Reading with Grandma

IMG_4989I love to hear my mom read aloud to my boys. She reads with lots of expression and does great voices. It’s no secret how I became such a bookworm.

Over the years, she’s shared lots of good books with Blaine and Larrabee. I expect that the ones they’ll always associate with visits to Grandma’s house, though, are the Bill Peet books.

We have quite a collection of Bill Peet books at our house too. But Grandma has a huge stash that she’s saved since my brother was little. She pulls them out when we come to visit, and we all enjoy reacquainting ourselves with Cyrus, Kermit, Clyde, Buford, Chester, Pamela and Zeke.

Early in his career, Bill Peet worked for Walt Disney Studios, where he wrote the screenplays for 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone. Then, he turned to writing and illustrating children’s books and wrote dozens of delightful stories. Bill Peet said he got the ideas for many of his stories by doodling.

My all-time favorite is Cowardly Clyde, the story of the skittish war-horse who has to overcome his fear to save Sir Galavant from a terrible ogre. My kids crack up at the same parts that used to make my brother laugh (“Then I’m a dim-witted noodlehead” and “KER-PUFFLE”).

I’m curious to hear from you. Do you have a favorite Bill Peet book? What books do your parents like to share with your kids?

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From Supersleuths to Super Pranksters

If your kids are looking for a wacky, light-hearted summer read, check out these two series  from the very funny Mac Barnett:

  • The Brixton Brothers books are mysteries featuring twelve-year-old boy detective Steve Brixton. Steve is an ardent fan of the Bailey Brothers Mysteries (a Hardy Boys-esque series) from which he picks up numerous sleuthing tips as well as some useful slang (e.g., “chum”, “ace”). Steve lives in the fictional town of Ocean Park (based on Santa Cruz!). There are four books in the series, and Blaine tore through all of them a couple of summers ago.
  • The Terrible Two books (co-authored by Mac Barnett and Jory John) are set in the fictional Yawnee Valley, a town that’s famous only for cows. These humorous books feature a pair of pranksters and an overbearing principal. Larrabee read the first two books in this series this summer and is eagerly awaiting the third (to be published in early 2017).

Larrabee and I had the pleasure of hearing Mac Barnett read two of his picture books, the brand new Rules of the House and also Leo: A Ghost Story (a personal favorite!) at Bookshop Santa Cruz last month.

A Dragon, a Ninja Frog and a Giant Platypus

Blaine, Larrabee, and I had a chance to meet Ursula Vernon a couple of years ago at Bookshop Santa Cruz. She is the author and illustrator of the tremendously fun Dragonbreath series.

She told us about how she combines ideas in her books. For example, ninjas are cool. Frogs are also cool. So, ninja frogs would make awesome villains.  (See Dragonbreath #2: Attack of the Ninja Frogs).

She also talked about how she plots her books. She said that she puts her main character into some sort of interesting situation (e.g., he falls into a pit or is attacked by ninja frogs). Then she asks herself:

  1. Why is this happening?
  2. Who is responsible?
  3. What happens next?

She proceeded to brainstorm a plot with the kids in attendance. I don’t remember all of the details, but it featured a platypus. Not just an ordinary platypus. A giant platypus. A Platypus-zilla threatening the town of Santa Cruz.

Her presentation made us want to come home and write a story. Or draw a comic book. Or read (or re-read) one of her books. Hopefully, we’ll do all of the above this summer.

Speaking of Ursula Vernon’s books, the boys and I highly recommend Dragonbreath and its sequels. These books are wacky and funny and full of adventure. They’re ideal first chapter books because they’re easy to read, with a mix of text and comic book panels.

There are eleven books in the series to date. Blaine’s personal favorite is Dragonbreath #3: Curse of the Were-wiener (yes, like a hot dog werewolf). Larrabee is just starting the series, but unlike Blaine, he doesn’t believe in reading books in order. He’s partial so far to Dragonbreath #10: Knight-napped.

Book or Movie First?

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In line to see a 3D movie (not based on a book)

Are there really two sides to this debate? Book first!

Whenever possible, I read the book with my kids before we see the movie adaptation.

Books are longer and more detailed. Movies have to leave out characters, scenes, sometimes whole subplots. Books can reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings. Movies can only show a character’s external reactions.

Reading the book first adds to the fun of the movie for my kids. They can’t resist whispering their comments. They remark on whether or not the characters look the way they imagined them. They predict what scene is coming next and note any changes in the plot. Knowing the ending in advance doesn’t seem to spoil the movie for them at all.

On the other hand, seeing the movie first can take the fun out of reading the book. Friends tell me that seeing the Harry Potter movies inspired their kids to read the books. I can believe that. But Harry Potter must be the exception. I can’t think of any book my kids picked up after seeing the movie version.

If you’re looking for a summer read-aloud/movie combination, here are a few recommendations:

  • Andy Weir’s The Martian is not a kids’ book (and it contains some profanity), but older kids would enjoy it. Blaine did. It’s a sci-fi thriller that kept me reading late into the night and made me laugh out loud. And the movie is excellent too.
  • Even if you’ve already seen The Hobbit movie trilogy, it’s worth reading the classic fantasy novel that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote for his own kids in the 1930s. Mark read it aloud to the whole family years ago, and I intend to read it again to Larrabee. Baggins, Gandalf, Gollum. Precious!
  • Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is a bit dark for young kids, but Blaine and I devoured it. It has an intriguing heroine and a compelling plot. The four movies are good fun too.
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is another good choice for older kids. Blaine and I read it together before seeing the movie version. I didn’t love the rest of series, but I like this one a lot.

And if you’re a Roald Dahl fan, you may want to put The BFG on your summer reading list now, so that you’ll be ready for the movie adaptation on July 1.

Encyclopedia Brown

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 12.58.37 PMMy whole family likes Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books. Here’s a true account of a conversation we had in the car last weekend:

Mark:  Hey Larrabee, whatcha reading?
Larrabee:  Encyclopedia Brown.
Mark:  Oh, I loved those books when I was a kid.
Beth:  Me too.
Blaine:  Me too. Wait. What? I had no idea those books were that old.

Ouch! Well, it’s a compliment to Donald Sobol anyway. There’s a kind of timeless quality about young Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, Sally Kimball, Bugs Meany, and the other folks in Idaville. The series actually includes a total of twenty-nine books published over a forty-nine year period. I’m sure Mark and I missed some of the later ones.

These books—starting with Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective—are great fun to read aloud together or for kids to read to themselves. Each book consists of approximately ten short mysteries with the solutions at the end of the book. I still remember some of the facts I learned from reading them!

Hooray for Summer Reading Logs!

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Larrabee in the car with a book and his reading log

The school year will be over in the blink of an eye. My  boys and I can’t wait for summer fun: lazy mornings, afternoons at the beach, hikes in the woods, camps, video games, vacations, movies, books.

Yes, books. Books are definitely on the list. That’s a good thing because reading prevents the dreaded summer slide. Research shows that by reading at least 4-6 books over the summer, kids can maintain or improve their reading level.

So how can I make sure that my boys read enough this summer?

The secret is to count. Count books. Count pages. Count minutes spent reading. It doesn’t matter.

In the business world, they say: “You get what you measure.” I know from experience that this adage applies to kids’ reading too.

Part of Larrabee’s weekly homework in 1st grade was to read for ten minutes a day. Reading is important to me, and Larrabee likes to read. And yet, during those busy fall months, I doubt if he practiced his reading at home more than three times a week. Then, a few months ago, Larrabee started bringing home a reading log in his weekly homework packet. Since then, he’s barely missed a day.

The simple act of filling in a bar graph reminds him (and me) to make reading a daily priority. It prompts him to fill those empty minutes in his day—such as riding in the car or waiting for dinner to be ready—with good books. In fact, Larrabee credits the reading log with getting him into a bunch of great new series (including Kate McMullan’s Myth-O-Mania books, Jim Benton’s Franny K. Stein, Mad Scientist books, and Mo O’Hara’s My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish books). I’ve seen the same type of assignment work for Blaine in the 2nd and 5th grades.

So, as soon as the school year ends, my boys will sign up for the summer reading contests at the Santa Cruz Public Library and at Bookshop Santa Cruz. And if they complete both contests before the summer is over, I’ll create a new challenge for them.