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The inspiration for this project came from the 4YA blog, namely this post:

Thai String Dolls Tutorial

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Vardell says that contemporary realistic fiction is appropriate for and popular with “intermediate grade readers who want stories that seem true to life and characters with whom they can identify.” (p. 139)

I found it interesting that Vardell echoes what many experienced librarians have insisted time and again: that for tweens age is a major factor in their involvement in the story. This is to say that they typically prefer to read about protagonists who are about one to two years older than they are. I can see how this is true for many tweens, but I must say that it is my experience that some tweens actually prefer books with younger protagonists– these are usually the kids who are reluctant readers (and who may struggle with more difficult language in books for older kids) or kids who are less emotionally and physically mature than others their age, who take a certain comfort in reading the books of their “childhood” rather than looking forward. Some of these, (usually girls), may also be nostalgic for “the days of their youth” (in this case youth being back in grade two or three). However, I can see that what Vardell asserts is probably true for the majority of tweens, who are, as she says, ostensibly looking for “a glimpse of the growing up years ahead.” (p. 140)

Vardell mentions that studies of tween preferences show that that they have a preference for realistic fiction in the following categories (see below). Below each bulleted category I have listed some of the authors and titles she highlights as well worth reading and popular draws for kids and tweens.

  • self, family, friends
  • mysteries (in my opinion this section was someone dated in terms of authors and titles mentioned, and bears some more research)
    • Nancy Drew series
    • Hardy Boys series
    • Ellen Raskin
    • Zilpha Keatley Snyder
    • Avi
  • adventure and survival stories
    • Gary Paulsen
    • Carl Hiaasen
  • animal stories
  • sports stories
    • Matt Christopher
    • Mike Lupica
    • John H. Ritter
    • Gary Soto
    • Dan Gutman
  • humorous writing
    • Beverly Cleary
    • Judy Blume
    • Betsy Bryars
    • Sara Pennypacker
    • Lisa Yee
    • Lauren Child
    • Jack Gantos
    • Andrew Clements

On page 143, there is a section written by international school librarian Mia Steinkamp, in which she discusses an intriguing idea for developing more connections between youth and literature at the library. This idea is the “Readers Theater Club.” Steinkamp says that scripts for well-known and loved works of contemporary realistic fiction are freely found on the Internet, and can be used as a basis for a Readers Theatre Club. Here is how Steinkamp organizes her club:

  1. pass out scripts to all participants and have them highlight their own part
  2. give them time to read the script silently to get to know the story and get used to the language (also an opportunity to sound out difficult words)
  3. divide them into groups who will present together and give them time to practice with their group
  4. they then present their story to the rest of the club – and perhaps even to a larger audience!

The beauty of this type of program is that it yields a high level of active participation and engagement with a minimal input of energy and preparation. No actual “acting” is necessary, so there is no need for a stage, so this can be done even in a library (like mine) that has limited space. Simultaneously, it seems to me that the amount of potential satisfaction and excitement that this activity can create is incredibly high, as long as care is taken to choose the right stories and scripts for the children and tweens.

While Steinkamp says that the majority of children participating in her Readers’ Theatre club are in second through fourth grade, I think this would be a great activity for my Creative Writers group (consisting of 5th graders and middle school students) to try, as they are a verbally active bunch, and would love the opportunity to try telling a story in this manner. This could also be a bridge activity to a future writing activity.

One point made by Vardell that will stay with me as I read and evaluate various works of realistic fiction for children and tweens is that contemporary realistic fiction needs to reflect “society and the child’s place in it.” (Vardell quoting Tunnell and Jacobs’ 2008 work, Children’s Literature, Briefly.) Vardell goes on to say,”Child readers, in particular, want a book that is realistic, and will often discard novels that are overtly didactic or moralistic, in favor of stories with strong character, exciting plots, and subtle themes.” (p. 158)

In this blog entry, I continue to discuss Children’s Literature in Action, an invaluable text by Sophia Vardell. The chapter on poetry is particularly rich in ideas for practical use by librarians who work closely with children and tweens. Here are some ideas for activities and displays gleaned from the Poetry Chapter:

  1. Celebrate birthdays of poets (I can see doing this with both famous and less well-known poets) by sharing a sample poem or book by the “birthday poet” on that day.
  2. Organize poet visits to one’s library.
  3. Choose a variety of poets to highlight on a rotating basis in a display.
  4. On page 135, she explores an idea for promoting poetry, entitled “Living Anthology,” in which one takes ones favorite poems from the collection and places them around the entire building. This idea, given by poet Georgia Head, can be used effectively by both school and public libraries that serve elementary and middle school children and tweens. In fact this is an activity idea I plan to put into practice during National Poetry Month this coming April.
  5. At my library, I have a group of tweens (mostly sixth and seventh graders) who participate in a weekly Creative Writing workshop. In the first week of April, I will ask the creative writing tweens to explore and find their favorite poems from our existing collection.  After having a couple of weeks to explore poetry and time to pick out some of their favorite poems, we will create poetry “posters” to place around the library, complete with a cover of the book that the poem was taken from, and an invitation to other kids, teens and perhaps even adults to submit their most loved poems for a similar display as well!
In addition to these simple and yet ingenious ideas for drawing attention to the poetry collection, this chapter’s “Authors in Action” section (written by poet Kristine George, p. 120) discusses various ways of celebrating children’s poetry in the virtual world. On her website, Ms. George has created a space where librarians and educators can discuss various ways they incorporate and enjoy poetry in their libraries and classrooms. In conjunction with the publication of her book Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems, and as a way of involving middle grade children in discussions about middle school life, Ms. George instituted a forum entitled Middle School Musings. Originally she expected just a few students, but thousands of tweens have weighed in on their experiences and have also participated in writing and photography challenges as well.
In this chapter author Sylvia Vardell also takes time to explore and explain the different poetic elements (rhythm, rhyme, sound, language, imagery, and emotion). She uses this discussion to elucidate how to evaluate poems and poetry books for children. She also discusses strategies for sharing poems with kids, including reading aloud, highlighting various forms of reading aloud. Below I have highlighted several of these strategies:
  • Chorus reading – An adult reads, and children echo a reoccurring line or word.
  • Call and response – The group is divided into two, each take turns reading lines in a kind of ‘back and forth’
  • Line-around – individual kids volunteer (they should not be forced) to read a single line… Ideally, the whole poem gets read line by line in this way.
This chapter not only leaves one dizzy with possibilities for connecting kids and tweens to poetry, but also makes clear the pivotal role poetry plays not only in “required reading” but in reading that children and tweens choose for pleasure, and encourages librarians to re-connect to the elemental power of poetry to draw one through sound and rhythm as well as emotion to reawaken us to how important this genre is in the formative years, and how crucial it is for children to encounter poetry in a positive, enjoyable way, rather than as more literary drudgery foisted upon them through school.

On page 73 of Children’s Literature in Action, Vardell challenges readers to take a “First Lines Quiz” online, on Kaye Vandergrift’s website at Rutgers University (http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/professional-development/childlit/firstlinesindex.html)

The idea is to read the first lines of many children’s books, and then to guess the book title. I approached the quiz confidently, sure that I would know many if not most of the books. However, I was astonished to find that I remembered (or had read) only a few of these books. Books I remembered well included Anne of Green Gables, Charlotte’s Web, The View from Saturday, The Hobbit, and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, among others. But there were many I had never read. One that I did remember well  (and fondly) was the first line from A Little Princess, which I like so much that I have quoted it below:

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

There were several parts to this first-line quiz, comprising in total of five different pages. I will challenge myself now to read at least one “new to me” book from each of these five pages and discuss them on this blog.

Each chapter of Children’s Literature in Action by Sylvia Vardell has a section called Authors in Action, in which a children’s writer of that particular genre is introduced, and then there is a short essay by that author. On page 51, in the Picture Books chapter, Janet Wong has written an essay entitled “Dumpster Diver Spirit in the Library” in which she discusses how one of her books was inspired by an artist who made a beautiful chair from old wooden skis. After discussing her book, The Dumpster Diver, which is a picture book with an environmental theme about reusing old objects, Ms. Wong goes on to recommend librarians to catch “the Dumpster Diver spirit” by delving into their own collections “to keep the widest possible variety of books ‘alive.'” She has a unique idea, wherein one could divide up a hundred gold stars between several librarians. She instructs us,

“Wander through your library, putting stars on the spines of your favorite old and overlooked books–especially the ‘ugly’ ones. Encourage kids to find these ‘Golden Treasures’ on the shelves, to check them out, and read them… While searching for Golden Treasures, your young patrons might just catch some Dumpster Diver spirit. They’ll find themselves browsing through bookshelves, walking up and down the stacks, looking for something that catches their eyes. When they stuble across something old, and find new value in it, you can both feel very proud.”

This idea, corny though it may sound, really struck my fancy. Currently, at the library where I work, we must weed so many books as a result of lack of use and lack of space. True there are times we must also weed for condition, and that is unavoidable, but wouldn’t it be great to able to extend the shelf-life of some worthy books, by employing the ‘gold-starring’ method? Better yet, it would be great to do it as a program with teens, wherein teens can star their own favorites from childhood. This would have double the impact — not only would we be engaging the teens in a meaningful and fun (and possibly nostalgic) activity, but their “work” would also be helpful to the next generation of children, in finding potential ‘book gold.’ Also, as children tend to trust the taste of older children more than they do the taste of adults, this might build more buy-in and trust from the children as far as the quality and desirability of the gold star books.

I am definitely going to try this out in my library!

An installment of the Library and Information Science Text Series, Children’s Literature in Action by Sylvia Vardell is an exhaustive mine of riches for the youth librarian or library student. Vardell starts with an introduction to children’s literature that includes a tour of areas as diverse as literacy, SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), Children’s Lit Awards, and a section on Readers’ Advisory for children that very briefly covers various RA resources that librarians may find useful in helping children find books, without going into the details of appeal factors or exactly how to go about providing RA services to children. Perhaps RA is given this quick rather than in-depth overview, as the rest of the book considers various genres in extensive detail.

It is impossible to discuss the whole book in one go, so my approach to this book will be to respond to particularly interesting ideas that are brought up by the author… a sort of reader response “journal” if you will, in the next few blog entries.