The Best Chapter Books Talk to the Heart

May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little Dog, LostI’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.

But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.

Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.

Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)

*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.

Every Day is Pizza Day

August 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

My having eaten a slice of pizza every day for lunch while I was pregnant may have something to do with the fact that my nearly two-year-old daughter is very, very obsessed with Pizza at Sally’s (Ages 2-4), by Monica Wellington. But given that my son was equally obsessed at age two with Truck Driver Tom, by the same author, it’s perhaps more probable that Wellington knows a thing or two about how to talk to kids.

At first glance, Wellington’s books might be quickly dismissed: the gouache, brightly-colored, and largely two-dimensional paintings could come off as a bit juvenile, perhaps not of the same artistic caliber as what I normally review here. But it would be a mistake to pass up these books. At closer inspection, the illustrations are packed with visual gems, including (in the case of Pizza at Sally’s) tiny photographs pasted in for fresh ingredients and even for the finished slices of pizza themselves.

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Quiet Time Was Never So Quiet

June 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

Let’s face it: there are times when you can’t submit to the chants of “Read to me! Read to me!” Perhaps you’ve just had a second baby and you’re looking for something to occupy the first. Maybe you’ve got a preschooler who is starting to give up her nap, but you’re still (desperately) hoping to institute Quiet Time. Or maybe your child is not quite reading but wants to feel like he is. Whatever your motive, there is hope: it is possible to get your non-reader to engage in quiet, independent time with books. Of course, there are some books that are more likely to succeed than others. And, as a bonus, these also tend to be the books that bore you to tears if you do have to read them aloud. You know the type: books whose illustrations are jam-packed with detail; books whose pages your child wants to pour over at such length that it seems like you’ll be stuck in his room reading to him forever. Take yourself out of the equation, and these books become—not your worst enemy—but your greatest asset. Right now a favorite with my almost five-year-old is In the Town All Year ‘Round (Ages 3-7), by German author-cartoonist Rotraut Susanne Berner. The book follows eight different places through all four seasons, inviting children to observe the changes that take place on a farm or at a town square or in a train station, to name a few. Beginning in winter and following through to fall, kids witness the different stages of a kindergarten being built from the ground up, see the changing holiday displays at a big department store, and watch the seasonal produce being picked and sold at the farm. With voyeuristic glee, they get to spy on three different families through a cross-section of an apartment building. Flipping back and forth all they want (after all, it’s their time!), kids can go back and answer their own questions like, When did that happen? or What was that like before? As if the spectacle of change wasn’t enough of a draw, each season begins with a page displaying a cast of characters to track along the way, a diverse group of ethnicities, ages, and even some animals thrown in for amusement. Captions below each character give clues like: “Will Suzie lose something while riding her scooter?” or “Who has thrown away a banana?” My son JP’s favorite seek-and-find characters are Lucky, a stray cat who’s on the prowl for mice, and Snowy, a pet dog that’s “on the loose again!” That’s right, my boy, you look for Lucky and Snowy, keep looking, just keep on looking…Mommy is verrrrrry busy right now.

So much to see: the beginning stages of a kindergarten building on the left; the changing exhibits of the town’s cultural center on the right!

Other Detail-Packed Favorites Perfect for Independent Perusing:
Richard Scarry’s Biggest Word Book Ever, by Richard Scarry (Ages 2-6)
Everything Goes: On Land, by Brian Biggs (Ages 3-6)
Look! A Book!, by Bob Staake (Ages 3-7)
Anno’s Journey, by Mitsumasa Anno (Ages 4-8)
If You Lived Here: Houses of the World, by Giles Laroche (Ages 4-10)

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