mean. The parts of a story which need the most explanation are tricky for an author: how to make sure the scene is fully understood, without beating all the life out of it. (You mystery novelists will forgive the figure of speech.)

Do I come away a little changed? Does the story stay in my mind and why? Am I glad I read it or do I feel a little icky or a little cheated? Am I recommending it to everyone I see including my gynecologist or proctologist? (That, my friends, is when you know when you are obsessed with a book!) Or do I refuse to put it on my GoodReads updates because I am embarrassed to been seen as having read it?

Writers (and aspiring writers), give us plots that are ingenious and writing that is superb. Not much to ask. And in return, we will give you lavish praise to our plumber, 250 library circulations a year, multiple print runs, and that little slice of immortality - a NYT Bestseller designation. Tell me that's not worth a little extra sweat over your keyboard. And maybe one day we can say, without hesitation, yours was the best book we ever read.

17 June 2010

Choosing the Right (or Left): Using words to construct a social contract

When the United States Constitution was written, a number of men of wide-ranging beliefs and experience gathered together to labor under the exigency of securing their terribly important and hard-won experiment in ideal society. After extensive debate, they still could not completely agree, even though they had virtually all read and subscribed to the same overarching political philosophies. Why is this so? And what has it meant to us?

First, it is important to consider the broad spectrum of personalities and backgrounds. The majority were lawyers, but a good number were merchants, financiers, businessmen, or scholars. Many owned agricultural property; some held slaves, and others strictly opposed slavery. A few were clergy. Most were well educated. Either by virtue of birthright, or by exceptional motivation and intelligence, many attended the finest schools in the colonies. A good number rose from fairly modest circumstances and others were markedly wealthy. A few were first-generation immigrants, but at least one was a Plymouth pilgrim descendant. All were considered their state's brightest and best, and were likely elected to their seat in the Constitutional Convention because they represented the attitudes and expectations of their individual constituencies. Perhaps most importantly, all believed firmly in the importance of forming a free society that could endure.

This is where the dilemma arose. Each understood certain key words differently: freedom, democracy, republicanism, federalism, confederalism, to name a few. Probably every man saw the American experiment as unique, groundbreaking and an outgrowth of the human need to live according to the dictates of one's conscience. They just saw it in a different way, in different terms. Central government or loose confederation of states? A dominant executive, or a strictly apportioned senate? These consideration and hundreds more occupied them until they were worn down by the effort. In the end, each had to capitulate to the reality that they would never, could never agree. The final product was a study in compromise, somewhat unwillingly attained. Ratification by disgruntled states took over three more years.

The great genius of the Constitution is that the words everyone finally signed off on were so open to interpretation. So not etched in stone, so debatable. The lifeblood of the Constitution is not that is spells everything out. It is that it provided a sturdy enough framework that succeeding generations could build and rebuild within its principles to spell their own words - to fashion a government that works for all generations. Since its ratification, the Constitution has undergone 27 amendments. It is a testament to our faith in the original document that we do not take these changes lightly or come by them easily.

Even the founding fathers, with all their background in political philosophy, enlightenment theory, classical republicanism and Greek democratic ideology could not hammer out a precise document, because they could not predict future imperatives. Fundamentally, they all understood the necessity of self-determination but could not agree on the words which could exactly define each's vision of that goal. Nearly every man walked away from his signature deeply dissatisfied with the resulting document. In all their brilliance, they did not understand that the very ambiguity of the Constitution was its strength. To last it could not be inflexible: like a tall building built to flex in the wind, or move slightly with the shifting of the ground, the Constitution was built to both shelter and to stand.

Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

We are a shorthand society.

When we speak, we tend to use an economy of words. The better we know someone, the fewer words we seem to use. Spouses of fifty years can communicate with gestures, facial expressions, and body language alone. Athletic teams are coached with hand signals and one-word commands. There are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. As a situation becomes more familiar and routine, we need less detailed information in negotiating it. For example, when your teacher said, "Put your books away," a chorus of groans welled up from the class. Why? Because the formalized act of putting books away indicated that a test was coming. We blow kisses, point at our wrist, etc. for well-known shortcuts in conversation. Also, the human tendency seems to be to expend as little effort as a task reasonably needs.

Texting has taken a firm hold on the popular imagination, curious among a population at large which seldom writes anything. It is probably its brevity which so appeals to modern culture. In its way it is also a logical manifestation of the desire of the young to develop, through language, an identity of their own. Sure, adults text, but anyone over thirty probably does it incorrectly or apologetically. In any case, young or old, it is fraught with potential misunderstanding. Sb may be "stand by," "Sarah Brown" or "so bad;" ta could be a short goodbye or "thanks again" or "try again." Luckily, I suppose, texters feel they know one another well enough, or share enough of the same language patterns so as to be understood. Or perhaps the need to be perfectly understood has diminished. Speed of communication appears to be the goal.

In a business context, I have seen memos on the correct construction of a memo. While this seems a bit paranoid on the surface, it is also a reminder of the importance of clarity in a transaction which can have terrific consequences. When speaking of a contract, finalize has a vastly different meaning than terminate, which can, in some cases be clearer than saying finish. Strategy may be a better term than plan - more proactive and ongoing. Projection might be more accurate than prediction, sounding stronger and more controlled. A memo, by it's nature, is brief. The conveyance of a clear message in an abbreviated format can be critical.

It is often the written form which becomes the binding legal document, from docere; to teach or to prove. The effort of reading thus runs parallel to the development of understanding. When you read a love letter, the words have been chosen to evoke a sentiment and an emotional reaction. Therefore, it is imperative to use the collection of words which best conveys the desired understanding. The wording of a peace treaty must be clear and unequivocal; much depends on the understanding of all the signatories.

How important is the right word in crafting a sentence, both verbal and written? On the Titanic, the sailor on lookout used the words, "Iceberg right ahead," in reporting what he saw. He meant, as his testimony confirmed, that the iceberg was straight ahead. This may have been a common substitution, as his questioner doesn't seem to hesitate over the word. Written transcripts of his testimony then say that the ship started turning to port (left). Did they misunderstand, thinking the iceberg was to the right side, or was this just a 50/50 choice of direction to avoid the collision? Later evidence suggested that if the Titanic hit the iceberg head-on, it may have survived the impact, but the puncturing of its side insured flooding of the watertight compartments. It is much too simplistic to suggest that this tragic event came down to one word, but like the one domino falling, it may have linked the fatal sequence of events.

When Eric Burden sang "Please don't let me be misunderstood," he was singing of love. (I'm a little too young to identify with the Nina Simone version, thank you very much.) He also adds, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good." Think of it as a make-up letter in musical form. He admits to flaws and asks for love. Now there's an understanding you never want to leave to chance and shorthand, in writing or in speech, even if you've been married a hundred years.

So, learn to write a memo with precision; speak instructions clearly; follow up texts with the sound of your voice, and never, never text a love letter. Understand?

13 June 2010

The Magic of Interlibrary Loan

There are a few of you out there (you know who you are) who buy books. Theoretically, if you go to a top-notch bookstore, you can get them to order virtually any book in publication and even pay a little extra to have it come in the mail. And you can keep it! Move over Netflix. As great as this system is, it has a couple of flaws. First, you have to pay for the books. If you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, this probably doesn't present a problem. In fact, to save time, they could just buy a bookstore chain and hire someone to keep up with their Goodreads list for them. Or, you might take the view of Desiderius Erasmus who said: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." We book-lovers can identify with that, I think. However, I believe I have seen the consequence of this philosophy on those extreme hoarding shows. In a flabby economy, it is more blessed to borrow than to buy, to paraphrase St. Paul.

The second problem is that some very worthwhile books are no longer in publication, which means that you could go to second-hand booksellers, but still not be guaranteed a coveted title. Here you are writing your thesis on molecular changes in Artesian micro shrimp caused by cell phone tower emissions, and your public bookstore doesn't even have the book you need. Ridiculous! And if you do find the title, you may have to hand over your first-born child to acquire a copy. Not good. Not even if your first-born did just redesign the front quarter-panel on your new family sedan.

Enter the Public Library (Whistles! Applause! Victorious marching music!) and a charming little convention called an Inter-Library Loan (we in the biz remove the hyphen, so as not to sell out to the Man). With an interlibrary loan, you can request books from all over the United States. You can get bestselling novels or deeply arcane scholarly treatises. You can get limited publication editions, and out-of-print volumes. You can request and receive movies, magazine articles or whole magazines, music CDs and newspapers, in short anything that circulates in a library somewhere. There are a few items which are rare enough or fragile enough that the resident libraries choose not to lend them. In these cases, you can request them to send you photocopies or scans of a small number of selected pages. This last is useful if you are pursuing research and only need the specific reference. I once received microfiche which originated in Germany. Here's how it works:

Your library will usually have a link from it's homepage which indicates that this service is available and which takes you to a page explaining how to borrow. If you have trouble finding the link, call the library and they will happily guide you. Once there, the process will require 1) that you have a library card active in the system and 2) that you create an online presence. This latter is a facilitator; chances are the library already has the minimal amount of information it wants you to plug in here. It is merely an easy and efficient way to process your requests. They won't ask for any identifying birthmarks or tattoos, and the most intrusive information may be a phone or e-mail to inform you when your item arrives. Here's the best part - it costs NOTHING. Ok, once in a while, a library may have a fee for photocopying, but you can say up front that you wish not to pay. You don't even have to explain that your kid is at a private university and you are reduced to getting your newspaper out of the neighbor's yard. Most libraries will still send a small number of pages for free.

Once you are logged in to the ILL system, it will link you to WorldCat, a worldwide catalog which includes an enormous number of public and private libraries. You will search this catalog much as you would the one on your local library's webpage. Once you have identified and clicked on your item, you will see a link, usually highlighted in red, to borrow. Clicking on this link will carry over all the book information your home library will need. Since you are logged into your "account" the system will automatically know who wants the loan.
This account should also allow you to track progress, see what you have out, and see requests that are pending. Once you click "submit," the request goes to the ILL Genii.

The ILL genii in each library system sort all things out, send forth your request, receive and process the items and send them to your branch for pickup. Just think - the library book that touched the hands of Zac Ephron in L.A. could be in daughter Mindy's hands in as little as two short weeks. (Nah - he probably buys his books.) The loan period varies per library, but a temporary sticker or label on the book will give you a due date. To return the item, simply take it back to your branch library. (p.s. Don't think because the item came from a far away library that they will never know if you keep it - remote lending libraries are remarkably humorless and severe when it comes to a breach of faith such as this.)

So now even if the philistines in your local library fail to grasp the importance of owning every volume of Fungus Growing Magazine, you can still be up to speed. Is this a great country or what?!

09 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - The Serialized, the Standarized, and the Superficial

When my kids were young, I insisted they read one classic (what we call a "core collection" book in the library biz) for every two or three series paperbacks they read. As tyrannical as this may sound, my kids actually did not require much governance on this one - any child who is worth his or her salt as a reader comes to recognize rather quickly what constitutes an absorbing story. They so often chose truly interesting and well written books that I ceased to have to monitor the situation. We saw the series paperback as a sort of "rest period" between more challenging books. The idea is not to eliminate series books which kids obviously enjoy. The object is to challenge your children's reading ability by carefully evaluating the three Ss: the serialized, the standardized and the superficial.

Series paperbacks are books built on a basic formula: a character or group of characters performing a type of adventure or action, such as solving mysteries, playing sports, etc. The stories can be predictable and somewhat repetitive and demand little of the reader. They're not meant to be great works of fiction; they can be entertaining but not particularly thought provoking: a light read. Stories are often pleasant, and can teach positive values, or they may be silliness for the sake of it. If your children are unwilling readers, these may ease them into reading. Thinking back, I wonder if my enjoyment of comic books was inversely proportional to the disapproval of them by grownups.

Beware of the occasional series, adult and juvenile, where the big mission seems to be to crank out little money-makers as quickly as possible. I suspect that certain authors have a database set up which works something like the old Mad Lib books - the author fills in new character names, place names, verb here, adjective there, etc. and the database produces a "new" story. Admittedly, reading them is better than not reading at all. But sometimes not by much. Children's reading skills need a workout just as their bodies do.

When a book series becomes too standarized, it fails to activate a child's imagination. Have you ever listened to a band and thought that their songs all sounded kind of similar? Or watched a sitcom and felt like you had seen it before (or something very like it)? As the old joke goes: "I listened to a country song backwards, and my wife returned, I got the house back and my dog came back to life." Sometimes genres fall into a malaise, writing the same plot over and over with minor variations. It's as if they all attended a writing school in which they were given a set of plot parameters and told never to vary. If your child can guess the ending by the end of chapter one, they may not be sufficiently challenged.

There is apparently a fine line between elegantly simple and superficial, and some publishers are missing it. The library has a superabundance of books that propose to teach: ABC books, Count-to-Ten books, Name-the-Color books, etc. Some are sweet or clever or ingenious while some are lame and spiritless. Little does the average person suspect that they, too, could be a published author even if they have never picked up a pen. A (insert picture of Aardvark), B (insert picture of Bee), and so forth. As long as you can spell Umbrella, how hard can it be? Even if you are reading to a toddler, you don't have to bore them witless: after the first reading the child pretty much gets that C stands for Cat. There are too many authors who lean on a filler formula established in the misty past: teach children shapes, colors, ABCs and how to count to ten. Who cares if they're having fun? Almost as bad are the books which replace plot with repeating major characters who have lately arrived from certain daytime cartoon shows. Let's just say that brand recognition does not a true literary experience make.

Whether you are reading to your children or they are reading to themselves, a book should be well constructed enough that some element of it sparks the imagination, initiates a thought process, provides a surprise or an insight, or gets a laugh. Books are a window into all the great ideas that have been passed down through time - noble thoughts, beautiful places, character building experiences. Encourage your kids to choose the window with the view.

08 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I have always been a reader who loves facts. Sure, I have read my share of fiction and many of the good fiction writers make a laudable effort to get their facts straight. The reasons for my preference have a lot to do with personal temperament, reading philosophy and, simply, what interests me.

You might assume that most children read fiction, and you would be correct. Most children see nonfiction as "homework," and nothing takes the joy out of reading like that word. Nonfiction represents the assignment to report on an historical figure, or to explain global warming, or to tell why the Declaration of Independence was important. Fiction represents children doing cheeky stuff, having grand adventures, and laughing their heads off. To your kids, nonfiction is spinach, and fiction is chocolate cupcakes. Small wonder they prefer the cupcakes.

I am here to tell you that both have their place. Oh, sure, we could eat vegetables (read nonfiction) all the time and it would be so good for us. No cavities, no empty calories, no goofy, mindless stories. Ugh. What a dreadful way to live. As a kid, I thought dinners with dessert were a perfectly civilized custom. In fact, sometimes one eats steamed brussels sprouts primarily to get to the chocolate cupcakes.

Ok, now I'm hungry. Anyway. The point is that for a child to be intellectually well-rounded they should be encouraged to have some of both. Fiction can be very informative, but it can only go so far. Nonfiction can (oh, yes it can!) be engaging, but it is not usually a laugh a minute. So then the problem becomes one of how to get them to eat their broccoli, er, ah... read nonfiction and like it. Only the most inspired teachers can serve up fact-based literature and make it palatable. We all had those teachers who made the inquisition come alive, but did we have teachers who did the same for biology? (I did. His name was Mr. Belzeski and he taught at McNichol Middle School in Florida. I was a mid-term transfer and he made me enthralled with biology, no mean feat. He made nonfiction come alive and I love him still. Hats off to you Mr. B, wherever you are!)

Teachers can have a big impact on a child's love of facts, but it's a taste which must be nurtured at home. If parents are reading dime novels or technical manuals all the time, their children will have the same polar view of reading: throw-away pulp fiction or sleep-inducing "required reading." If, on the other hand, they set up the telescope with mom and dad, and look at the stars, and if mom and dad suggest/provide some well-written guides and stories about the stars and constellations, well, you can see that this provides a whole different insight into the world of facts. If dinner table discussions include current events, children will eventually develop a curiosity about them. If they see illustrated histories lying on the end table, they will eventually pick them up. See how easy this is?

Most importantly, nonfiction works must not be used as a club to beat them. "Susie, I want you to read this treatise on the War of the Roses, and write a six page summary or no dinner!" Or, "Instead of your favorite TV program tonight, how about a little Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire?" Allow your children to develop their own questions about the world and be on hand with the appropriate (and well thought out) books on their topic. Even if it's The World's Scariest Spiders, or Sixteen Bugs That Live on Your Face. (Relax, I just made those up. I think.)

Don't fret if they prefer Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I am willing to bet that there will be plenty of other future PhDs who will have read it too.

After all, truth is stranger than fiction.

06 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Content Matters

In my family's house, we periodically have the debate about music. I say "the debate" because I suspect a similar conversation takes place in many homes, especially those with adolescents, pre-teens, and teens. Frankly, the same conversations took place when I was that age in the 60s, and you can only imagine what my parents had to say about MY music. (Put your calculators away - yes, I am somewhat middle-aged and we'll leave it at that.) The conversation was sometimes about volume, but mostly it was about words.

Keeping in mind that these are the most undefined, angst-filled years your child is likely to have in a lifetime, it is important to understand the impact that words have on their development. These kids are searching for identity: from you, from their friends and from the culture around them. I don't think I need to remind anyone that of those three avenues for learning, parents are far and away the least cool (hip, jive, happenin,' down, tight, fresh, etc. etc.), even though your kids love you. As they struggle to not be you (no matter how much they may admire you) you will be struggling to have an impact on their development anyway, as you must. If your children are still young enough (i.e. listening to you at all) you may want to try to influence what they are reading. Books are one area that you can have an almost total look into their minds. If they are old enough to reject your book choices, try reading theirs.

This is actually harder than it sounds. If you show up at basketball practice reading the same book your son's friends know he is reading, it is the kiss of death for his cool quotient (or whatever they're calling it these days). If it's not a book you've already read, try to read it privately. You may have to pretend to just casually notice what they're reading and pretend you read it ages ago, and sidle into the whole BTW, what did they think of it? track. We all know what a mine-field these conversations can be, so try not to make your kids think you are being all Big Brother on them. Kids deserve a very wide range in choosing their own reading material. Censorship isn't the goal here. That said, you do have a right and an obligation to state clearly any objections you may have and why you have them. There are books extreme enough that you can object to having them in your home. Just keep in mind that kids will generally find a way to read what they want to read, and if you have taught them well and laid a good moral foundation for them, they will interpret what they are reading in the sound and moral way you hope.

In trying to set up a Father's Day book display one year, we bumped into a sobering fact. After you left the Easy Reader books and crossed over into Juvenile Fiction, the dads in stories became somewhat less than exemplary. Dads were more often portrayed as absent, abusive, clueless or dead. Try building a cheerful display out of that. The lesson here is to try not to freak out if your kids are reading heavy topics. But don't ignore them either. A conversational opener like, "Wow, that's a pretty heavy book," might be enough to get them to tell you about it. We all read stuff that bears no direct relation to our lives. The fact is, when your kids read stories (true or fictional) about how children experience hard things and fight through them, it can be inspirational. By having a look into the difficult lives of other people, they have a broader world view and can develop empathy and compassion. Possibly the only time you need to feel a threat is when they are consistently reading about the same heavy topics over and over. This could suggest, at minimum, that they have not resolved their thinking about an issue. It is probably not necessary to jump to the conclusion that they are involved in drugs because they read several books that have drug abuse plots or subplots. But it's possible they know of kids who are having these difficulties. When your children hide their current reading or their preferences, it may be time to be concerned.

It does not pay to be overly naive. There are some authors who would gladly pollute your children's minds if it meant making a buck. Sorry - but this really is so. Just like teaching your children to avoid bad people, you need teach them to discern when ideas are bad for them.

Your kids are just as likely to be reading about kids doing positive things. Often, it's more important how a book ends than what is going on in the middle, believe it or not (and within reason). My experience is that the majority of authors for children mean to clearly come down on the side of good and right; to reinforce positive values. On the up side, your children really do prefer to read upbeat, positive and humorous books. They like heroes, problem solvers, and the guy who takes the high road. They still boo the villains. Trust your children's innate goodness.

I am gratified by the number of parents who seem to know what their child prefers to read. Kids trust me to advise them on what to read next, so I have a pretty good idea too. Read what they're reading. Be interested in the topics they find interesting. Talk and listen. If you can keep your kids talking to you, the battle is half won. And take comfort in the fact that kids who read are kids who reason. Readers tend to make better decisions.

04 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Textual, Audial, Visual

When is reading not reading? When it's listening, or looking at pictures. Isn't reading technically the interpretation of established symbols (writing, ususally of a printed nature)? Is it? The august OED has several things to say about the verb read, definitions including 1) to look at and comprehend; 2) hear and understand the words of; and 3) to interpret the significance of. So, if reading includes all of these senses, then when your toddler takes in a picture book with you, they themselves are reading in two senses of the word, as you supply the third. And, as we know, this is an important stage in the skill of reading as we commonly accept it.

With that out of the way, let's look at the whole experience of reading.

Visual Reading

Have you ever watched the movie of your favorite book and found yourself a little disoriented? This is especially apt to be the case where the original book did not have illustrations. One of the great values of reading is the imaginary world we create of a story, woven of the bright bits and pieces of our own familiar experience grafted into the unfamiliar fictional world. We imagine the story - that is, we form images of how we believe it should look. (From the Latin imago - image!) Therefore, we are a little put out when Hollywood changes the picture.

The picture books we read to young children are interesting in their reading function. They are usually so overwhelmingly visual that they can almost subvert the story. They range from books which are only pictures - no words at all - to long pages of text, but all have a fairly predominant visual aspect. These are books that are most commonly read aloud to children, and, in so doing, give an important but preliminary reading experience. Illustrations which are informative (a letter B - with a picture of a bee, for example) can assist comprehension, whereas a picture of guitar-strumming flea might be considered fun but maybe not so educational. (And who cares? Not everything has to be a teaching moment.)

I have sometimes wondered if children who are non-sighted from birth experience a story in this same inner-visual way. I suspect not. It would seem to me that what a non-sighted child might imagine are scents, the sounds of voices, the feel of objects, etc. - things from a familiar realm. In any case, the experience must be different if a book is read to a child rather than being read by the child, sighted or not.

Audial Reading

I am a huge fan of audio format. I still get the enjoyment of the complete book because I am careful to use the unabridged versions. I think abridged copies are cheating; however, I am willing to concede that half a pie can be better than no pie at all. As an tool for interpreting written text, i.e. traditional reading, it is of marginal use, with one exception: many children listen to the unabridged audio versions as they follow along in the corresponding book. This works for children who are fluent enough readers to keep up with the speed and flow of a narration, and can help them with pronunciations and give them context for unfamiliar words.

Non-mechanical audio is the number one way to listen to a book. What do I mean? Why, human voice, of course. In hearing Mom or Dad or Sister or Brother read a book, the child not only perceives aural signposts, but is also cradled in the comfort of a familiar and beloved voice. And as a bonus, children pick up on cultural cues as well: vocal accent, local or regional pronunciations, and inflection. Shared responses to a story, such as a chuckle, a sigh, a note of concern make the story a group activity. In addition, parents have the opportunity to convey a sense of their own value system as they read.

One other form of audial reading has a curious twist: reading aloud to oneself. I have read aloud for a couple of reasons: to savor a particularly excellent turn-of-phrase, to impress on my mind a particularly salient point, or to use as a method to confirm my understanding. This later is a peculiarity of my own learning system. I find that reading a sentence aloud helps me clarify an especially difficult point.

Textual Reading

For most of us, most of the time, reading involves sitting silently with a book reading inside our heads. This is a completely different experience than the previous two. As noted at the beginning of this column, it is the place where our image production holds full and unfettered sway. I see my colleagues finishing up a lunch break by "curling up" with a book. The physical manifestation of this is varied. One young colleague has a style I admire - she is able to lean back in a chair with absolute unstudied relaxation, delicately balanced on the very cutting edge of falling, but completely comfortable, safe and sanguine and involved in a story heart and soul (and consciousness). She is the picture of peaceful enjoyment. It seems to me that such completely absorbed consumption of a good story is the pinnacle of what we wish to impart to our children. We give them a sturdy vehicle for a solitary trip to the stars, and a place to park the spaceship when they need the sound of our voice.

03 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Why Silly is Good

Kids' books have the most charming titles. Adult book writers could learn from them: Beauty and the Beaks; Click Clack Moo: Cows that type; Chicken Butt; Never Tease a Weasel - well, you get the idea.

Innocence and fun seem to be two words meant for each other. Children trust that all intentions are good, unless they are taught otherwise. They want to smile, even when a situation does not seem to warrant it. Happiness is the instinctive state of mankind - the one before we layer on all sorts of miseries and woe. I am certainly not the first person to state that the world would be safer, kinder, and more peaceful if child-like virtues took over more often. It is the innate wisdom of a child to wish to see a sunnier side of a situation, and a measure of our deep-down decency as adults to want to give that to them.

Seriously parents, what do you think will happen if you read silly books to your children? Do you think they will never take life seriously? On the contrary - life will force its seriousness upon your children soon enough. Are you afraid these books aren't teaching good values? Goofy does not negate the message. When "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out," her predicament satisfactorily illustrates responsibility as well as any grim pronouncement can. Why not laugh? Chances are, adults who are grumpy about a book's silliness could probably stand to be a little sillier from time to time. Don't worry that your kids will be confused about reality. Kids have as clear an idea of the absurd as you do. They know it's silly and that's the point.

There are a couple of other practical reasons for a dose of silly: for one, it gets them to read. Part of the great value of silly is that it is often carefully constructed phonetic word-play. Possibly the best known example of this is the Dr. Seuss brand of wacky naming/rhyming schemes and far-out situations. In taking your child outside the mundane realm of labored reading, he frees them to explore more imaginative thinking while he, in turn, is free to sneak in all the phonetic sound practice you could ask for.

Silly sells. If the title draws the interest of your little one, the rest is easy. In addition, when you read goofy nonsense to your kids, you laugh too. Kids feel better when they sense that Mom and Dad are enjoying the fun and the experience is enhanced all around. It's good when the reading experience seems less like eating one's spinach, and more like having a treat.

Silly words are still words. They still teach, and they still count as reading. Besides, you don't read solely for information - you read for fun. So Relax. Climb in a big chair with your kids and read yourselves silly.

01 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Advanced Readers

Some kids read better than others. And some kids speed through everything directed to children and need further material. What to do?

Enthusiastic readers will eventually outrace the usual children's fare. This can be problematic for a couple of reasons I will discuss later. The first order of business is determining whether your child is at this point.

In the library, the arbitrary, customary and theoretical and division between a Child and a Young Adult is approximately age 12. This is arbitrary because, as most parents know, there is no wave of a magic wand and *poof!* you're a young adult moment. And trust me when I say that the line between children's books and young adult books is more a chasm than a line.

In the children's section, Juvenile Fiction is the classification for chapter books, and these can range from very easy to fairly challenging. As a rule of thumb, kindergarten through third graders will be reading from a section of beginning chapter books called Easy Readers, so I am speaking of books aimed at the older kids, aged about 9 to 12. Reading skills vary widely, so that 7 year olds may be reading on a fourth grade level, and 7th graders may be struggling along in much younger books. Parents should have a sense of where their child falls in these parameters. In this discussion, we will deal with the more advanced readers.

Within a children's department at the public or school libraries, you should feel reasonably safe having children read any book on the shelves, with a few caveats. If you know that your child is more sensitive to sad, scary or otherwise intense situations, you might want to screen books using reputable sources. These can include the librarian, older siblings who have read the books, and reviews by professional reviewers. One clearinghouse website is BookSpot (http://www.bookspot.com/booksforchildren.htm) where you can see several links for evaluating children's books. Another valuable resource is a database called Novelist. It is a paid subscription site, but your public library is very likely to have a subscription which you can use from home (call your library for details). It is important to remember that, while children's books are monitored for rough language, gratuitous violence and the like, there are still apt to be some hard subjects for younger kids, such as hardships of war, holocaust, death, loss, divorce, etc. More important than just knowing what vocabulary your child understands and whether they can comprehend a story, is determining what kinds of information you are comfortable having them exposed to at this young age.

Generally, the problem for advanced readers is that they do comprehend very well, and have large enough vocabularies to require more of a challenge. They have read increasingly more involved literature until they reach the point at which they perceive some books as too formulaic, too predictable or not complex enough to interest them. The temptation may be to cross them over to young adult books, but this move should be thought out carefully. Young adult books often include themes that are usually not present in books for younger children. These can include drug abuse, sexual situations, graphic violence and language, and more. Information which can be cautionary for older kids may be downright frightening for younger ones.

Some series books appear in both sections of the library. A good example is the Harry Potter series. You may have noticed, or heard from others, or observed in the movies, that the storyline became a bit more intense as time passed (and with each ensuing book in the series). Hence, the earlier Harry Potters appear in the children's department, but the later ones are to be found in the young adult department. These designations are not accidental. Much review and debate goes into the decision of where to place books in the system. Long and short - be cautious in sending your 8 year old prodigy reader over to YA for books. Timmy may understand very well what he is reading. Perhaps better than you might wish.

So what can they read? Like it or not, this is where you as the parent may have to take a more active part. You can start by recommending books you have read which you find appropriate. If your child's tastes are different than yours (and this is almost certainly the case), you might research in the sources listed above for appropriate material. If your child is older and you want to carefully introduce books of a more controversial nature, you may have to read them also. Your child's mental development can be no more important to you than their social, spiritual or emotional development. If you can talk through issues, you will know when he or she is reading something they find troubling.

Children on the older end of the scale, say 12 or 13 years old, may be able to handle many of the classics, such as Dickens, Austen, Twain, and etc. You may need to be available to explain a few issues having to do with Victorian society (Dickens) or slavery (Twain), but these can be meaningful conversations.

If in doubt, ask the librarian. Especially in larger libraries, children's departments are staffed with folks who, by training and/or experience, are good at being up-to-date on what kids are reading.