Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Newbery Winners and Where to Put Them

I haven't mentioned all of the Newbery winners that I've read (and blogged about over at The Newbery Project) for a long time. So here are links to some of the best of the ones that I've read in the last year:

The Twenty-One Balloons
, by by William Pène du Bois - won in 1948 and I think this is the most underrated of my favorites. It belongs on your shelf along with Jules Verne, and both my (then 11 year old) son and I loved it.

Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen - set squarely in the 1950's, I think this is another winner a lot of people have never heard about. Great story about the healing power of nature (think The Secret Garden).

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji - sadly, no boy (and few girls) over the age of 8 or 9 will ever check this out of the school library, and it was surprisingly modern and engaging for something that was published in 1927. Maybe you can find a copy published in the U.K., where it carries the title Chitra: The Story of a Pigeon. Seriously, this story of a pigeon was pretty darn cool. Who would have guessed?

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary - another book that sounded booooring but was fun. If you've ever written a letter to an author (or your child has to for a school project), you might enjoy this. And you don't have to be divorced or have divorced parents to like the book, either.

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field - yes, old-fashioned again (hey, it won in 1930), but surprisingly interesting, especially for a book about a doll. I don't even like dolls and I liked this a lot.

and finally, my favorite out of all of these: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman - this year's winner. I didn't want to read it at first, because I'm not a huge fan of horror, but the reviews (even before it won the Newbery) convinced me that I should give it a try.

The first chapter is scary - not graphic and gory, but definitely scary. And if one of your kid's anxieties is that people are going to sneak into your house and kill you all while you sleep, you might want to steer them away from The Graveyard Book for a bit. Anyway, because of the nature of the story, librarians are having a hard time deciding whether to put it in the regular kid's section or in the YA or Teen section.

The Ann Arbor District Library gets mentioned in this article as having

"hit upon the most Solomon-like solution to the problem — it classifies Gaiman’s book under Y for youth fiction, which is in between J for juvenile and T for books in the teen room."

I see that my local library (the Saline District Library) put it in the youth section ("birth through age twelve"). I kind of hope that they buy another copy and put it in the Teen section, because some of the comments on the School Library Journal article note that older kids don't want to check stuff out of the "little kid" section, whereas readers that are 11-14 years old are usually eager to venture into the Teen room. My 12 year goes happily back and forth between the two sections, but he's oblivious to some of the social rules and status distinctions that rule his peers.

I liked Roger Sutton's perspective on this. Really, though, you should just buy your own copy of The Graveyard Book, read it yourself (because I predict you'll want to read it again and again), and decide if your kids can handle it.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Another Good Reason for Kids to Have Recess

And for them to have trees and bushes and flowers and the like on a playground, not just flat grass, pea gravel, and plastic and wood play structures: there's good evidence that "interacting with nature" improves cognitive function, especially memory and attention. And if your kid has ADHD, the more nature the better.

I read an interesting newspaper article on this research last month: How the City Hurts Your Brain, by Jonah Lehrer (and kudos to the Ann Arbor Chronicle for it's blurb on UM research that lead me to this). Unfortunately, our recent weather (just how many mornings has the temperature been in the single digits or below zero?) has pretty much kept all of us indoors. We don't even have to go out to walk the dog anymore. And as much as I like WiiFit, I did suspect that it's just not quite the same as actually jogging, snowboarding, or taking a yoga class or walking to school.

Well, it's going to be above freezing this weekend, and I'm determined that we go on some of the "nature hikes" we had been doing that my kids complain about but seem to enjoy once we're actually out there. One of the authors of the study cited above notes that "People don't have to enjoy the walk to get the benefits. We found the same benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny over the summer as when the temperatures dropped to 25 degrees in January. The only difference was that the participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and the summer than in the dead of winter."

I wondered about the "urban walks in Ann Arbor" part of the study - I mean, Huron Street isn't exactly New York City, don't all those trees in Tree City help mitigate the stress of this urban setting? The study noted that participants walked in the Arb and at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens for the "nature" part of the study, which sounds good. I found myself wondering how a suburban neighborhood falls in this natural/urban continuum. And congratulating myself for buying a house on the edge of town, with its views of rolling farmland and a couple of barns and lunch trees.

I'm reading Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot right now, finding it much easier going than The Wordy Shipmates (yeah chapters! short chapters, even), if not as good historically. Her essay on "The Strenuous Life" touched on these indoor/outdoor themes, and as someone who would rather read than ski, ice skate, or even take the kids sledding, I found myself agreeing with her guilt about liking the indoors. Plus, this line made me snort:

What if I'm perfectly content that, on any given day, my only communion with the earth is watching the sun set over New Jersey or burning a "geranium jasmine oak moss" aromatherapy candle? (p. 194)

So I decided that I'm reading Bernd Heinrich's Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival next, and we'll contemplate hibernating animals while we slosh through the melting snow and mud sometime soon. Whether we like it or not.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Perhaps I took Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way! a little too seriously. I haven't blogged here since before Christmas.

Yes, most of my family did explore viral gastroenteritis in January. That's another excuse. I knew it was sweeping through my daughter's grade school. I suspected that it came on quite suddenly when we were at her school's Winter Carnival, when a nine year old a few people in front of us in line lost his dinner. At least his dad hadn't paid for that second piece of pizza yet.

And I've been busy shoveling snow. And putting plastic over our leaky windows. I'm glad to see the last of January.

I have been reading. Here are a few notes on what I've been reading since the beginning of the new year:

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett

This was a truly interesting book, if a little disjointed. The author combines an autobiographical account of his work as a missionary and a linguist among a group of Indians in Brazil (the Pirahã) with some classic ethnography and musings on linguistics theory, philosophy, and religion.

The Pirahã are really different, both culturally and when it comes to language. If you want to read about about some people that think about life in a fundamentally different way, this is a good introduction. Sleep, ambition, raising children, numbers - wow. It's hard to wrap your mind around their worldview, but even the little we can comprehend makes you think about your own life choices - this one of those things that is most seductive about reading good anthropology. And Everett writes better than most anthropologists.

Some might find the chapters on linguistics a little slow going (but if you've always wanted to read about Chomsky, Whorf, etc. this is a good introduction), but you can always just skim that and enjoy the parts about Everett's life and how the Pirahã change him. Whether their culture shaped their language or the language molds their lives is one of the points Everett discusses at some length.

The title comes from a Pirahã belief that sleep is dangerous, too much will make you weak and vulnerable to jungle threats. They get up a lot in the middle of the night, poke the fire, bake a potato, eat something, chat, etc. - an eight hour stretch of sleep is unheard of in their villages.

Right now I'm reading The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. How is it that I've never read anything by her before? It's wonderful. Puritans and the Brady bunch and shining cities on hills. But why oh why didn't she use some chapter breaks? And an index? I'm halfway through the book and wondering if she is going to mention The Witch of Blackbird Pond (isn't that how most older girls of my generation learned about Puritan life?), and I can't check the index. Hmpf.

Speaking of Newbery winners, I am still reading them for The Newbery Project. The most recent one (a re-read) was Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which was so good that until I started Sarah Vowell's book everything else suffered in comparison.