Thursday, March 29, 2012

Guest blogger -- View from a school library

 Janet Hutchinson is a colleague and kindred spirit when it comes to children's literature.  She also works a day and half in the library in the school which her children have or are attending here in Calgary.  Her experiences there provide her (and me by extension) the opportunity to see what teachers and kids do with the books we promote.  Gotta love real life.  So, please enjoy the view from a school library.

I sometimes think that I have the best two jobs in the world. I work here at the Doucette Library, where I get to buy books, read books and discuss books and book issues with Tammy. I also get to work in the Clear Water Academy school library for a day and a half a week. I love watching kids progress through being read to, to learning to read and then selecting and taking books home to read. I love it when they come and tell me what their favourite thing is about a book or why they didn’t like a book. I am sometimes surprised at what appeals to them – and pleased to learn that they develop discriminating tastes very early on (it’s not always about the vampires).

One of my favourite teachers at the school, Jane, recently started to read aloud to her Grade 6 girls. (The school separates the genders from Grade 4 to Grade 9). In her own words: “I realized that assigned book reports where each student picked a book didn’t do anything more than “force” students to read at home.  I wanted to have a book that as a class we could experience together and I could use as a teaching tool for sentence structure, plot line, character…etc. I also wanted an opportunity to model dynamic reading.  I am also aware that listening skills are underdeveloped in this visual culture and wanted to develop them. “

Jane started with Susan Cooper’s“The dark is rising. She chose this book because it has rich vocabulary, complex sentence structure and a complicated plot. She wanted the students to see as well as hear the language so they followed along in the book and were not allowed to read ahead. She also did not give any class assignments for this book. They finished the book earlier this week and Jane felt it to be an incredibly successful experience. 

Jane came to me and asked for some titles for her next book. She wanted a different genre, but was open about what that could be. Her specific words? “It can be a fairy tale, a tear-jerker, or a mystery – anything that you think they haven’t read, but would appeal to them.”

So I went off to the shelves to pick a few titles. I put them on her desk, with a sticky note on each identifying the genre and why I liked it or why I thought it would appeal. Here are the titles I picked, along with why they appealed to me:

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg
The appeal of this book for me lies squarely on the shoulders of its heroine Margaret Rose Kane. She is not like other girls – in fact, her time at summer camp is cut short because she “prefers not to” participate in any of the camp activities.  When she is rescued by her two rather eccentric uncles, she becomes involved in trying to save the towers that her uncles have installed in their backyard. The neighbours are gentrifying the area and these are deemed eyesores. How Margaret saves them is a great story. And what it says about NIMBYisms, the definition of art and the tolerance (or lack thereof) that society has for individuals (and ideas) that are different makes for great discussion fodder.

When you reach me by Rebecca Stead
Stead writes characters and friendships in an entirely believable way. But I loved this book, simply because it successfully weaves time and space into a mystery that, for me, invoked nostalgia for an era past when life seemed simpler for our children. I admit that one of the reasons I recommended this book was to see if the girls liked it as much as I did. (It hasn’t exactly been flying off the shelf in the library – except to the moms who volunteer in the library. They all love it too.)

Walk two moons by Sharon Creech
I was pretty sure that at least some of the girls would have read this – but I thought it worth a re-read. It has humour, emotion and moments of loss, wrapped up in a good story. These are all things that 12 year old girls revel in – and Creech is such a good writer that you cannot help but be drawn in to the story.

The Watsons go to Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
This book works exceptionally well as a read aloud – and that was part of the reason I selected it. (It kept my family amused during a long drive one summer several years ago.) But I admit I also want the girls to come in and ask for more books by Curtis. His writing is so strong – and “The Watsons” introduces a time in recent history that kids today sometimes don’t comprehend very well. He does it with humour and style and good characterization – all reasons to want to read more of his books. 

Prisoners in the palace by Michaela McColl
I thought this story particularly engaging when I read it, both for the history it introduces, but also because McColl weaves the social realities of class, gender and money so well into the story. And of course, there are several subplots, some romance, and some intrigue that would capture a girl’s attention. It is a little long for a read-aloud – something I did not consider until I looked just now at the page count (368 pages). That’s a lot of pages, both for someone to read and for someone else to listen to – especially if the story does not grab the listener right at the start.

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff 
This story of a girl set loose in the foster system is both emotional and captivating. Hollis belongs nowhere, the result of being shunted from foster home to foster home since she was abandoned as a baby. How she finally settles, and who she settles with, and what she learns about herself along the way connected strongly with me.

The goose girl by Shannon Hale
A reworking of the Grimm fairy tale by the same name (and Disney didn’t do it first), Hale develops her character Ani, from a somewhat odd (by her family’s standards) and weak princess to someone who finds the strength and courage to do what is right, despite the trouble it might bring her. This is one of those stories that I hope the girls would finish, wanting more – because there is more.

Jane (the teacher) was reading the books prior to making her decision (a very wise move on her part). When we spoke last week, she was thinking that she might choose Pictures of Hollis Woods – both because she was finding it to be a good story – but also because the simple language and shorter book made it a suitable choice for a read-aloud. 

This week, however, she told me that she has chosen an entirely different book. The class had read Where the red fern grows as part of the curriculum, and she thought that another book by the same author would be an interesting comparison. So she will be reading them A summer of monkeys by Wilson Rawls. 

This is what I love about the job – now I have a new book to track down and read.


Books4Learning said...

Great post! Walk Two Moons is one of my MOST favorite books! I have been thinking of reading it yet again so it can be fresh in my mind so I can post a review.

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