May-June 2005 Selected Content
Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp
Loving the Library
Of all possible homeschooling resources - after, of course, such pipe-dream unobtainables as unlimited time and money - next-best is a library card. Kids vary certainly, but there's no doubt, as Neil Postman said, that a magnificent education can be obtained solely through reading; and even for the reading-resistant, the library has a lot to offer. And, should your young library-goers need support, encouragement, or just some great books about libraries, there are many resources out there. Among the most enchanting is Sarah Stewart's rhyming picture book The Library (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995) for readers ages 4-8, the story of young Elizabeth Brown, confirmed bookworm, who didn't like to play with dolls and didn't like to skate - all she liked to do was read. Finally Elizabeth accumulates so many books that there's simply no more room - "...Volumes climbed the parlor walls/And blocked the big front door/She had to face the awful fact/She could not have one more." (It's a problem with which many of us can sympathize.) Elizabeth's solution is perfect: she shares the wealth, donates her books to the town, and turns her house into a library.
Several books deal with kids' nervous misconceptions about libraries and librarians. Alexander Stadler's cleverly illustrated Beverly Billingsly Borrows a Book (Silver Whistle, 2002), for example, features a panic-stricken small bear who has so loved her chosen library book - Dinosaurs of the Cretaceous Period - that she's kept it too long and the book is now overdue. Beverly is so upset that she can't eat or sleep. Her friends have told her that she owes a thousand dollars in library fines and that she might end up in jail. She even has a nightmare in which the book's dinosaurs shout at her and the fatal overdue date - APRIL 7 - appears printed in red all over her pajamas. Finally Beverly breaks down and confides in her mother; the book is safely returned; and the kindly librarian puts Beverly's fears to rest. In Mike Thaler's The Librarian from the Black Lagoon (Scholastic, 1997), the library - presided over by the fearsome Mrs. Beamster - is rumored to be a dreadful place: there's a Gum Detector at the door, kids are glued to the seats to keep them from wiggling, all the books are bolted to the shelves, and anybody who whispers gets laminated. The truth, of course, turns out to be just the opposite. In Carmen Agra Deedy's The Library Dragon (Peachtree Publishers, 1994), the librarian is a dragon and a nasty one at that; she can't stand the thought of children pawing at the books with their sticky little fingers and so refuses to let anyone take a book from the shelves. Finally, near-sighted little Molly Brickmeyer - who has lost her glasses - wanders into the library, bumps into a shelf, and catches a book that falls off into her hands. As she begins to read aloud and the children eagerly gather around, the erstwhile Dragon has a change of heart.
Judy Sierra's Wild about Books (Knopf, 2002) demonstrates to the not-so-sure that reading can be tremendous fun: in this rhyming picture book, librarian Molly McGrew mistakenly drives the bookmobile into the zoo and soon has all the animals hooked on reading and writing. The book is a riot of clever word play, and there are a lot of charming little touches - the crocodiles end up reading Peter Pan; the giraffes prefer tall books about skyscrapers and redwood trees. The conclusion: there's something for everybody at the library, plus you can write your own books too. Laura Numeroff's Beatrice Doesn't Want To (Candlewick, 2004) is another nice pick for reluctant readers: Beatrice's big brother Henry has to write a school report on dinosaurs; he also has to babysit for Beatrice. He ends up taking Beatrice to the library, Beatrice ("I don't want to") protesting every step of the way. Finally, however, in spite of herself, Beatrice becomes entranced by a library storytime and Henry eventually finds her happily curled up in a chair, lost in a book.
A number of books are aimed at convincing kids that books are better than television - not a big issue for many homeschooling families, but the same principle works for video games, which sometimes is. A wonderful tale along these lines for kids ages 7-11 is Florence Parry Heide's The Problem with Pulcifer (Harpercollins, 1982). The problem is that Pulcifer is a reader in a society dedicated to watching TV. Pulcifer's parents are concerned. ("It isn't because we haven't set a good example," said Pulcifer's mother. "We're always watching television. And we've always had the nicest television sets. We've tried to make it easy for him. Color, remote, even TV dinners.") At school, Pulcifer is put into a remedial class for non-television-watchers; eventually his parents even send him to a psychiatrist. Pulcifer, however, remains determined; finally his parents learn that they love him even though he is different; and at the end Pulcifer settles down happily with a new stack of library books. This book is interesting on several levels - a good choice for children's book discussion groups.
Suzanne Williams's Library Lil (Dial Books, 1997) - zanily illustrated by Stephen Kellogg - is a library-style anti-TV tall tale for ages 4-9. Lil, Chesterville's unconventional librarian, is stupendously strong. One night, when a storm blows down the town television lines, Lil singlehandedly pushes the bookmobile from house to house, thus converting an entire town of TV-watching couch potatoes into voracious bookworms. Even a book-hating motorcycle gang is no match for Lil; by the end of the book, the leader of the gang, hooked on books, has become Lil's library assistant. Patricia Polacco's Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair (Philomel Books, 1996) is another cautionary tale: the people of Triple Creek, who erected a monstrous television tower 50 years ago, have since become so addicted to TV that they all have forgotten how to read. Books, now useless, are being used to patch roofs, fill potholes, and mend walls. Then feisty Aunt Chip, once the town librarian, teaches her nephew Eli how to read - and soon all the kids in town are reading everything they can find. Eventually Eli and friends yank a copy of Moby Dick out of a hole in the town dam, which unleashes a flood, topples the TV tower, and brings the adults back to their senses. By the end of the book, Aunt Chip is back at her old job again and reading reigns supreme.
The library can also be a great liberator. Pat Mora's Tomas and the Library Lady (Dragonfly Books, 2000), for example, for readers ages 4-8, is the story of Tomas, child of a family of migrant workers, who - having heard all the stories that his grandfather, Papa Grande, has to tell - is sent to the library to find more. There he meets an understanding librarian who introduces Tomas to an entire world of books. The book is based on a story from the life of Mexican-American author and educator Tomas Rivera. Similar in theme is William Miller's Richard Wright and the Library Card (Lee & Low, 1999), a story taken from author Wright's autobiographical Black Boy, which details his experiences growing up black in the segregated South of the 1920's. This picture book describes how Wright as a teenager was barred from checking out books from the local public library - a privilege accorded only to whites - until a white co-worker helped him circumvent the rules. Books, for Wright, are a ticket to freedom, and by the end of the book, with a wealth of reading under his belt, he's on his way to Chicago to start a new life. Jerry Spinelli's fiction book The Library Card (Scholastic, 1998) for ages 9-13 is also a tribute to the library's power to help, heal, and change. The book tells the stories of four troubled kids and four blue library cards. Twelve-year-old Mongoose seems destined for a life of crime until he finds a library card in a stolen bag of candy and discovers a world of reading. Brenda is addicted to television until she is driven to the library by boredom during her school's "Great TV Turn-Off" week and there discovers a mysterious and compelling biography of herself. Sonseray, an anti-social 13-year-old, finds comforting memories of his dead mother at the library that enable him to change his ways; and April, unhappy at her family's move to a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania, ends up on a high-jacked bookmobile, driven by the even unhappier runaway Nanette, with whom she eventually forms a bond. When I Went to the Library: Writers Celebrate Books and Reading, edited by Debora Pearson (Groundwood Books, 2002) is a catchy collection of stories by nine noted writers about the ability of libraries to create adventures, liberate the imagination, solve problems, and change lives. In Marc Talbert's "Books Don't Cry," for example, young Tad uses the library to deal with the impending death of his grandmother; in Paul Yee's "Fly Away," a young Chinese girl, Mei-ping, uses it to cope with the loneliness of living in an isolated town in Canada.
Book Resources for Librarians/Libraries in Literature
Annotated bibliographies of books about libraries and librarians for both children and adults, as well as informational articles, online book discussion groups, and resource lists.
Bibliomysteries are mysteries related to the world of books, writers, and libraries; the site includes long annotated lists of books for both kids and adults.
For a non-fiction view of libraries, Lucia Raatma's Libraries, one of the New True Book series from Children's Press (1998) is a brief overview of libraries, illustrated with color photographs, for ages 5-8. With a simple straightforward text, the book covers the history of libraries and the range of present-day libraries and their many uses. Check It Out! The Book about Libraries by Gail Gibbons (Voyager Books, 1988) is a delightfully illustrated picture book on the many aspects of the library, including the history of libraries, libraries today from small local libraries to the mammoth Library of Congress, and general information on the organization of the library. Readers also find out what a card catalog is and learn how to check out a book. The Inside-Outside Book of Libraries by Julie Cummins (Dutton Books, 1996) is an exploration of thirteen very different libraries for readers ages 6-9, with detailed illustrations showing both the outside and inside of each. Included are a library on board an aircraft carrier, a tiny one-room library on an island off North Carolina, a prison library, a library for the blind, and a library that lends tools rather than books.
One of the many uses of libraries is as a prime source of information, and - though most librarians are certainly helpful - it's useful to know how to find it for yourself. This is the theme of Deborah Heliligman's The New York Public Library Kid's Guide to Research (Scholastic, 1998), which guides readers through a research project from beginning - choosing a topic - to end. For example, kids learn how to use card and online catalogs, discover what kind of information is found in various kinds of reference books, and learn how to find information in magazines and newspapers, how to use the Internet, and how to judge reliability of information sources.
American Library Association
The ALA is both the oldest and largest library association in the world. See the Web site for facts about libraries, information about careers in libraries, current political issues involving libraries, and many lists of recommended books for kids of all ages.
Elementary Library Services
A long categorized list of useful links for library-lovers, including a varied assortment of activities and tutorials for teaching kids about the Dewey Decimal System, online school library curricula and standards lists, and lesson plans and activities.
A year's worth of library lesson plans for grades K-6, with projects and activities listed week by week.
Resources for Library Instruction
Library instruction lesson plans, informational articles, a bibliography, and a list of useful links. Lesson plan titles include "Several Ideas to Help 4th Grade Students Learn about the Library," "How to Find Information in the Information Age," and - should you need it - "How Parents of Homeschooled Students Can Get their Children to Use the Library."
GEMS: The Kits
The GEMS program - the acronym stands for "Great Explorations in Math and Science" - was originally developed by UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science to promote inquiry-based math and science education. There are now something over 70 GEMS Teacher's Guides and Handbooks, variously appropriate for kids in preschool through grade 8 - all clear, creative, and substantial, with explanations, background information, illustrations, and a wealth of experiments and activities for curious kids. Titles range from Experimenting with Model Rockets (grades 6-8; 108 pages) to Secret Formulas (grades 1-3; 160 pages) to Oobleck: What Do Scientists Do? (grades 4-8; 40 pages) - and the beauty of all of the books is that they do indeed encourage kids to think and investigate like scientists actually do. (To order, for more information, or to see the complete list of available GEMS publications, contact University of California, Berkeley, GEMS, Lawrence Hall of Science #5200, Berkeley, CA 94720-5200; (510) 642-7771; www.lhsgems.org.)
There are science and math experiment and activity kits to accompany many of the GEMS handbooks, but until recently these were available solely in sizes suitable for 32 students, which put them out of the average homeschool family's reach. (You know how maddening this is.) Recently, however, GEMS, in collaboration with Scientific Explorer, has started packaging "home education products" - that is, kits sized for us. There's the Oobleck kit, for example, with which kids ages 6 and up learn about polymer chemistry by making a gooey medley of slimes (including one that bounces and one that glows in the dark); Jiggly Gems and Crystal Creations, with which kids ages 9 and up can make crystal gardens, crystal caves, paper crystal models, and a lot of really strange "gems"; and Soda Pop Science - based on GEMS Secret Formulas - with which kids investigate the science of fizz, foam, and flavor, and invent their very own secret soda pop recipe. The kit includes a bag of citric acid, four different kinds of flavorings, baking soda, plastic cups and scoops, lab record sheets and recipe forms - if you come up with a really yummy recipe, you'll want to remember it - and an instruction booklet. There are also a number of kits targeted at preschoolers (including Fizzy Foamy Science and My First Chemistry Kit), and - think the upcoming summer - Sand Castle Science and Ice Cream Science.
Scientific Explorer kits cost about $20 apiece; they are available from the Lawrence Hall of Science Museum Store (see address above or visit store.yahoo.com/lawrencehallofscience).
British Library Writers' Lives Series
This is a superb series of illustrated biographies from Oxford University Press for middle- and high-school-level students, to date covering such literary luminaries as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, Joseph Conrad, and - my heroine - Virginia Woolf. Each book is illustrated with period prints, portraits, paintings, photographs, manuscript reproductions, and maps, accompanied by a reader-friendly text, crammed with anecdotes and human-interest stories, that traces the life and literary accomplishments of each featured author. Also included are an author chronology and a list of suggested further readings.
Charles Dickens, for example, by Elizabeth James (Oxford University Press, 2004), is an inspiration for homeschoolers: "Like many children of the time, five-year-old Charles received his first lessons from his mother, and like the hero of his novel David Copperfield obviously enjoyed learning the alphabet at her knee," writes James.
$28 each in hardcover from Oxford University Press; (800) 445-9714; www.oup.com. A good choice to recommend to your public library.
Ye Olde Chainmaille Construction Kit
Need armor? This clever kit, the invention of 13-year-old Orion Correa of Bainbridge Island, Washington, allows beginning medievalists to try their hands at "knitting" a sample piece of chainmaille armor. Each kit contains a hefty package of aluminum rings (lighter and more pliable than steel; also, once dressed in them, your would-be knights won't rust if they get wet), two pairs of small solid pliers, and a very detailed easy-to-follow illustrated instruction booklet. It's intended to be an introductory kit: kids get enough rings to make a vambrace, that is, a metal sleeve to protect the forearm in battle, but there are options to order additional rings for enthusiasts who, having mastered the initial technique, want to proceed to hoods, hauberks, and entire chainemaille wardrobes.
$25 from Orion's Authentic Chainmaille Kits, P.O. Box 11108, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; (206) 780-1979; fax (206) 780-9480; e-mail: email@example.com.
A word play game for ages 12 and up. It's popular. We hated it. (Which isn't really fair. I shall explain.) Oxford Dilemma is a mix of Monopoly and the National Spelling Bee. Players move their pieces around an elegant Victorian-style board, drawing cards in one of four different categories: General Knowledge; Famous People, Places, and Things; Science; and Geography. Success depends on one's ability to spell words relating to the various categories: say, Quetzalcoatl, Georgia O'Keeffe, Kuwait, Tijuana, photon, radius, dialysis, kleptomania, or entrepreneur. There's a lesser optional version in which players can earn bonus dollars by correctly identifying the person/place/word/whatever that they've just spelled - the cards include brief definitions - but that's clearly a sideline. Basically this is a spelling game.
It is, to its credit, a spelling game with a bit of an intellectual twist; however, in my opinion, this game is everything that's wrong with our current take on education - that is, it reflects a mentality that emphasizes scores on standardized tests and neglects genuine interest and enthusiasm for knowledge. It's nice, of course, to be able to spell photon. What really matters, though, is knowing - or wanting to know - what a photon is.
About $30 from toy and game stores; available online.
Children of Native America Today
By Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder (Charlesbridge, 2003), Children of Native America Today describes the lives of kids who belong to one of over 25 different American Indian tribes. The book begins with a double-page color-coded map showing where each of the featured tribes is located; subsequent double-page spreads, each dedicated to a single tribe, are categorized by region: Northeast, Southeast, Central, Plains, Basin-Plateau, Southwest, California-Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. For each featured tribe, the authors include great color photographs (all of kids), an informative text, and a "More Facts" section that details locations of modern reservations, present tribal population, and a list of prominent people of the tribe. An excellent accompanying activity and resource guide proposes projects and supplementary readings to enhance the book. Paired with readings about the Aleuts, for example, is a study of marine mammals, with a short list of associated resources.
About $20 from bookstores; or from Charlesbridge Publishing; (800) 225-3214; www.charlesbridge.com.
© 2005, Rebecca Rupp