Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading: Reverse Psych on Reluctant Readers

Welcome to my first ever Feeding the Flashlight Skyped author interview!  In it, Tommy Greenwald discusses how frustration with his own reluctant reader sons inspired him to create a middle school boy determined to avoid reading– ever.  Can a book about hating reading actually lure reluctant readers to, well, read?  Absolutely– I’ve seen it happen with the Charlie Joe Jackson.  Hear Tommy talk all about his wildly funny, wildly popular series and how it came to be.  I also include some of the books’ pitch-perfect illustrations, by J.P. Coovert.

Yay! I’m a Cybils Judge!

The Cybils Award is a book award given by a coalition of children’s and teen’s book bloggers, and about the coolest thing that happened to me last month is that I was selected to be a middle grade judge. Me!  Yippee!  To be welcomed into this group of uber-bloggers is a real honor.  I mean, listen to this quote from their website:

The Cybils have only two criteria: literary merit and kid appeal. We don’t think those two values have to collide. There are books we want kids to read and books kids can’t resist. Somewhere in the middle, they meet. 

 That’s exactly the same criteria I use when blogging here!  *Pause for elated sigh*  I spend so much time reading and discussing children’s books with my students, school community, my husband (a grade five teacher), and my daughter (a fifth grader), I am thrilled to join a group of fellow-minded bloggers who command a national audience. I feel like this:

Read more about Cybils here.  Want to nominate a book?  Click here. (You have until Oct.15.) Want to see the list of books already nominated?  Click here.

As a Round 2 Panelist, I don’t really start my role until after the big list becomes a short list (January 1), but the fun has begun!

Rapid Fire Thursday: Boy Book Picks

They can’t put it down. Dan Gutman’s THE GENIUS FILES

I know it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but hey, it’s summer.  I compiled several covers here intended to entice boys in summer mode to pick up a great read.  This is no small feat!   (Why do I hear the voice of Richard Attenborough from PLANET EARTH… “And here, we have a glimpse of the rarest sort:  Settled beneath the shade of a large tree, we see an eight-year-old human male engaged in the act of reading a book…”)  May many of these– or just one– snag your boy.

Please Mind the Gap

I’m always on the hunt for well done early middle grade books.   Perhaps you know a young lady or gentleman who fits the following criteria:

-S/he is between seven and nine years of age.

-S/he has a great sight word vocabulary and can attack longer words with reasonable success.

-S/he has conquered a few easy reader series, such as the Mudge books.

-And all this allows said child to focus more on comprehension so as to enjoy richer plots.

The beloved Henry and Mudge books usher many children into independently reading.

You know someone like this, right?  Well, if you’re an elementary librarian, you’re talking about a quarter of your clientele.  Do you feel my pain of trying to find books to match this reading level?  Good books?  Books that completely hook them and leave them jonesing for more?  Do you nod your head in agreement when I ask the heavens, why aren’t publishers putting out more of these books?  This is a great market!  These kids can plow through series at heart-stopping speed.  That means lots of sales, publishers!  And step on it, before we lose them all to apps and gaming forever, for crying out loud.

Breathe.

There is a developmental staircase in reading, and to go from Frog and Toad All Year to The Witches would be fun, but also would skip some steps. Go ahead and use the “sneak peek” at Amazon to note the difference in these two books.  Many more words per sentence and per page, more pages per chapter, a huge shift upward in vocabulary, and more complicated plotting.  The switch would be akin to throwing a kid into the English Channel as a reward for finishing the Guppy level at the YMCA.

Dahl’s “The Witches” is deliciously wicked and appeals to many early middle grade readers (7 to 9-year-olds), but the text is too challenging for many.

Of course, it’s not like children will drown if they jump to harder books.  No, the result is more troubling (speaking metaphorically, anyway).  When I mistakenly put a child into a book she isn’t ready for, I get, “Yeah, I didn’t like it.”  I know sometimes it may be just that.  But when a child says he didn’t like a universally beloved novel like Charlotte’s Web, really what you’re probably hearing is that he couldn’t decode the text at a rate that allowed him to fall into the story.  Can’t you see him edging towards his Mario Cart or iPad?

Research indicates that if students skip a step in reading development altogether, weaknesses show up in fluency and comprehension later, like in middle school, when the reading is often assigned and in text books.  So, I find I’ve become that prissy lady in glasses crying out (into the darkness), “No skipping stairs, please!  One step at a time!” When I do, I’m often trampled by a surge of third graders running for copies of Twilight.  And as parents, once our kids are reading, it’s hard not to push them towards harder and harder books.  Hey, a lot of the books for older kids are just more alluring.  Who doesn’t want to read Percy Jackson or Harry Potter over, well, I will let you fill in the blanks here.  Emotionally, kids are ready for rollicking fun adventure stories.

Besides, kids love skipping steps. There is nothing particularly glamorous about the taking of stairs one at a time, especially if the books at that level seem babyish.   I can rattle off the names of three second graders who snickered at me when I suggested they’d enjoy The Hunger Games even more a few years from now.  Second graders.

Kids’ reading develops best with a steady climb, with lots of reading at each level.  The tricky part is that it is equally important for children to feel excited about the book they’ve read.  Cool, even.  I suggest reading aloud the fancier books, while otherwise keeping them in books that will nourish their “nutritional” needs, if you will.

It’s a complex game.  So when I spot a chapter book well done, with the promise of snagging eight-year-olds who insist they just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you can be  very sure I’m sharing them with you.

Spread the word on this great new series, in the name of good nutrition!

The Trouble with Chickens, A J.J. Tully Mystery (Harper Collins/Balzer&Bray, 2011)

by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Kevin Cornell

ImageTully, a hard-bitten search and rescue dog accustomed to death-defying missions and living in an ongoing adrenalin rush, finds himself retired at a country farm house, surrounded by chickens.  The chickens call on Tully to help find and rescue a missing sibling.  The little chick has been kidnapped, it is believed, by Vince the Funnel, a spookily enigmatic indoor dog who wears a post-op cone around his neck.  Tully describes the mother chicken as having eyes “tiny and black, set so close together they practically touched.  I’d be surprised if the right eye could report back seeing anything other than the left eye.  Chickens make me nervous.”

Cronin describes the mood she creates as “film noire,” and Tully as Humphrey Bogart.  If you can recall some of those Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny in a trench coat, you get the tenor of the book.  Clipped dialog, mystery, and characters we aren’t sure we can trust are woven together with plenty of belly laughs and great illustrations.

Cronin’s book trailer says it all:

The Deliciousness of a Summertime Adventure

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

A bullfrog.  A nosy neighbor.  An incredible secret.

Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.

Is this not a contender for Best Opening Line in a Children’s Book Ever?  It makes me want to invent the award.  I love watching kids’ faces when I read it to them.  First, their eyebrows pinch together in question, then, they look at their classmates and the giggling erupts.  Thus the journey into a wonderful middle grade book begins– because, really, nobody’s stopping there.

Barbara O’Connor takes us to the south, to a place with barn lofts and creaky porches, ponds with bullfrogs, and  summer nights that smell like “pine and grass and honeysuckle.”  It’s a place that lacks the buzz of technology but is full of sounds– musical sounds that conjure memories of summers gone by for adult readers like you and me.  The ploink of rocks dropping into water, the chug chug of sprinklers, the songs of crickets, and then, one night when the train rolls by, a mysterious thud.  “A crack of wood, and a tumble tumble tumble sound.”

What fell off the train?  We wonder with Owen.  Where is it?  The suspended success of his search nearly kills readers, and they can’t stop reading until they find out just what made the thud.  Yes, I’m talking about delayed gratification– something on the brink of extinction.  O’Connor gets twenty-first century children to experience it.  It’s delicious!

Don’t even think I’m telling you what Owen finds.

I will say that it’s the eponymous secret, a secret thing.  For a boy like Owen– a boy who works for a month to catch the biggest bullfrog in his pond and then uses it to scare his grandfather’s cranky nurse– it’s a secret thing so fantastic that he is compelled to risk his friendship with the guys. If he’s going to get the thing to work, he’ll need to enlist Viola.  Viola is nosy.  She’s a know-it-all.  She’s a girl.  But she’s got what it takes to get the secret thing up and running.  A clandestine partnership ensues.  Can they pull off their plot without being discovered by grown-ups?  Are they breaking the law?  Are they risking their lives?  It’s all just dangerous enough to keep the tension high for 168 pages and close with a satisfying “r-u-u-u-m-m-m of the bullfrogs down in the pond.”

O’Connor is one of those rare writers who uses just enough words to spin a great story, create rich characters, and build images that rattle around your brain long after you’ve finished reading.  But not one word more.  Themes of friendship, tolerance, honesty, and respect for wild animals sneak their way into the story like water bugs through lily pads, but there is no moralizing here.  If the fantastic secret is a gift to Owen, this book is a fantastic gift to kids gaining mastery over longer books.  Reading ability aside it’s a great read for any 8-12-year-old.  I also highly recommend it as a read aloud.

To see the numerous kudos Barbara O’Connor received for the book, and to check out her other works, visit her site http://www.barboconnor.com/.

Get Ahead of the Curve! This Lunch Lady Will Be Played By Amy Poehler.

To get in the mood for this post, watch the author’s quick promo for his series.

What crime fighter packs a spork cell phone, fish stick nunchucks, and taco-vision night goggles?  Why, Lunch Lady, of course– “Serving justice and serving lunch!” In this six-book series, Lunch Lady can handle any danger– and we’re not talking runny sloppy joes here.  Fishy characters around Thompson Brook School have no idea what they’re up against. She knows martial arts, she scales buildings, she carries whisk whackers and is not afraid to use them.   James Bond has Q, and Lunch Lady has Betty, another cafeteria worker with a double life.  Betty develops excellent gadgets like hamburger headphones and fancy ketchup packet lasers in their super secret lab housed in the school Boiler Room.  When confronted with shocking revelations, Lunch Lady will exclaim things like, “Green beans!” or “Oh, my tater tots!”  What’s not to love about Lunch Lady?  I ask you.

Krosoczka grounds readers with a healthy dose of the familiar through the characters called “the Breakfast Bunch”– three kids who eat in the cafeteria every morning.  Through them, everyday topics like soccer tryouts and bullies are mixed in with preposterous plots such a cyborg substitute taking over the school. What does their lunch lady do when she isn’t slinging Salisbury steak? the Breakfast Bunch wonders.  With a little sniffing around, Hector, Terrence, and Dee discover their lunch lady’s time off is action-packed.  Lunch Lady and Betty frequently rely on the kids to seal the deal on crime, which is a departure from the classic, untouchable superhero, like say, Batman.  I like how these books empower kids in that way.

Heads up, parents and teachers of reluctant readers!  There’s a lot being written about the value of graphic novels for developing readers out of non-readers these days.  The preponderance of current wisdom says, YES!  Give kids graphic novels to encourage literacy (make sure they’re age appropriate, of course).  Series like Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady get kids in books.  The librarian where I teach says she can’t keep them on the shelves. Hooray for the Lunch Lady!  Apparently, Amy Poehler agrees. She’s has an interest in the series, and plans to star in the upcoming movie.  I bet that makes real life lunch ladies everywhere smile.

Toys Go Out: Timeless Theme, Original Cast

Toys Go Out taps into a classic childhood fantasy:  What do my  toys do when I’m not looking?  Winnie the Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio, Corduroy, Raggedy Ann and Andy are fixtures in the children’s lit canon for a good reason.  To the child at a certain point in development, it’s more unimaginable that the toys aren’t alive than that they are.  The “Pink Bear” my eight-year-old daughter has been dragging around since toddlerhood is much more to her than the now dishwater-gray polyester pile of flattened plush my husband and I see.

Emily Jenkins masterfully taps into that magical childhood mindspace and brings to life toys in the very same way a child does.  As promised on the cover, the book chronicles the adventures of a stuffed stingray, a “toughy little buffalo” named Lumphy, and “someone called Plastic.”  The book is organized into six stand-alone chapters.  But, reading them consecutively guarantees you fall in love with the hodgepodge cast.

Stingray is neurotic and overcompensates by being a know-it-all whose facts are questionable.  In the first chapter, when the principals are stuffed in their little girl’s backpack and don’t know where they are going, Stingray becomes convinced they are headed for the dump  (kind of like Stuart Little).  From that single assumption, she spirals to, “We’ll be tossed in a pile of old green beans and sour milk cartons…it will be full of garbage-eating sharks, and it will smell like throw-up.”  Stingray is the character who voices the fears that pop into the minds of most of us, but we’re too sensible or embarrassed to utter them.  She cracks third graders up.

Lumphy the buffalo, meanwhile, is a rugged cowboy with a vulnerable side.  He’s plagued by the fear that he’s not a real buffalo, and is given to aggression towards Stingray.  Why does Stingray get to sleep on the High Bed with the Little Girl while the rest of the toys are stuck on the floor?  In the chapter “How Lumphy Got on the Big High Bed and Lost Something Rather Good-looking,” he confronts Stingray but loses his tail as a result.

Plastic– the ball– has a total identity crisis.  What is a plastic, anyway?  Readers aren’t sure either, as she is not identified by anymore than her name.  Plastic can read, but the dictionary definition is inscrutable and the poor thing panics until the wise old bathroom towel Tuk Tuk sheds light on the situation.  “Plastic is just your name…It’s obvious, to anyone who knows anything, precisely what you are.”

Plastic:  “It is?”

Tuk Tuk: “I’ve seen balls before you, I’ll see balls after you.  A ball is what you are.  Tell me, do you bounce?”

Plastic: “Yes! I do?”

Tuk Tuk: “And do you roll?”

Plastic: “Yes!”  (She rolls around the bathroom until she smashes into the base of the toilet.)

Tuk Tuk: “And have you got front legs and back legs?”

Plastic: “Um, not exactly.”

Tuk Tuk: “And no fur whatsoever?”

Plastic: “No.”

Tuk Tuk: “That’s normal for a ball, you know.”

Plastic: “What about how I don’t have very much nose?”

Tuk Tuk: “You mean, how you don’t have any nose?”

Plastic: “Um . . . yes.”

Tuk Tuk:  “I have been around a long time.  I have never seen a ball with fur, or legs, or a nose.  You’re a ball, Plastic.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Plastic:  “I’m a ball!  A ball, ball, ball!”

Jenkins’ storytelling is tender.

Absurd.

Perfectly childlike.

If you know me at all, you know I hold nothing against potty humor or slacker middle-school boys in books.  If those things get more youthful eyes scanning text, bring ’em on.  But there is something to be said for a good, old-fashioned story well told.  Something to be cherished, like an old, gray Pink Bear.

Dear Max: Who Doesn’t Love to Read Other People’s Mail?

There are at least three things I love about Dear Max, by Sally Grindley.

1.  First and foremost, because I’m a teacher and all, I love that the format sucks readers right into the book. Dear Max is a story  told entirely in letters between Max (almost ten) and his favorite author, D.J. Lucas.  Who doesn’t love to read other people’s mail?  Max writes a fan letter, D.J. writes back, and a friendship begins. Max and D.J.’s letters are short, funny, honest, and touching in a way that makes the need for further narrative superfluous.  For kids, the short and funny thing can lead to a great sense of accomplishment.  Just today I used Dear Max with a reluctant reader I tutor.  He didn’t really want to read it, but in 45 minutes he’d read me 35 pages!  That’s great for reading self-esteem.  As for the honest and touching business, well, that’s a bonus for us grown-ups.

2.  This book nurtures a love for writing stories and is chockfull of great pointers for fledgling authors.  The relationship between Max and D.J. gains momentum when Max, duly inspired by D.J.’s myriad bestsellers, decides to write a story and asks for her help.  D.J. is under deadline herself, and invites Max to write his story while she writes her new book.  I love when D.J. admits she often spends hours staring at the white page and that her ideas take quite some time to “brew.”  The story Max writes about Grizzle, a bear too small to catch fish like he’s supposed to, and Chomp, the crocodile that bullies him, mirrors Max’s own struggles in school.  Max is small and bullied by a thug named Hugo Broadbent– nicknamed Broadbottom by Max.  The parallels are there, but D.J. and Grindley never connect the dots for readers.  Which brings me to the third thing I love.

3.  There’s so much story between the letters for readers to figure out, it’s captivating! At first, Max is just a 9-year-old fan of an author, but a few letters in we learn, “Christmas is the saddest time of year for my mum and me.”  A few letters more, and we find Max’s father is gone from his life, though we don’t know why.  Later, Max mentions he’s off to yet another boring trip to the hospital, where his doctor examines him as if he were a weird bug.  As for D.J., turns out she’s a motorbike riding, skydiving author who’s fallen in love with a pilot, and who is clearly smitten with Max as well.  Enough so that she takes a break from writing that new book to write a short story about an almost-ten-year-old boy.   Readers finally learn Max’s father has died, but we never do learn what illness takes Max to the hospital and if it’s why he is so much smaller than his peers.  The absence of the label brings to mind how pointless labels can be.  In this way, it’s a book rich for discussion.  And also in the way it models using art/creativity/writing as catharsis.  No wonder it was shortlisted for three different book awards in Grindley’s native U.K.

This is a 3-book series, and the second finds Max ready to write a play at the same moment D.J.’s book is to be made into a movie.  I highly recommend Bravo, Max. In the third book, Relax Max, Max and D.J. take on poetry.  You’ll have a hard time finding it in the U.S., but when my book group wrote to Grindley’s publisher in the U.K., true to form, they sent us six copies free of charge– air mail!  I am a fan.

Clarice Bean– Bridget Jones as a Youth? She’s Not Just for Girls!

You know what the Brits call pigs’ feet?  Trotters.  Are you picturing a bunch of pink pigs trotting around their pen right now?  I am.  I love that term!  It’s perfect.  I learned it reading Clarice Bean. Her stories are told in diary format, and have a sense of humor reminiscent of the Bridget Jones diaries.   “Clarice Bean!  Will you please come back down to Earth this instant!”  That would be British school marm Mrs. Wilberton, teacher of Clarice and possessor of trotters (according to our narrator).  Mrs. Wilberton is exasperated with Clarice yet again and old-school enough to broadcast it to the class every chance she gets.  But don’t worry about Clarice.  She’s a survivor.   In her first book, Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, she’s quite full of moxie indeed, modeling herself after her favorite book character, Ruby Redfort, school girl detective.  But when a book report contest provides an opportunity to win the class prize, Clarice is ready to rise to the challenge.  And though she’s no academic match for her rival, goody-goody Grace Grapelli, Clarice is at the top of her game when the prize trophy vanishes and the mystery needs to be solved.

At their core, the Clarice Bean books are not vastly different from Judy Moody books or Ramona books:  spunky, quirky character faces school daze problems and said spunk/quirkiness carries her through.  But, what was groundbreaking about author/graphic artist Lauren Child’s style, back in ’02, was that she creatively exploited every available feature of the book she presented to her young audience to bring Clarice alive.  That is, well before Dairy of a Wimpy Kid‘s Jeff Kinney brought us pages that have a sixth grader’s doodles in the margins and a font that looks like kid scrawl, Child infused the very print on the page– normal Times New Roman, or whatever– with an expressive quality reflective of Clarice’s unique voice.  Bold print, italics, yeah, but how about swirling print and sideways print, with font size adjusted to match Clarice’s frame of mind?  And using wonderful collage images in unconventional places to illustrate a point?  I wish I could show you an example, because that’s the only way to do Child’s work justice, but, bear with me and picture this page:

I can’t concentrate because I am busy imagining Mrs. Wilberton as a hippopotamus, and I am writing [childlike scrawl font here]: Mrs. Wilberton is a hippipotimis.  Mrs. Wilberton is a hippipotimis. over and over again without really meaning to.  And what I am unaware of is that Mrs. Wilberton is standing behind me, reading it.  She says, “Can anyone here correctly spell the word hippopotamus for Clarice Bean?”  And here, barging in from the right side of the page is a photograph of a hippo with hand-drawn cat glasses, a la Wilberton.  Clarice doesn’t say she pictured this.  She doesn’t have to.  The picture deepens our understanding of who Clarice is. And, personally, I can’t get enough of her.

Book two in the series, Clarice Bean Spells Trouble, won critical acclaim from librarians as well as kids.  In it, there’s a spelling bee, a musical theater rendition of The Sound of Music (alas, our Clarice is stuck playing one of the nuns), and most heartwarming, a blooming friendship between Clarice and the class trouble-maker, Carl Wrenbury.  Only Clarice, with her individualist nature and blatant disregard for authority, is willing to look beyond Karl’s behavior and extend the hand of friendship to a boy in need of understanding.  Fewer illustrations but more heart, it’s a fantastic read.

Monty Python for the Twelve-and-Unders: Cressida Crowell

I know, I know.  You saw the movie.  “It was a little sad,” I hear you say.  “My kid cried,” you say.  I have no idea what happened when  How to Train a Dragon, by Cressida Cowell, was turned into a movie, but something seems to have been lost in translation.  This book is funny.  Monty bloody Python funny.  It’s not sad.  I didn’t see the movie, so I’m not criticizing it, I’m just sayin’, boys LOVE this book.  It definitely will not make them cry, unless they are laughing so hard a few tears spring from their eyes.  Girls like it, too, if you can get them past the overtly male window dressing (Colors of the dragon breed called the Gronkle:  Snot green, bogey beige, pooey brown.) and into the bones of the story.  Because deep down, it’s universally appealing.   Unlikely hero, whose talents fly in the face of popular culture, overcomes bully-ish peers by virtue of said talent, and saves the day.  It reminds me of Python’s Life of Brian, in which Brian is believed by a whole lot of folks to be the Messiah, and feels wholly unfit for the job.  (In case you want to remember, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjz16xjeBAA )

Only, nobody believes in Hiccup.

Hiccup is a Viking boy, heir to the royal throne.  His father, the Chief of the Hairy Hooligans, casts a long shadow– he’s a fearsome sword warrior and esteemed leader of a crowd who favors brawn and bulkiness over all else.  Hiccup is more of the introspective, intellectual sort of Viking.  The problem is, of course, there is no such thing as an introspective, intellectual Viking, and most definitely no such thing as an introspective, intellectual Viking chief. Hiccup is routinely ridiculed by fellow tribesman, including his father.  A rite of passage for all Viking boys is to tame a wild dragon to use in battle.  The book opens with the boys being led into a cave to kidnap sleeping baby dragons during their hibernation season.  The popular mode of training a dragon?  Yell at it.  The louder the better.  Hiccup has a wimpy yell, and all his peers know his weakness.  On top of that, he’s captured the smallest of all dragons– and it’s toothless, to boot.  But Hiccup’s strength?  He’s researched and studied, studied and researched, and mastered the Dragonese language.  He’s a dragon whisperer.

What adult doesn’t want his/her child getting the message that brains overpower brawn?  The best part is that it’s camouflaged in kid humor.  The line-up of events at the “Thor’sday Thursday Celebration?”  Hammer-throwing for the Over-60s only; How Many Gulls’ Eggs Can You Eat in One Minute? contest; Ugliest Baby Contest; Axe-fighting Display (“Admire the delicate art of fighting with axes.”).

A whole lot of fun, and just the beginning of a multi-book series.  So forget the movie.  The book is better (she says without having seen the first frame of the film).  Isn’t the book always better?

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