Wednesday, April 30, 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks - For My Family and Yours

This is my family.

We don't look like every other family on the block. We don't look like any family on the block, or any family that we know. We are okay with that - we are who we are, we love each other, and we are very happy.

But we do feel, on many occasions, that it would be nice to see ourselves reflected in the pages of the books we read.

And I know we're not alone in that. While there are some fantastic diverse books out there, it does take work to find them. It should not be that hard for a child to open a book and see all kinds of people represented - especially people who look like them, and like their family.

Enter the We Need Diverse Books Campaign. Conceived as a reaction to coming events at BookCon, the We Need Diverse Books project aims to communicate to publishers and decision makers the demand for books that represent ALL readers.  By coordinating activities via social media, the hope is to demonstrate how critical it is for kids to see themselves in the pages of the books they read.

The best part is - YOU can participate in this initiative as well. Over the next three days, May 1-3, let your voice be heard on this subject. Buy books to Diversify Your Shelves. Donate diverse books to your classroom or library. Take a photo of your family with a sign that tells why diverse books are necessary. Write a blog post, tweet, post a photo on Instagram or Facebook - find a way to shout to the world how important it is to have more books that mirror our world. No matter what you do, use the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks to add your voice to the conversation!

The team of brilliant authors, publishers and industry peeps behind this initiative, spearheaded by Ellen Oh, is listed here. Go check out these folks - follow them, read their blogs, buy their books and tell them how important this issue is to you! I'll be sharing as much as I can, through posts on Twitter and Facebook. And of course, we will continue to feature reviews on diverse books here on the blog.

My hope? That there will grow to be so many diverse titles on the shelves at my library and bookstore that we'll open a book purely by chance and read about a family that looks like ours. Not today - but maybe, if we keep the message going, someday soon.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Picture Book Review - Sparky! by Jenny Offill

My last post, on why I'll read nearly anything to Sprout (including books I hate), generated quite a lot of response. It seems some of you have quite a few feels on the subject of sub-standard kidlit, and what that looks like in your particular household. While I agree with most of the titles nominated, I am heartened to see that so many folks don't forbid the books but rather approach them creatively, whether that's making these titles something kids must read themselves or alternating a book that kiddo picks with one that mom or dad choose (that last is my own personal go-to).

I also found that it's mostly chapter books that cause the consternation, rather than picture books. I found that interesting mainly because we have only begun to dip our toes into chapter book waters with Sprout, and there are a few picture books he loved that I just could hardly tolerate. What is it about chapter books that makes it hard to get through one you don't like? The length, I'd guess - with a picture book, you can zip through it fairly quickly and even edit if need be. But with a chapter book, you're probably going to be there a while, making it a hard slog indeed. I'll admit that I'm guilty of talking Sprout into a marathon read-aloud session, just so we could knock out a chapter book he was digging that I was about to pitch across the room. :)

But today I'm sharing a book that I think adults and kids can both agree is a winner -- Sparky! by Jenny Offill & Chris Appelhans. Sparky! starts out like so many pet-themed books do, with a kid who wants a pet. In this case our heroine has been told by her mom that she can have whatever pet she wants, so long as it doesn't need to be walked, bathed or fed. Tall order, yes? Not for our girl, who does her due diligence with the school librarian and finds just the critter to solve her pet dilemma.

A sloth.

Of course we already knew Sparky would be a sloth, because he's on the front cover, but that hardly matters because the scene where he arrives via express mail, arms and legs poking out of a cardboard box, is a total winner. Immediately our girl is looking to play with her new pet, which in itself proves to be something of a debacle (Sparky's no good at Hide-and-Seek or Kung Fu Fighter, but he's aces at Statue.) Then neighborhood goodie-goodie Mary Potts comes over and gives Sparky a once-over, declaring him substandard. So our heroine decides she's going to show Mary Potts a thing or two and turn Sparky into a performer extraordinaire.

The results are predictable, which is what I really liked about this title. No, Sparky doesn't turn into an acrobat or perform amazing tricks. He's still a sloth, after all. And therein lies the brilliance of this title - that while we might wish our loved ones could transform into something else, we need to learn to appreciate them for what they are. I suppose some would see Sparky! as a bit of a downer for this, but I saw the opposite in it, especially in the last frame where our girl tags her pet as "it", sitting contentedly by his side. Sparky's not lighting up the world with his feats of bravery. He's just being what he is, a sloth, albeit one who has come to love his girl.

There's a lot here about adjusting your expectations, about being who you are, about discovering that life is all about adventures that take you down entirely different paths than you anticipated. And there's a really darn cute sloth, whose strength lies in his constancy. For my money, that makes Sparky! one of the most unexpectedly delightful picture books of the year.

Sparky! by Jenny Offill, published by Schwartz & Wade
Ages 4-6
Source: Library
Sample: "All week, we trained in secret. Sometimes Sparky slept through practice and I had to poke him awake. Sometimes he forgot what he was doing and we had to start over. / Sometimes he took so long to fetch that I went inside and had dinner while I waited."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

7 Gifts of Read-Aloud, Or Why I'll Read (Almost) Any Book to My Kid

Ohhhkay. So I think it's time to address the elephant in the room regarding kidlit. Because while you know that I love to celebrate all the terrific books that have been published for children over the years, you and I both know there's a certain dirty little secret among parents, teachers, librarians & kidlit fans.

Are you ready for this one?

(Come in a little closer, okay. . . . )

Some kidlit stinks.

There, I said it. And I'll say it again. There are oodles and scads of fantastic titles published each year, but in among all those wonderful gems are plenty of books that just -- ugh. I find myself rolling my eyes over the endless series entries, the movie tie-ins (I'm looking at you, Disney), the stilted nonfiction, the formulaic genre books, and especially those designed to get the shock factor going (bodily functions and undergarments are the staple topics of these little gems).

Two things got me thinking along this topic today. First were the Facebook comments that erupted after Scholastic Parents shared a post called The Most Important Thing to Remember During Read-Alouds, which just so happened to feature a picture of a Junie B. Jones book. Folks went off on Junie B., and all the reasons they think she isn't right for their kids (and some think she's wrong for all kids). And then came a post by my friend Erica of the excellent blog What Do We Do All Day?. Erica recently shared her post Books My Kids Love, But I Hate on Pinterest, and received quite a backlash from some folks who insinuated that admitting she hated some of her kids' favorite titles made her a "jerk".

Well okay, it seems to me that we have a couple of problems here. First, we have the issue of whether or not books are "appropriate", which is where the Scholastic post seems to be getting caught up. Right off the bat, let me just say that I would never dream of telling another parent what's appropriate for their kid. That is totally your business, not mine - just as I won't correct your kid for eating Froot Loops or wearing their pajamas to school every day, even though I don't let Sprout do either of those.

But it's my right to do what's right in my eyes for Sprout, just as it's your right as a parent to make choices you feel are right for your kids. And that's what sticks with me about those Facebook comments. Poor Junie B. was instantly classified by some as not "good" - and yet, there are others on the same thread who testified to the power of that series to draw in their kids and keep them hooked on books. Does that make Junie B. a problem child or a heroine, in the world of kidlit?

Second, there's the pushback that Erica received for stating that she doesn't like some of the books her kids reach for. Now this is just silly. Who among us can testify with certainty that there aren't some children's books that make you want to cheerfully remove your own frontal lobe? Erica's right up-front about the fact that she reads all of them to her kids (with the exception of one series - which was blackballed after a period of too much exposure for poor Mommy!). But to me her admission that she hates these books makes me love her more -- she is human after all, despite her fantastically inventive activities, which make me want to go to her place for a play date.

I'll state right now, for the record, that the Dinosaur Cove books Sprout is currently obsessed with are so inane as to make me want to read a Harlequin novel to cleanse my palate. But we've slogged through darn near all of them, and I'm dreading Sprout's request to reread them when we're done. I've suffered through Thomas books so long they've rivalled academic papers, and countless repetitions of Goodnight Moon and that whispering bunny. I don't complain -- too much -- when I'm asked to read dinosaur tomes, and I don't balk at reading the counting board books that still come off the shelf when I least expect it.

I don't love any of these things, and it's not a stretch to say that I hate them. Frankly, I'm not really a fan of Junie B., either, if only because I so much prefer Ramona and Clementine and Pippi and Anna Hibiscus. But read them I do, and I'll read Junie B. too, when and if she makes an appearance. Because more important to me than whether or not *I* like a book, is whether or not it's doing what it needs to do for Sprout.

Here's what reading aloud with your kids does:

1. Reading aloud teaches kids to associate reading with pleasure. 
The coziness and togetherness of a shared experience like reading goes a long way. The bond you'll develop is something they'll remember long after the boring series book is forgotten.

2. Reading aloud helps us slow down. 
This activity can't be rushed - it is by nature deliberate and paced. You have to stop, turn off the screens, and be in the moment with your kid. That focus is the gift of your time, a precious thing to help your child see how important they are to you.

3. Reading aloud develops literacy skills. 
Kids learn inflection, tone, emotion. They hear how the voice goes up on a question and drops to a hush at the end of a tense scene. All of this transfers when they begin puzzling out text for themselves.

4. Reading aloud exposes kids to vocabulary. 
They learn how to use familiar words in different ways, and figure out new words from context or by asking. Kids whose parents read aloud are exposed to much more language, and therefore tend to develop a larger vocabulary as a result.

5. Reading aloud offers opportunity for discussion. 
When a character behaves in a certain way, reader and listener have a chance to stop and talk about those actions. Was that a good decision? Was that language appropriate? Why did this happen, and what might happen if a similar situation came up in real life? Reading gives us golden moments to act out scenarios before they happen.

6. Reading aloud promotes exploration. 
Children typically experience books by hearing them long before they are able to read those words themselves. As a result kids can explore interests that might be a bit of a stretch, strengthening their comprehension and encouraging inquiry. Of course books need to be within the realm of appropriateness, but pushing the boundaries of age levels is completely possible in a read-aloud.

7. Reading aloud teaches us to share the magic of story. 
As humans, we crave story; it's around us every day, in the way we interact and the background we bring to each encounter we have. When you read to a child, you open the door of story, and help them find new keys to relate to the world they live in through the lessons they've learned in imagination.

I may not always love the books Sprout chooses to bring home, checked out from the library on his newly minted library card. But grin and bear it I shall, reading cheerfully even the books I least enjoy -- because the rewards for reading these awful books together far outweigh the cost.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Picture Book Review - Baby Bear Counts One

Kids and animals are a natural match, aren't they? Sprout's been fascinated by animals almost from the first day we met, quickly getting over his hesitations with our dog Maxie to the point that within a few days of coming home, he was imitating her behavior. Our early days as a family were cemented by trips to the zoo and watching squirrels out our dining room window. Once we started visiting the library, the animal books came home in droves - we went through obsessions with dogs, cats, sea creatures and now dinosaurs. Lately Sprout's become a collector of animal-related trivia; spend much time with him, and you're bound to learn all kinds of facts about peregrine falcons and even, as I recently found out, the African crested porcupine (yep, it's a real animal).

And I know Sprout's not alone in his love for critters, which is why I tend to share so many of them here on the blog. (Also, I really like them - and it's my blog, so there.) Today's pick is one that will be a huge hit with the youngest kiddos, because it marries a concept and adorable animals. Honestly, take a look at the cover for Ashley Wolff's Baby Bear Counts One -- can you even stand the cuteness??

This title's a follow-up to Wolff's Baby Bear Sees Blue, which as you might expect was all about colors. With this outing, Baby Bear is watching some strange things happen in the forest around him. The animals are preparing for winter, and Baby Bear is noticing what they're up to -- and counting as he goes. Squirrels drop acorns on him, prompting Baby Bear to count how many of the quick gray critters are cavorting around (two, as it happens). Turkeys are filling up on grapes before the cold weather moves in, and Baby Bear counts six of them. And the geese are flying way in search of warmer climes -- this flock is nine strong, by Baby Bear's reckoning. Fortunately, everyone accomplishes what they need to before the snowflakes fly. And of course, Baby Bear counts those too!

Wolff uses linoblock techniques for the striking images throughout Baby Bear Counts One. I'm not sure how the illustrations could be better - drenched in color, strong graphics, and plenty of little visual surprises that kids can pore over. This would absolutely work for babies and toddlers too. Best of all, there's such a lovely sense of fall running throughout. I'm fully aware that it's spring now, and we should be reading about bunnies and chicks and all things vernal, but Baby Bear is just too cute to resist. Reading this one, you'll be so drawn into the fall preparations that you'll probably want to do what we did and snuggle up in the blankets to share this book one more time through.

For creature-minded kiddos, for talking about seasons, or for just sharing a concept book that gives even more than just one-two-three, Baby Bear Counts One is a charming addition to any kid's bookshelf!

Baby Bear Counts One by Ashley Wolff, published by Beach Lane Books
Ages 1-3
Source: Library
Sample: "Deep down in the den, Baby Bear perks his furry ears. Thockthockthockthockthock! 'Mama, who woke me?' he asks. 'That is the woodpecker,' says Mama, 'hunting beetles before winter comes.' / Baby Bear counts 1."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Picture Book Review - Where Do You Look? by Marthe & Nell Jocelyn

Wow! It's awesome to have had such a positive response to my last post, which was a brim-ful list of terrific diverse board books for babies and toddlers. Thanks to all who shared this list. Stay tuned for more such lists in the weeks and months to come, to help all of us color our bookshelves just a little more deeply.

Tonight's pick, while not a board book, is similarly pitched for the younger kiddos in the bunch. I've blogged before about concept books, and about how hard it can be to find unique titles in this area of kidlit. (Not to mention that it's downright impossible to find diverse concept books!) Granted, concepts by their very nature are building blocks of larger life, so right there you have a basically elemental nature. But for kids who are ready to move on beyond colors and numbers, well, it can be tough to find books that are less than didactic. Which is strange when you think of it, because there's plenty of room for humor where things like the English language are concerned.

Take homonyms, for instance -- the subject of today's pick, Where Do You Look? by Marthe & Nell Jocelyn. I mean, homonyms are arguably the biggest troublemakers of spoken word in America. Having no facility for languages at all myself, I can't imagine how much confusion these sound-alike, mean-different words cause to non-native English speakers. The mother-daughter Jocelyn team have taken a really fun approach to this topic, by posing questions: Where do you look for a tongue? for instance (Answers: In a shoe? Or in your mouth?). The dichotomies posed here are all kinds of silly, and kids who might be picturing one thing will laugh when they see the other, like Sprout, who was absolutely picturing ocean beaches rather than departing passengers for the keyword "wave".

Even better, the collage style illustrations by Nell Jocelyn add a sense of whimsy to the word pairings. I'm a big fan of collage for picture books - I love the depth that the varying textures and layers add to the pictures. I also think it encourages kids to look at materials (fabrics, papers, yarn, etc.) in their world and consider adding such items to their own artwork. The pictures in Where Do You Look? are pitch-perfect for the text, and best of all they are very inclusive. Most of the word-pairing elements are woven into the final spreads, which gives a nice sense of tying everything together. Plus, not only are there lots of people of color here, there are quite a few wearing glasses, which makes me happy. :)

Add this to the shelf in your classroom or library and prepare for some awesome discussions about sound-alikes coming your way. Then you'll have to ask yourself, Where Do You Look?!

Where Do You Look? by Marthe & Nell Jocelyn, published by Tundra Books
Ages 4-6
Source: Library

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Color Your Bookshelf: 39 Diverse Board Books to Give a Baby or Toddler

I'm of the strong opinion that books are some of the best gifts to give families adding a new member. Onesies and diaper bags are all fine, of course, but books lay the foundation of early learning that rewards a child for his or her entire life. Also, books are a great choice if the child isn't a newborn. Sprout came into our family at 12 months old, and so it was hard to judge just what he needed, but the board books we got as gifts still occupy a prominent place on his bookshelf.

Generally I just do single-title reviews here on the Bookshelf, because I think each title is a gem and should shine all on its own. But I'm breaking with tradition to come up with this list of titles that make a perfect gift for anyone adding a baby or toddler to their family. Please note: these are NOT book recommendations solely for children of color. White kids need these books too. I cannot stress this enough. If we're going to raise global citizens, if we're going to foster inclusion and tolerance, we've got to start diversifying every single child's bookshelf. And we need to do that from day one.

So - on to the list!

First up is one Sprout adored as a baby himself, and which we've given to several families -- Global Babies by the Global Fund for Children. Babies love to look at other babies, so this is a sure-fire hit. We received two copies of this when Sprout came home, and it's a good thing because we've worn both out! Also look for other Global Fund for Children titles: Global Baby Girls and American Babies.

Another pair of titles Sprout read a lot as a toddler are the board books Whose Knees Are These? and Whose Toes Are Those? by Jabari Asim. Bright and cheerful, with colorful graphics, these simple titles speak directly to a young child's interest in his/her own person. And, they are super fun to boot. I can still quote chunks of this: "knees like these don't grow on trees!" Also fun are Asim's Girl of Mine and Boy of Mine -- all are illustrated by the incomparable LeUyen Pham.

We recently read Anna McQuinn's new book Leo Loves Baby Time, the companion to her series featuring African American toddler Lola and her little brother Leo. (It isn't a board book, but does have reinforced pages for small kiddos.) Though he's a little old for it now, Sprout loved revisiting these favorite characters and seeing Leo in the starring role in McQuinn's comforting and happy title. Lola at the Library is available in board book form, and we read it nearly every week, either before or after our Friday visit to stock up on books.

Cheryl Willis Hudson did a few terrific board books several years ago, and I'm glad to see they are still in print for families and libraries to add to their collections. Good Morning, Baby and Good Night, Baby deal with routines familiar to any little one, and it's nice to see African American kids in the main roles here. These are solid stories likely to earn a central place in your read-aloud routine. Also look for Let's Count, Baby and Animal Sounds for Baby, in the same series but maybe a little harder to find.

Two new books that are widely available, and which we just adore, are both written by Mary Brigid Barrett. Pat-A-Cake and All Fall Down sound like they are based on the familiar rhymes, and while there are some similarities, Barrett has put an entirely new spin on things. These are breezy, easy reads, bound to capture -- and keep -- the attention of a toddler. Oh, and if those illustrations look familiar, it's because the artist probably is: LeUyen Pham, whose work I was just raving about a little bit ago.

Another recent title that is a real visual treat is Julie Morstad's take on the poem The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson. I have a soft spot for this poem, it being my particular childhood favorite from Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. Morstad has reimagined this verse and set it in a classic format, depicting a gaggle of children experiencing the swing in various venues. I love that the diversity is woven so seamlessly into this quietly striking title, never feeling forced or premeditated, just natural, as all kinds of kids do love to swing!

Free Spirit Publishing has produced the "Happy Healthy Baby" series of board books by Elizabeth Verdick and Marjorie Lisovskis. Each one works well on its own, but giving the whole series to a family would be so much fun. Sprout and I read Reach, all about babies engaging with the world by reaching out. He liked seeing the pictures, which are striking black-and-white photos of babies of various ethnicities. The series also contains Eat, Move, and Cuddle, and every entry looks even cuter than the one before.

Little Scholastic did a line of board books a few years ago that are nicely diverse. We bought Welcome Fall for our bookshelf before Sprout joined our family, and he was pretty much obsessed with it for quite a long while. The series includes books for each season (Welcome Spring is a nice one too), books on manners like Please and Thank You and Uh-Oh! I'm Sorry and informative titles like My Body. There are interactive components in most of these titles, which really adds to the enjoyment for babies and toddlers.

A colleague recommended Karen Baicker's books to me, and they were among the first we checked out of the library, before Sprout was totally ready to handle books with paper pages. I Can Do It Too! and You Can Do It Too! stand alone just fine, but work quite nicely together. The illustrations by Ken Wilson-Max bring these titles to life, and the gentle reassurance of the message is a nice identity boost for all children.

Roberta Grobel Intrater wrote a series of board books called Baby Faces, and they are just about as cute as can be. The photos are gorgeous, clear and bold to draw the attention of little ones and keep it. Most libraries have these (or should - suggest if your library doesn't!) and I've seen them in many bookstores as well. We've read and loved several, including Splash!Smile!, and Peek-A-Boo!, and there are quite a few more. A couple of these books, plus some small toys and a onesie, would make a terrific basket for a new baby.

Rachel Fuller is another author/illustrator who has done several board books with diversity. Each title is bright and colorful, just the thing for stimulating a young child's curiosity in books. The stories are simple enough that kiddos won't get lost, which is a nice feature of books like these that truly are written to be board books. Most of the titles are geared around the addition of a new sibling, so they can work for kids of varying ages, something not all board books do well. Among the titles: Look at Me!Waiting for Baby (multiracial family in this one!), and You and Me.

We were fortunate to get some really terrific board books as shower gifts, some of which we still read together almost four years later. Among these was Susan Meyers' Everywhere Babies, illustrated by Marla Frazee. (This is available in a hardcover edition or board book - you can't go wrong either way, I promise you.) I adore the way Frazee incorporates diversity seamlessly into almost every one of her books, and this is no exception. Little ones will love looking at all the babies, and the sweetly sentimental text will appeal to their grownups as well.

No diverse bookshelf is complete without books by Helen Oxenbury. Her delightfully chubby babies and toddlers make the perfect complement to her simple phrases and plots. We loved so many of her board books when Sprout was younger, and even now I can quote large swatches of text from some of them. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was a gift from a sweet friend, a total classic that we read every night during bathtime. Say Goodnight, Clap Hands, Tickle Tickle, All Fall Down-- all of these are fabulous and bound to become part of a baby's daily book time.

You can't go wrong with any of the titles we've compiled above, so add these and other diverse titles to your gift list for new families. What are your favorite multicultural books to read with a baby or toddler?