Saturday, March 22, 2008

It's Alive: Making Your Little Reader Come To Life

I hear from so many fretful parents who want their young elementary school kids to be readers, but they can't seem to get their little creatures to read. "It's like getting him to eat broccoli," one mom told me. "I can't force feed him books."

So I thought I'd throw out five simple tips that just might help get your carpet monkey started on a lifetime journey in books.

1. Think selection. Kids are picky. Do not limit the pool of potential books in your child's room to just five that you think are examples of fine children's literature. Think of it as setting up a buffet. When you go to a wedding and walk alongside the buffet table, do you skip the beets? I do. They're gross. But maybe beets make other people swoon with delight. (Yipes!) It's the same deal with books; bring your child to the library and check out 20 or 30 books of all kinds: mysteries, adventures, histories, how to, comic books, humor, books about pirates or snakes or knock-knock jokes. At this point, it's all about reading, not what they're reading. So cast a wide net and you'll catch something that floats their boat.

2. Read to them. Just because your child can finally read for themselves doesn't mean you should stop reading to them. And don't just squeeze in 7.5 minutes of speed reading right before the lights go off at night. A couple of nights a week, get ready for bed and hour early and read aloud for 45 minutes. They'll beg for more. If you want your child to be a successful member of his or her baseball team, you need to play catch once in a while. Same deal.

3. Hang out in bookstores. We take our kids to the bookstore all the time. The library works too, but you need variety. And a bookstore has all the latest stuff. Let them walk around, sit on the floor, play with the toys. They often stumble across things they find interesting. Who knows, it might be a book about kitchen table science experiments! But if you don't go, you don't know.

4. Turn off the bloody TV. Moms and dads have got to suck it up and turn off the freakin' TV once in a while. I've stated before that TV is the anti-book. It still is. Dancing with the Stars, American Idol and Survivor are like junk food—fun while you eat them, but in the end just empty calories. Unplug that brain-draining cyclops for a week, or a weekend, or even a day. Hide the wires if you have to. Reading will not happen at your house if SpongeBob is on. Period.

5. Be flexible. All kids are different. Some like chicken. For others, just the sight of a Colonel Sanders' joint will send them into a spittle-producing crying jag. Don't try to make your second child be like your first. Don't attempt to mold your little Johnny or Janey into what you were like as a reader at their age. You don't fit into the pants your friends wear (which could be a good thing, or a bad thing!), so don't try to do the same with your kid's reading material. Just get them in the habit of reading now and they will evolve as readers, just as people evolve as musicians, golfers, painters and athletes. The key in the early stages is making reading fun and enjoyable.

That's my two cents for today...but wait, there's more...

While flipping through an old Horn Book Magazine, I ran across this article by Robin Smith, a second grade teacher. It's one of the best, most concise, most common sense-filled articles on this subject I have ever seen. Check it out and good luck!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What's Your Reading Level? What's My Writing Level?

I recall my surprise when I first saw the different reading levels each of my Joe Sherlock books had been assigned. Surprised mostly because I felt they were all about the same reading level. I wrote them, I should know, right?

Some of the Sherlock books were rated at an early third-grade level, while others were deemed to be right for a student with a high fourth-grade and even an early fifth-grade reading level.

Huh? Was I unaware of my difficulty level while writing these books? Did I inadvertantly make some books more complex and difficult than others? Was I having a three-month senior moment during the creation of each of these mysteries? So much so that they could fluctuate almost three grade levels? Was I asleep at the keyboard?

I did some digging.

I learned that books are not assigned a reading level by a reading expert, a panel of teachers, a seasoned librarian or even a children's cognition specialist. I discovered that the books are torn apart and the pages are fed through a scanner. The computer converts the scanned image into text, and the computer uses some kind of complex formula (with some fancy-pants algebra, a half-dozen mysterious algorithms and a handful of isoceles triangles thrown in for good measure) to assign a "grade level appropriateness" rating to each book.

Well, I felt a little bit better. Besides, what does HAL know about reading books? (Is there a problem, Dave?) I walked away somewhat mollified, but still somewhat puzzled. Until I stumbled upon this interesting article by "The Numbers Guy" (aka Carl Bialik) in The Wall Street Journal about exactly how reading levels are determined.

See, when you peel back the layers, things usually just keep getting uglier . . . so view assigned reading levels and grade levels with a grain of salt.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tooting My Own Horn

I've been reading a great book called "Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It" by Peggy Klaus. This is exactly the kind of book an author—or just about anybody who needs to communicate with the outside world—should read. It's so hard for many of us to explain in a concise and captivating way what makes us—or what we do—interesting, unique and worth paying attention to.

It seems to me creative types often have an acute difficulty when it comes to talking about themselves and their work. (I've noticed lawyers don't seem to have this problem.)

The sad truth is that even though I've been through this book twice, I'm still going to need to read it a half dozen more times. It's not easy to conceive, polish and deliver a "bragalogue" in a way that's smooth, natural and customized to the audience for maximum impact. I talk in front of groups all the time, but I feel I always have room for improvement.

When I speak to librarians, for example, I like to breakdown why I think my Joe Sherlock: Kid Detective books make a great read for kids, especially reluctant readers. I've been able to create a list in my head of bullet points that I can know rattle through with ease. I can deliver this stump speech in 20 seconds or 2 minutes. It goes like this:

• They're laugh-out-loud funny—parents often find themeselves tickled as much as the child they're reading to
• They have short chapters—that sense of accomplishment comes fast and furious
• They have illustrations on almost every page—a must for the reluctant reader
• Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger—they can't stop reading and they don't know why
• They're each stuffed with some kind of time pressure—a ticking clock always ups the ante
• Joe Sherlock is enthusiastic and good-hearted—although he's a natural-born bumbler
• Joe Sherlock is no Encyclopaedia Brown or Hardy Boy—he's just and Average Joe, so kids can relate to him
• Girls also like the books because of Hailey, the younger, smarter sister who delivers all the zingers

Let me tell you, it's a relief to have this stump speech in my back pocket; I can always pull it out when I need it. The key is planning and foresight and being loaded for bear wherever you happen to go. No matter if you're an author, a teacher, a librarian, a mom, a bright-eyed kid or a plumber, you've got an interesting story to tell—but it's all in the telling!

So what do you do? The next time someone asks you what you do for a living, will you be ready with something that will knock their socks off, complete with illustrative examples, memorable anecdotes and catchy phrases? There's no more valuable utensil to have in your toolbox than a pithy but powerful "bragalogue" that will make you hard to forget and easy to like. So get started today.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Baby That Reads! How Cool Is That?

I ran across a story about a baby who can read. Seriously.

This is a pretty cute story and the video of the little girl's appearance on the TODAY Show is amazing to watch.

I think the most telling facts in the story are that both parents are speech pathologists and they began teaching their daughter sign language from the start—and spent a lot of time reading her books! This must have thrown the development of those parts of the brain responsible for language and reading into overdrive during that first year of vast and complex growth. (Imagine the disadvantage of spending your first two years in a home where there are no books and nobody bothers to read to you!)

The takeaway: You can't underestimate the power of reading to babies early and filling up their world with rich language and "human" interaction—not interaction with the idiot box. I couldn't help but smile when the story mentioned that the couple's daughter doesn't watch TV, except for one show about sign language. Now that's what I'm talking about!

You can see it all here.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

What's The Big Draw?

I enjoy talking to kids about the joys of reading and the thrills of crafting a good story. But nothing lights up their eyes more than watching me cartoon some quick, goofy characters; kids are natural-born artists. But all the pressure to score well on tests and today's myopic obsession with the three Rs sometimes leaves creativity out it the cold. And that's a shame. Because all the smarts in the world won't accomplish much without the world's most powerful accelerant: creativity.

I found an interesting slideshow with cool audio track on the Washington Post's website that has vivid photographs and is well worth seeing. You can watch (and hear) the kids of North Chevy Chase Elementary School exercise the side of the brain that's often left out at school these days: the right side! Watch it here now!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Why Do I Write Books? Why Does Anyone, For That Matter?

The most difficult question I ever got at an author appearance came during a festive celebration marking the re-opening of a children's library. It came from a tiny, towheaded girl (maybe three?), still wearing diapers, who peered at me over the microphone and asked me why I wrote books.

I was stumped. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me that question, and I honestly had never really thought about it much. I was speechless (which doesn't happen much!). Why in the world do I write books anyway? Good question! This was much more difficult than the typical questions I get, like "Where do you get your ideas from?" and "Do you always talk this fast?" and "How tall is your wife?"

Why would it be so hard to explain why I write books? I guess it's a difficult question because there's no simple explanation—at least not one that I've come up with after some serious noodling on the subject.

I think most people imagine it would be neat to be a writer, to see your name in print, to have your stories read by thousands. But most people never get around to writing anything. Why not? What do writers possess that everyone else doesn't? To be frank, I don't know why anyone would want to put themselves through the process—certainly not for the fortune, the fame or the influence. (Truth is, I spend what little influence I have trying to convince kids that it can actually be fun to read and that they should do it on a regular basis.)

So why do I write books? Or why does anyone for that matter? Where, in fact, do writers come from? What things in their childhood cause them to become spinners of tales? Were there traits I exhibited as a child that a keen and perspicacious observer would have pointed to and said, "Ah, now little David here is bound to become future writer."

Last night, I stumbled upon an fantastic essay by Julianna Baggott on this very subject. She writes a successful children's book series under the perfectly goofy nom de plume N.E. Bode. (My daughter's fourth grade class is reading one of her books, which put her on my "author radar.") She is also a poet and a writer of books for tall people, too. Her essay appeared in a HarperCollins newsletter. It's fantastic, and hilarious, and eerily insightful. It's really worth a read, so please do so here.

This article is the closest I've gotten to figuring out an answer to that toddler's curve ball. And it may help you identify a future writer who's lurking in your midst—and those traits that drive you bananas just might just be the makings of a future writer of fortune, fame and influence!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart?

I visited seven different California schools in February as a visiting author and illustrator. These visits got me thinking about what makes a school successful—and the individual student successful. Heck, I've been thinking about what makes a country as a whole excel or sink academically. So it's no surprise that articles on successful schooling would catch my eye. I'd like to share two of them in particular.

The first is a Wall Street Journal article by Ellen Gamerman about why Finnish students score so high on international academic tests. Fact is, they are at the very top. In the end, the conclusions are somewhat muddled, but it's certainly interesting to examine some of the reasons why Finnish kids are at the top academically, while their America counterparts are mired in the middle of the pack. I found this part of the article telling:

"One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck...Many children struggled to read the last Harry Potter book in English because they feared they would hear about the ending before it arrived in Finnish. Movies and TV shows have Finnish subtitles instead of dubbing. One college student says she became a fast reader as a child because she was hooked on the 1990s show "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Hmmmm. Could these subtle cultural differences make a big difference on overall intellectual and academic achievement? You can read the article here.

The second piece I spotted in today's San Jose Mercury News. It's an editorial written by a high school teacher in Los Altos, CA named Robert Freeman. While discussing why he thinks the standard "fixes" like increased spending, more testing, better teacher training, enhanced technology and instituting a longer school year will not make our schools more successful, he says this:

"The reason is that all of these "fixes" assume that the student is a product, something to be built, tested and packaged for use. They overlook the two most critical things that matter in education: that character is more important than content; and that it is the student - much more than the teacher or school - who ultimately determines success."

The student must assume responsibility? Hey, now that's a radical idea! Certainly food for thought. You can read Mr. Freeman's editorial here.