Monday, June 30, 2008

A dirty book is rarely dusty.

How true that aphorism is in our house! We don't have many (any) actually dirty books in our house, but scatologically humorous ones abound. Dav Pikey's Captain Underpants books are immensely popular with my kids and their friends. We've checked a book out from the library a few times about a farting dog who uses his gas heroically. Believe me, they do not sit lonely and unopened on the book bench awaiting return to the library. I bring this up because I have been trying to do some phonics work this summer with my son who will enter kindergarten in September. It is not going as easily as it did with his older siblings and he does not particularly enjoy those ten or fifteen minute interruptions in his summer days. However, he can spell "poop" and "gas" although many common sight words elude him. A joke about peeing in the grass made him actually fall down on the ground laughing this weekend. Am I crazy to consider slipping some bathroom euphemisms into our daily "word work"?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Worth the Wait

Yesterday I left my kids' swim meet sore all over. No, I wasn't in the lake with the swimmers. My shoulders ached from the big bag of towels, snacks, camera, and sunscreen. My feet hurt from three hours standing on a plastic dock in paper thin flip flops. My hands hurt from clapping, my throat was raw from cheering, and my ears were happily tired from the applause and cheering around me. Here's what I love most about summer swim: often the loudest applause is for the slowest swimmer. There was a mighty roar for my five year old as he completed 25 meters of backstroke, using a kickboard, after what seemed like a week. Throughout these meets, the spectators and swimmers from both sides cheer the hardest for the littlest and the slowest. Another mom and I were trying to articulate why that is. We think it has to do with the effort. How can you not encourage someone who is trying so hard? And in sports like swimming and track and field, that effort is so plain to see.
I came home from the meet and Googled "Rick Reilly and cross country" until I found "Worth the Wait," a column from his very popular Life of Reilly column in Sports Illustrated. I had read it months ago in Reilly's funny, inspiring, opinionated, and scathing (when on the topic of Barry Bonds) collection of columns called Hate Mail from Cheerleaders.
"Worth the Wait" is about a high school cross country runner with cerebal palsy named Ben Comen. It will make you feel good and make you think twice the next time you think something is too difficult to attempt. It is certainly worth looking up on the Internet or checking the book out of your library to read it.
I'm going to get you started with the first few paragraphs here:

"Why do they come? Why do they hang around to watch the slowest high school cross-country runner in America? Why do they want to see a kid finish the 3.1 miles in 51 minutes when the winner did it in 16?

Why do they cry? Why do they nearly break their wrists applauding a junior who falls flat on his face almost every race? Why do they hug a teenager who could be beaten by any other kid running backward?"

Okay, go now. Read the rest. It's worth it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Dads Doing Their Best

Before I sat down to write about nonfiction on Father's Day, I spent some time thinking about the books I had loved as a girl. Many of them (To Kill a Mockingbird not included) had either no father or an absentee father (Little Women, Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, to name a few).From there, I began thinking about books I've read recently with characters who are either exceptional fathers or at least trying their hardest. The following are four books I've enjoyed greatly. In fact, I reread two of them. In each of them, there is a father who has earned my admiration and remained in my thoughts. I would strongly recommend all of these books for high school students. Actually, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was on my sister's required summer reading list a few years back. (Speaking of my sister Ana, she graduated from high school on Tuesday night and we're all quite proud of her!)

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I firmly believe that the word haunting is obscenely overused to describe books and music, but is justified here. The Road tells a tale of a father trying to get his son to safety in a post apocalyptic world. He has to protect the boy from roving cannibal armies, starving, poison, freezing, and despair. It blends a raw fight for survival with acts of heartbreaking tenderness.

  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This book is a slow read in that you will want to reread lines, mark meaningful passages, and turn down page corners to go back to later. Preacher John Amos has lived most of his life in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. He becomes a father late in life, knowing he will not likely live to see his son into adulthood. Gilead contains what he wants to teach that son. It makes the reader care about that particular father and son and think about fathers and sons in general.

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is by turns funny and bleak, inspiring and frustrating. Fifteen year old autistic savant Christopher Boone, mathematical genius and social misfit, sets out to solve the mystery of his neighbor's dog which has been killed by a pitchfork. Christopher has extreme behavioral issues including a limited emotional range and an aversion to being touched. You can imagine the challenges his father faces. Haddon does a fantastic job revealing the father's tenderness towards his son as well as his disappointment.

  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini tells the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Afghanistan and Hassan, the son of a servant in Amir's home. It also tells the story of Afghanistan in the early 1970s to the Taliban rule of the 1990s. Amir and his father eventually emigrate to the United States but that doesn't result in an easy, happy ending. The geopolitical story of The Kite Runner is very sad, as is the personal story of guilt and the burdens of parenthood and responsibility.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Penguin Fun Continues

We have just finished another penguin book, Penguin Chick by Betty Tatham, illustrated by Helen K. Davie. This contains much of the same information as Penguins, but is considered vastly superior to my readers for two highly subjective reasons. First, it is inscribed, "December 2006, Merry Christmas to Ethan! Love, Grandma and Grandpa" in my mother's exceptionally neat printing. Her printing wows them every time. How does she get those letters so perfect?! Second, this book presents the following information about Rockhopper penguins, "The mother lays two eggs but can raise only one chick. The stronger of the two chicks survives." My children could spend hours debating which of them would survive if humans were like Rockhopper penguins in this way.

What I really like about this book, in addition to the illustrations, are two extension activities suggested by the author at the end. She explains how to lie on a smooth surface and attempt tobogganing like a penguin and putting a raw potato on your feet and shuffling forward like a penguin father carrying his egg.
These would be fun to try in a classroom or library storytime setting as well as at home.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Slim Pickin's

Yesterday I took my children to Blockbuster with a coupon for a free rental. With the savings from the free rental plus about a buck, I let each one pick out a small snack. Back in the car, one child looked at the DVD box, one went back to reading Harry Potter 3 and the third, thinking he had nothing to read, began to annoy the rest of us. When told to stop that, he decided to read the back of the package of Slim Jims (a smoked meat snack) he had just purchased.

Every parent who has a child who has learned to read, has inevitably had to deal with a question such as, "What does this word that starts with an f mean?" when the new reader goes into a bathroom stall or public park and encounters graffiti. I had to deal with some equally (in my opinion) disturbing questions when my son read out the ingredients of his Slim Jims. Most notably, "What is mechanically separated chicken?" Once we theorized what that might mean, he asked "Why is the chicken in Slim Jims mechanically separated but not the beef? Does someone separate the cow by hand?" Needless to say, during the movie I ate some of my daughter's candy and did not partake of the Slim Jims.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


We're in a penguin phase here lately. Now that they are home on summer vacation, my kids have rediscovered Club Penguin on the computer, they've asked me to rent Happy Feet again, and Hayden's new penguin beach towel cannot get through the washer and dryer fast enough for her. This morning on the drive to church, my older son read Penguins by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld, a Scholastic Science Reader, to my younger son. It is informative with great photographs and lots of facts about penguins, including the following tidbit, "The mothers soon return from the ocean. Their bellies are full of krill. They pass the krill up from their bellies to feed their new babies."
I was asked what "pass the krill up from their bellies" means. Once I explained, these two comments were loudly and simultaneously voiced:
"That is so cool!"
"That's disgusting!"

I've seen a book called Mr. Popper's Penguins on a number of suggested reading lists for school aged children. I'm thinking the time is right for me to check it out of the library and see if anyone in my household wants to read it. If they do, you can be sure I'll report back here.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Little House, Big Issues

When the kids and I started Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, I honestly had no idea it would spark such interesting conversations. Laura describes her aunts' preparations for the big dance:

They helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby's corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers. "Pull, Ruby, pull" Aunt Docia said, breathless. "Pull harder." So Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder.

My kids wanted me to explain how these corset contraptions worked. I explained them and how a tiny waist was the fashion even though very uncomfortable to the ladies at the time. "That is stupid," declared my nine year old son. My daughter wanted to know why they didn't want to wear something stretchy. Alas, there was no spandex back then. This led to a discussion of what people do today to look beautiful or cool. We all weighed in on what we feel is stupid or reasonable to do to oneself in order to look good. Who knew you could go from the big woods to tattoo parlors from just a few pages' reading?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

America's Champion Swimmer

All three of my children are on the summer swim team at our local lake. It is a fun and healthy, family friendly summer activity. Yesterday was the first practice of the season and the first practice ever for my youngest son. Last night was the perfect opportunity to read one of our family's favorite picture books, America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle by David A. Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener. To be honest, this would be the perfect book to read on the first day of any new challenge or to inspire a new challenge.

Born in New York City in 1906, Gertrude Ederle did not learn to swim until she was seven years old. After she nearly drowned as a child, her father was determined to teach her. At first, he tied a rope around her stomach, held onto the other end and put her in a river. She took to the sport, to say the least. She won her first big competitive race at the age of fifteen. She won three medals at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. At this point in the book, in addition to enjoying captivating illustrations, my children have absorbed some important lessons. The first is that she didn't learn to swim until she was seven and didn't compete until she was a teenager, but that did not hold her back. The climate around kid's sports today is so hyper competitive that kids are "specializing" by age seven and have personal coaches and trainers by ten.

Gertrude's story gets even better. By 1925, she decided to take on the ultimate swimming challenge at the time- to swim the twenty mile wide English Channel. Only five men and no women had made it all the way across. Here are some more lessons in the book: geography and setting goals for oneself. She failed in her first attempt, but tried again on August 6, 1926. Adler's book shows Margaret, Gertrude's sister, greasing her up before the swim to protect her from the icy water. It also shows the encouraging "This way, Ole Kid" and an arrow pointing to England that Margaret chalked on the side of the tugboat which accompanied Gertrude on her more than fourteen hour swim. The illustrations and details of her sister's support are tremendously moving to me.

In the end, Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel, fighting rain, wind, and a strong current, in fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes, beating the men's record by almost two hours. Although there was no Nike or Gatorade endorsement waiting for her, Gertrude did receive a ticker tape parade, joyously depicted by Widener's painting, and much praise from common folks and dignitaries alike.
America's Champion Swimmer is a beautiful and inspiring book. Adler and Widener also teamed up on Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man which also delivers a story of American history, personal heroism and athletic greatness.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Library Peeves

I love the public library! I love them in general, and I love the one here in my town. The library is the greatest thing since sliced bread or maybe the wheel. It's the bomb. It's all that and a bag of chips. However, you run certain risks when checking books out of the library. For instance, last night I finally got all the kids in bed. I picked up the disaster area which is my home. I folded a load of laundry. I put on my pajamas and curled up in bed with my reward- the excellent book I recently got from the library. I'm very into this book. Things were cruising along great until page 182. That is when pages 183, 184, 185, and 186 went AWOL. Aaargh! Is anything worse than that? I mean other than those mysterious stains on the pages of library books that make you read really fast past them while thinking, "Please be spaghetti sauce!"

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nonfiction Continued

After I wrote about nonfiction yesterday, I took a look at our bookshelves. Here are a few of the nonfiction books Bill and/or I have read and enjoyed in the last year or so. All would be suitable for teenagers as well.
Alexander, Caroline The Endurance about Shackleton's Antarctic expedition
Philbrick, Nathaniel Mayflower
Philbrick, Nathaniel In the Heart of the Sea We have recommended and given this one to other people a lot.
Bascomb, Neal The Perfect Mile about the race to run the four minute mile
Roach, Mary Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Hays, David My Old Man and the Sea
Davis, Sampson The Pact
Krakauer, Jon Into Thin Air
Kurson, Robert Shadow Divers
Greenlaw, Linda The Lobster Chronicles:Life on a Very Small Island

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day!

Three of the greatest dads I know are my husband, my father, and my brother George. All three do a lot of reading, making shopping for birthdays, Christmas, and Father's Day pretty fun for me. There's not much I enjoy more than browsing for books. However, my husband and brother only read nonfiction. Left on my own, I would rarely stray from the fiction and cooking sections of the bookstore. Selecting gifts for them has been eye-opening. In recent years I've found books for them about oysters, lobsters, sailboats, mountain climbing, soldiers, religion, ice hockey, submarines, music, dogs and more. Happily I've gone on to borrow and read some of their gifts. Later today, my husband will be unwrapping a book about the restoration of a wooden sailboat and one about the connection between the human brain and music. There's a lot of good nonfiction out there! Unfortunately, not enough young people are reading it. I've read some articles and studies lately about how many high school and college students report having never read a nonfiction book other than assignred chapters in textbooks. This affects not just their body of knowledge, but their ability to process written information. So much of what we read as adults, from how to manuals to the newspapers, is nonfiction. In order to make sense of it, we need experiences with nonfiction writing. Clearly this is not an issue for my husband or brother, but it shouldn't be for anyone with the wide range of nonfiction books out there today.

The one I plan to read next is It's Only A Mountain:Dick and Rick Hoyt, Men of Iron. I love the story of this father and his physically handicapped son who have competed in numerous marathons and the Iron Man triathlon. I use a magazine article about them when teaching my fourth grade religious education class and have cried while watching them compete on television and YouTube. This book about them has come highly recommended and I'm looking forward to it. If you are looking for a very last minute idea, it seems like an excellent Father's Day gift.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bears in the Big Woods-Ho Hum

According to my dad, as a child he used to ask my grandfather if there were still bears roaming around when he was a boy. That was his gauge of how old his father was and how wild the landscape was in those olden days. That particular measure would not work for my own children. We share our wooded suburban New Jersey neighborhood with numerous black bears. We've seen them go through our garbage and climb our trees. The morning after a barbecue last spring, one very large bear comically licked tortilla chip crumbs from my front walkway. These are not, however, the deep Wisconsin woods of the 1870's. From our front door we can be at a Starbucks, Home Depot, or Burger King in minutes.

So as we continue our nightly reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, the bear stories fail to awe my children. For years, I'm sure Wilder's tales of run ins with bears have impressed children and helped them picture a wilder, more dangerous United States. My kids hear stories of bear encounters almost weekly, told by soccer moms drinking lattes at school functions. Ho hum.

Here is the detail which impressed upon them how very different Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood was from their own: "Laura and Mary had never seen a town. They had never seen a store. They had never seen even two houses standing together." Never seen a store! They refuse to believe it. To my daughter, whose third or fourth word was "mall," this is an impossible concept to wrap her head around.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Best Morning Ever

Around 9:30 am, my five year old son Ethan announced that he was having "the best morning ever!" His summer vacation has begun while his older siblings were still in school. The best morning ever included drinking a YooHoo in the living room (with a warning to keep that on the qt) and being read to from The Avengers: The Dream Team. I just don't get it. The YooHoo, yes, but not the superheroes. I can admire Storm, Iron Man, the Hulk and the others' colorful costumes (outfits? uniforms?) and their powers, but the plots all seem the same to me. Not Ethan. He loves to hear the stories, retell them, and act them out. Even though I'd much prefer a good picture book read with him, I'm happy to share our morning with Marvel comics because I love to see my little boy so engaged by any book. And if I'm willing to provide more YooHoo, and play the role of Giant Girl in a reenactment, this might be the best afternoon ever (for Ethan).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I just finished a fantastic book that would be a good choice for high school juniors and seniors. It is the autobiographical The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine who suffered a stroke that resulted in locked-in syndrome when he was 43 years old. Afterwards, he was paralyzed and only able to communicate by blinking his left eye. It is hard to imagine this graceful, beautifully written book was dictated by blinks of an eyelid. Clearly that and all of Bauby's experiences must have been frustrating to say the least, and yet The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not filled with bitterness. It is wistful and humorous and thoughtful. Bauby describes the experience of locked-in syndrome as being caught in a diving bell, but ultimately, it is the butterfly, the power of the mind and spirit, which triumphs. The butterfly soars through memory and imagination. Bauby travels from his hospital room through memory and in flights of imagination.
Why is this a good choice for teenagers? It is short which is often a selling point. It is well written but never difficult to understand. It is inspiring. It puts one's own problems in perspective when considering Bauby's. Finally, although written by a Frenchman in his forties who had led a cosmopolitan lifestyle before his stroke, it forces readers to imagine themselves in Bauby's condition and how they might handle it.
Sadly, Bauby died just days after the French publication of the book. Recently, it was adapted into an award winning film. I'm curious to check that out next.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Like Kids in a Bookstore

About ten years ago, I signed up for a credit card which offered reward points to a large chain bookstore. I was teaching at the time and redeemed the reward money to buy books for my classroom. Now that I'm home with the kids, I'm certainly not jetting off on vacations, so the bookstore reward points make more sense for us than a credit card which offers frequent flier miles. On an average month, I receive about a fifteen to twenty dollar gift card with my monthly statement. This past month saw a lot of credit card purchases due to a bathroom remodel we are doing. The result: after a trip to the dentist yesterday, the kids and I went to the bookstore with $70 in rewards bucks to spend. After much deliberation, hemming, hawing, and even an eeny-meeny-miney-mo between two options, this is what we came home with:
* Half Magic by Edward Eager
* My Last Best Friend by Julie Bowe (these two are for a birthday party)
* Sloop:Restoring My Family's Wooden Sailboat-An Adventure in Old-Fashioned Values by Daniel Robb (Happy Father's Day, honey!)
* Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith
* Time Spies Secret in the Tower by Candice Ransom
* The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn (chosen for its spooky cover and Willis, my older son's middle name, is in the title. Take that, marketing experts.)
* Whittington by Alan Armstrong
* Inky the Indigo Fairy and Heather the Violet Fairy both by Daisy Meadows. Finally, Hayden's Rainbow Magic fairy book collection is complete.
* the most precious purchase: Marvel Adventures' The Avengers:The Dream Team written by Jeff Parker with many art credits. My five year old has been tenderly cradling this one in his arms and proudly showing it off to everyone he meets in much the same way his father and I did with him as a newborn.
It was a quiet ride home from the bookstore. The only sound to be heard was the flipping of pages.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Frindle and the Pen Permit

On a recent afternoon at the park, I overheard my son and some of his friends discussing their pen permits. Several days later another group of third graders at the bus stop was overheard quizzing each other to see whose teachers had issued pen permits yet. I had to ask: What is a pen permit? Apparently, if you can demonstrate good penmanship, mastery of certain basic spelling words, and some level of responsibility (the requirements vary from teacher to teacher), you are issued a pen permit. A pen permit allows a student to complete classwork and homework in ink. Hitherto, these kids could only use pencil in school. They all told me that they still must use pencil for math.On this point, it seems the teachers were all clear and in agreement.

This buzz about pen permits put me in mind of Tom Sawyer tricking kids into whitewashing the fence by pretending it was fun and not work. At least for a few weeks, the third grade teachers have used the novelty of ink to get their students enthusiastic about schoolwork. The use of subterfuge, coupled with ballpoint pens, put me in mind of Andrew Clements' Frindle, a near perfect chapter book for second through fifth graders.

The protagonist, Nick, is a genial, mischief making fifth grader. He likes to "liven things up at school." He could be called a troublemaker. I suppose that depends on what side of the teacher's desk you sit on. Nick decides to introduce a new word into the English language and common usage. The word is "frindle," and it means pen. What begins as a bit of fun, develops into a battle of wills between teacher and student and moves outside of the school, involving local politics, businesspeople, and national media.

There is lots of good stuff going on in this book. The tension between characters is believable, the plot is clever, and Brian Selznick's illustrations are terrific. There is a bit of a surprise ending too. I especially like how Clements gets readers thinking about language and the power of words. My own children and the high school students I used to teach have asked me numerous questions along the lines of Nick's, "Who says dog means dog?" Frindle taps into the interest in language that many kids have.

Friday, June 6, 2008

More of Would You Rather

Would you rather not be able to do anything to clean up in the morning except brush your teeth OR be able to wash your whole body except not be allowed to brush your teeth?

Would you rather be able to talk with all animals OR speak all foreign languages?

These questions came from You Gotta Be Kidding!

Feel free to answer in the comments. Or maybe you would rather not.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

You Gotta Be Kidding!

When writing about books my son has given as gifts, I forgot to mention one of the best little books my son has ever received. It is called You Gotta Be Kidding! created by Randy Horn with Stephanie Ring and Marissa Fierz. It contains 304 "Would you rather.." type questions. For example, would you rather be known as a thief or a liar? There is one question on each page, accompanied by sidebar information. That particular question is partnered with facts about physical clues that might reveal a person is lying.
From what I've read, the book has been adapted from a popular board game. I'm sure playing it is fun, but a pocket sized book filled with these ethical, hygienic and thought-provoking dilemmas has provided us with plenty of entertainment. My son and his siblings and friends have had hours and hours of fun with this book. It has made many a car trip and school bus ride fly by. I know they really like the disgusting questions such as "Would you rather let someone sneeze directly into your open mouth OR have someone clean your ear with his tongue?" What I really like is when they close the book and pose questions of their own creation.
This one makes a great stocking stuffer or birthday gift, but would also be great for a kid who has a hospital stay in his future or a long road trip ahead. I can even imagine a teacher or camp counselor (who is not afraid to discuss bodily fluids) using You Gotta Be Kidding! for icebreaker and conversation starting ideas.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Little House Update

The kids and I are continuing our nightly reading of Little House in the Big Woods. Fortunately we are past Butchering Time and the lengthy description of the loading, reloading, unloading, oiling, and cleaning of Pa's gun. This means the "What the H-E-double hockey sticks is this?" look is finally off my daughter's face. We've read about the Christmas when Laura finally got a rag doll and the girls played in the snow with their cousins.

The book also sparked a great discussion of corporal punishment. Pa recounts a story from his own childhood which ends with his father thrashing him with a "stout switch" for misbehaving. Having never received more than a slap on the hand themselves, my children were horrified. One of my sons even asked if the father was put in jail. I explained to them the old adage of spare the rod and spoil the child. Not surprisingly, they don't agree with that one.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Equal Time

Yesterday I wrote about books to give as gifts to school age girls. I figure today I should mention a few books we've recently given to my nine year old son's friends. We've given a lot of Matt Christopher sports books over the last few years. These chapter books, aimed at boys from grades two through six, just about always have a lot of action and a male protagonist who loves a sport and faces some dilemma. While there are several baseball, football, basketball, and soccer books to choose from, less mainstream sports are written about as well, including, mountain biking, skateboarding, dirt biking, and, very popular in my house, ice hockey.

Dan Gutman's My Weird School series is an easy and fun read for boys from first through third grade. Actually, my daughter got us started on these at the beginning of her first grade year. Who can resist titles like Miss Daisy is Crazy and Mr. Klutz is Nuts?

We've also given a number of Eoin Colfer's books in the last year or so, as well as checking them out of the library for ourselves. No one in my house has yet read his immensely popular Artemis Fowl books because I think they look too challenging, but we love The Legend of Spud Murphy andThe Legend of Captain Crow's Teeth, written for a younger audience, more like grades two to four. I can't recommend Spud Murphy highly enough. It is about a pair of high energy brothers whose parents decide they need to spend their summer days in the local library in order to stay out of trouble. Once there, they come face to face with the feared and legendary children's librarian, Spud Murphy. Lessons are learned, and much fun is had in between the covers of this one.

Here's another great thing about giving boys books as gifts- they're much easier to wrap than basketballs and hockey sticks.

Two Good Gifts for Girls

My daughter has two birthday parties to attend next weekend. One is a kickball party, and while that has nothing to do with children's books, I have to mention it because I love the idea. My children go to lots of elaborate, expensive themed birthday parties where everything is fancy, but they don't get to interact with the other kids. What they most want to do is simply play. I'm so happy that a bunch of nice girls are going to meet at a local ballfield next Sunday to spend the afternoon playing kickball and eating cake.
I do, however, need to buy presents for those parties. Usually my children pick out a favorite book or two for the birthday child and we purchase a gift card to a local bookstore. Those get wrapped up with something little such as bubbles or a Matchbox car. One of our favorite books to give to girls in second, third, and even fourth grade is Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses. We have also given it as a First Communion gift because of the lesson it teaches about how to treat other people.
In the book, poor Wanda Petronski, who wears the same faded dress to school everyday (the book was written in the 1940's when girls still wore dresses to school) announces,"I have a hundred dresses at home- all lined up in my closet." The other girls in her class begin to tease her about the dresses they know she can't possibly afford. As it turns out, the girls find out, too late, that Wanda had made 100 hundred drawings of beautiful dresses. Perhaps it was not too late, as they all learn something about making assumptions and teasing. One girl in particular vows never to stand by and say nothing again. My description sounds a bit heavy handed, but the book is really quite lovely and subtle in both the story and the sketches by Louis Slobodkin. It's a great gift to give to a girl.
Unfortunately, my daughter gave The Hundred Dresses last year to both of the girls whose parties she will be attending this weekend. So we chose another, more contemporary, chapter book which she recently read, My Last Best Friend by Julie Bowe. This is like chick lit for second through fourth graders. If Sophie Kinsella of the Shopaholic series was writing for girls, this is what she would write. It's light and funny with a self deprecating first person narrator, fourth grader Ida May. It also has a good message about friendship and how to treat other people, but it's basically a beach read. And what girl can't use a good beach read in June?