V O L U M E I , N U M B E R 7 • S E P T E M B E R 2 0 0 8
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
Now that your children are back in the classroom, we decided to check in with our favorite teacher-parent couple, Robin Smith and Dean Schneider, who have taught at the Ensworth School in Nashville for a combined thirty-six years. Robin is a second-grade teacher; Dean teaches English to seventh and eighth graders. They are both frequent contributors to the journals Book Links and Kirkus Reviews and to our own Horn Book Magazine.
1. How does being a parent affect your work as a teacher?
Robin: I know it has made me more empathetic both with the children in my class and with their parents. I still feel the intense desire for our own now-grown children to “turn out okay,” and I know the parents of my second graders feel that very same pressure. When I look at my students, I can’t help thinking how important they are to their parents.
Dean: I was a teacher before I was a parent, but my teaching evolved as we had kids of our own. There are lots of good teachers who are not parents, but I do think having had kids has made me more able to see school the way kids do. I’m also better able to be kind and tough at the same time.
2. How does being a teacher affect being a parent?
Robin: Dean and I used to teach at a boys’ boarding school, and that experience helped me as a parent every day. As houseparents, we had to be calm, straightforward, and dispassionate about the rules of the dorm. We learned when it made sense to be flexible and when we would have to just tune out the whining. We could see how little problems could escalate quickly and how firmness, coupled with humor, always helped. The school was run on a tight schedule, and we saw how comforting that routine was to the boys. When we had kids of our own, we parented, on good days, with those skills learned in the dorm.
Dean: When you’ve taught for a long time, you get a pretty good sense of how you’d like your own kids to turn out and you have lots of examples of how you don’t want them to turn out. We always wanted our children to grow up to be good readers and writers, smart and independent kids with interests to pursue. Our daughter is now an artist living in Brooklyn, and our son is a senior history major at Stanford University. They both love to read, write, travel, and cook.
3. Has a student ever changed your opinion of a book?
Robin: Sure. When I first started teaching younger children, I had that snooty attitude toward series fiction that was popular among my professors in college. It’s funny, because Nancy Drew and Dr. Seuss played such a big part in my own early reading. Anyway, my second graders loved series fiction so much and were such salespeople for the series du jour that I had to re-examine my prejudice. It didn’t take me long to understand the comfort that familiar characters, plot lines, and settings bring to the new reader. Over the years, each class has had its favorites, and I look forward to seeing what they will be this year. Fairies? Boxcar Children? Dragon Slayers’ Academy? Zack Files? I am still embarrassed about my early attitude.
Dean: My answer is yes, too. When I first decided to teach Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, I wasn’t sure if it would connect with anyone except fantasy fans. I thought students might have gotten tired of Greek mythology by seventh grade. Well, it was a huge success with both boys and girls, demonstrating that well-chosen class novels can turn kids on to reading.
4. What’s the one book you would want every one of your students to read?
Robin: Because of the different reading levels in a second-grade classroom, it’s hard to say the one book everyone should read, but I always read aloud Stone Fox by John Gardiner early in the year. Children need to see that books can draw them in so completely that they will actually feel pain and cry over a story. I also like to read books that make them laugh until tears come. Usually it’s my tears first, but there are always kids who gasp with delight and cry with sadness or hilarity over a book, and those are moments I treasure.
Dean: Karen Hesse’s Witness is essential to my teaching. I love the multiple voices in a free-verse format and the way residents of a small Vermont town in the 1920s came together to stand up to the Klan. It’s a great match with some of our other eighth-grade books, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
5. What’s the first thing you want parents to understand about reading?
Robin: May I have a first and second thing? First, children should read because reading is fun. There are millions of other reasons that reading is Important, but children should read because it is a lot of fun. Second, children love to be read to, and no family should miss out on the joy of reading aloud, even when the child can read on his or her own.
Dean: Like Robin, I want to emphasize the importance of reading aloud to children, from the time kids are babies and for as long as possible after that. We read to our own kids until sixth grade, at which point they got too busy with schoolwork. And I’m always telling parents to take their kids to libraries and bookstores: if they want their children to be readers, they need to provide good books.
Our August issue recommended several first-day-of-school books, but we can’t resist calling a few brand-new ones to your attention. Louise Borden and Joan Rankin’s Off to First Grade introduces twenty-three first-graders-to-be (and three strategic grownups), all on their alphabetically ordered way to the first day of school. The children are dogs, cats, rabbits — all happy and hopeful about what Mrs. Miller’s class has to offer. (4–6 years)
Veteran poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins brings us Hamsters, Shells, and Spelling Bees, a collection of twenty poems about school for beginning readers. Some rhyme, some don’t; some are funny, some are thoughtful — all are short and illustrated with brio by Sachiko Yoshikawa. (5–8 years)
Jaded students in grades two and up will have a good time with Alan Katz’s Smelly Locker: Silly Dilly School Songs, fourteen anti-anthems set to familiar tunes, such as this one (to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot”): “I am in the lunchroom! / Boy, I’m starved! / Wonder what kind of / food they’ve carved.” David Catrow offers expertly gross paintings as accompaniment. (7 years and up)
First introduced to readers in Helen Recorvits’s picture book My Name Is Yoon, the young Korean immigrant tells another story of adjusting to school. In Yoon and the Jade Bracelet, Yoon has received a beautiful heirloom bracelet for her birthday. When another girl asks to “borrow” it in exchange for letting Yoon have the honor of holding the rope while the other girl jumps, Yoon must decide if she is willing to pay such a price for friendship. A very satisfying tale of a bully bested. (5–8 years)
New picture books about presidential hopefuls John McCain (My Dad, John McCain by Meghan McCain) and Barack Obama (Nikki Grimes’s Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope) are adulatory, strictly on-message, and best thought of as souvenirs for adult collectors. Of far more durable interest, and with something for adults and children alike, is the sumptuous new anthology Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, compiled by the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. More than one hundred essays, poems, short stories, and paintings explore the White House and its inhabitants, history, and significance. Topics range from Jefferson’s dinosaur bones collection to Lincoln’s rowdy children to White House ghosts. Presidential daughter Lynda Johnson Robb tells us about her unusual White House bedroom, and popular poet Jack Prelutsky lets us see the White House through the eyes of Socks, Bill Clinton’s cat. The contributors are all luminaries of the children‘s book field. A fascinating, eminently browsable, and accessible entrance into the People’s House. (9 years and up)
For younger kids, have a look at Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, by Tanya Lee Stone. Beginning with a forthright question — “What would you do if someone told you you can’t be what you want to be because you are a girl?” — this picture book, illustrated with agreeably homespun paintings by Rebecca Gibbon, follows the suffragist from her independent youth to the famous meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848. Lane Smith’s Madam President is an altogether cheekier — and very funny — affair in which a little girl uses her powers as president to give executive orders (“More waffles, please”), appoint a Secretary of Soccer, and veto tuna casserole. Fans of Eloise and Olivia will definitely give this one their vote. (5–8 years)
The release of the fourth book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga made the biggest splash this past summer, but it wasn’t the only sequel of note. Jeanne DuPrau’s 2003 The City of Ember is engrossing, accessible post-apocalyptic science fiction for older-elementary and middle-school readers — and it’s coming soon to a theater near you. In The Diamond of Darkhold, the fourth (and last) book in the series, our heroes Lina and Doon return to their abandoned underground city, inspired by some tantalizing scraps of information discovered in a remnant of a book. The book is equally appealing to girls and boys, and DuPrau skillfully casts back to the first three books to provide clues to the kids’ present quest. Satisfying and provocative. (9–12 years)
Humor reigns in Neal Shusterman’s Antsy Does Time, featuring Antsy Bonano, the wisecracking eighth-grade hero of The Schwa Was Here (winner of the 2005 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction). When Antsy learns that his friend Gunnar is suffering from a fatal disease, he “gives” Gunnar a month of his life, a symbolic gesture of support. The idea catches on, and it all turns into a huge media event. The problem is that Gunnar is not actually sick. What can Antsy do to stop the media machine? (10–14 years)
Espionage fans and techies should enjoy Catherine Jinks’s Genius Squad, starring fifteen-year-old computer hacker extraordinaire Cadel (Evil Genius), currently in hiding from his father, criminal mastermind Prosper English. Cadel finds that his new group home is actually a cover for an elite group of hackers — Genius Squad — tasked with infiltrating a criminal organization called GenoME. What follows is a captivating cat-and-mouse game that keeps the tension revved up from beginning to end. (10–14 years)
Suzanne Fisher Staples’s The House of Djinn is the sequel to the author’s acclaimed Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind and Haveli, both set in Pakistan. Here, Shabanu’s daughter Mumtaz is treated like a servant in the Lahore residence of her patriarch grandfather, Baba. When Baba dies suddenly, Mumtaz and her American-raised cousin Jameel are caught up in a family power struggle, torn between Pakistani tradition and American mores. The skirmishes, intrigues, and loves of this divided family make for a thoroughly absorbing read. (12 years and up)
—Martha V. Parravano
There’s no denying it: summer is over. Might as well jump right into the season with poet-illustrator Douglas Florian’s Autumnblings. His twenty-nine short, pun-filled verses include such iconic autumnal pleasures as “Apple Picking,” “What to Do with Autumn Leaves,” and “Geese Piece.” The accompanying illustrations reflect the poems’ whimsical humor as well as their more contemplative musings. Try reading a bit from Autumnblings on chilly mornings to help ease the transition from warm, cozy bed to crisp, busy day. (7–10 years)
Lois Ehlert’s Leaf Man, winner of a 2006 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, features stunning collages made from color photocopies of real leaves on different textured and colored backgrounds. Ehlert’s books usually take inspiration from the natural world; her windblown Leaf Man and other leaf creations (chickens, fruit, fish) may well inspire kids to make their own leaf art. (For actual craft ideas, see Kathy Ross’s Step-by-Step Crafts for Fall and Crafts to Make in the Fall.) (5–8 years)
Why do the seasons change, anyway? Author-artist G. Brian Karas tackles this and other related science concepts in On Earth, an introduction for young readers to orbital rotation and revolution, space and time, hemispheres, and gravity. Along with an accessible text, Karas’s artistic renderings and diagrams of the earth and its cycles offer concrete and easy-to-understand images of what happens as day turns into night, seasons change, and the earth rotates on its axis. (5–8 years)
I was not a school-loving child, bright spots like reading and recess aside. Mostly, it seemed like another place where grownups told you what to do. But I loved books about school, and I came of age in the era of the big schoolteacher bestsellers: E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, with Love, Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, and Catherine Marshall’s Christy.
There is of course plenty of drama to be found in the routines of school, as evidenced by Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Avi’s Nothing But the Truth, and Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. And it’s no surprise that so many beginning chapter books, from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Kids of the Polk Street School series to Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine books, find their stories in the place where children spend 180 days a year. It’s like going to work — with responsibilities, tasks, co-workers, and a boss — without getting paid! School is also the place where many kids have their first taste of truly being on their own. For writers, school provides a fertile landscape; for readers, books about school provide both a mirror and a window, showing a familiar world in many different lights.
Horn Book website