Archive: March 2011
Piglet and Wilbur and Pinky

Today I thought I’d talk about the last couple of books Mary and I have been discussing in our Children’s Literature class.  We rounded up the first half of our semester with a few books about animals — specifically, Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Webb, and A Day No Pigs Would Die.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

This book marked a change from previous texts in the course.  While still being British, Pooh has very little to do with colonialism or moral instruction.  Instead it’s just a great big exercise in adorableness.  “How adorable,” you ask?  I defy you to read this page and not smile.

I once had a friend observe that — other than the wind — Winnie-the-Pooh is an adventure without an antagonist.  I think that’s by design.  There’s a lot to be said about the fact that this book was published in the shadow of World War I.  It’s a safe bet that most of Milne’s readers were the children of veterans, and I can imagine those parents embracing the idea that their progeny were somehow too innately good to ever march into war.  In this way it sort of acts as a critique for the bloody adventures of a Peter Pan or Rover Ralph — whereas those characters romanticize violence, Christopher Robin illuminates the beauty of real-life child’s play.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

I think there’s some interesting stuff in the gap between Pooh and Charlotte’s Web.  Like the previous novel, this, too, was written after a World War — but it was a bigger war that changed the landscape in even more terrifying ways.  It’s one thing to indulge in a little escapism after fighting the Kaiser, but doing so after Hitler and “The Bomb” somehow feels like poor taste.  Instead White gives us a book full of compassion — but not so much that it ignores the reality of death.

“Hang on,” you might be saying. “If Charlotte’s Web is aiming for ‘reality,’ why all the talking animals?”  I think White knew that the impact of animal deaths would only land if we cared for them as we would humans — which he could only do by making them talk.  Through fantasy, White makes his story feel realer than real-life.  If you ask me, that’s a pretty neat trick.

A Day No Pigs would Die by Robert Newton Peck

This third book wasn’t one we could fit into the course for time-reasons.  That’s a pity because  A Day No Pigs Would Die is a truly wonderful book that doesn’t get its due.  It’s pretty much the exact same story from Charlotte’s Web, but now all bits of fantasy have been stripped away — including the fantasy that a farm animal can avoid death.  It is a profoundly-moving book about a Shaker boy and his doomed pet.

I first became aware of Day when I taught reading classes to middle-schoolers.  Anyone who’s taught that age knows that they can be a pretty jaded group — add to this the fact that this was a summer class that my students were being forced to addend and you’ve got a pretty hostile audience.  This book changed all that.   Students read and discussed the novel over the course of a week, and on the final day, I read the last chapter aloud to them … without fail, every kid in the room was a sobbing mess.  Awesome.

So that ends the first half of our semester!  Later in the week, I’ll unveil the next chunk of books,  which will take us into the scary land of YA.  Until then!

Pop “Quiz”

Yesterday Mary was looking up the origins of the word “quiz” — specifically wanting to know at what point it became a verb related to testing.1  Her research led to this 18th century quote: “Everybody seems to set me down as a butt made on purpose to be ridiculed … as if I had ‘This man is quizable’ pasted in large letters upon my back.”2

Nice to know that some things never change …

  1. It originally meant “an odd or eccentric person in character or appearance” (OED).
  2. From The Quiz No. 13. (1797).

The protagonist on his fighting parents:

“I shut my door and push a chair against it, then duck for cover under my blanket.  Still, it feels like every shot they take at each other passes through me first.”

– Lisa Yee
Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time

Little Black Book(s) …

Anyone who knows me knows that I always carry a black, spiral-bound journal under one arm.  It’s full of things I’ve seen and read — if you say something really witty at a party, I might just open up the book and write it down.1  I know some writers treat their notebooks like pieces of art, but that’s never really worked for me — I need something fast and functional.

It took me years to find a journal that was the right size and weight, and once I finally got something, I stuck with it.2  I’ve been using the same model notebook and pen for over ten years now.  The first time I sold a piece of art, I used all the money to buy a reserve supply of both, just in case the manufacturers went out of business!

Wanna see what’s inside these magical pages?   To do that, you’ll have to mosey on over to The Reading Zone where Sarah Mulhern has collected images from a bunch of different authors’ notebooks — including mine.3  Among the photos in her post, you’ll find a rough sketch illustrating my second-favorite Roald Dahl scene … one million blog points to whoever can guess the picture in advance!

  1. Over the years, I’ve developed a complicated system of symbols to indicate attribution of ideas so that I don’t accidentally use someone else’s original ideas in my own writing.
  2. I know a lot of people gush about Moleskine notebooks, but I can’t draw in something with a closed binding.
  3. Sarah is just one of many bloggers working to promote literacy in a gigantic blogging event called Share a Story – Shape a Future.

From Chapter One:

“Allow me to warn you now that, under any other circumstances, stealing a girl is about the worst way of winning her heart you could possibly cook up. … But because this happened long ago, in a faraway land, it seems to have worked.”

– Adam Gidwitz
A Tale Dark and Grimm

Hasta La Vista, Hardy Boys!

Today is the third day of Share a Story – Shape a Future 2011, an internet superfest designed to promote literacy.  Each day this week bloggers all over the world will write on a specific topic — today’s topic is “Unwrapping Literacy 2.0.” Now I’ve already written a bit about the pros and cons of e-books from a publishing angle, so today I thought I’d discuss things from a young reader perspective.  But first, a little background on reading development …

When I finished grad school, I took a job as a reading teacher for a company called the Institute of Reading Development.  Our curricula were modeled after Dr. Jeanne Chall’s stages of reading development.  Each stage is fascinating and worthy of discussion, but today I want to focus on stage two: “Confirmation & Fluency.”

This stage usually spans the 2nd and 3rd grades — just after readers have mastered phonetics and can now read silently.  During these years, their primary mission is exposure:  kids simply need to see as many words as possible so that their sight vocabulary can grow to match their spoken vocabulary.  If reading development were a video game, stage two would be nothing but grinding.

The books children read during this phase are specifically designed to let the brain go on autopilot.  They often feature simplistic characters and repetitive plots — think of The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  These are sprawling series books that could be read in any order because, ultimately, nothing ever happens in them.1  And that’s okay; such books provide an essential service to young readers:  they deliver a massive amount of unchallenging yet engaging content that equips readers to move on.

These kinds of books remind me of something Neil Gaiman said at ALA in January about parenting: “It’s odd, because you spend all this time creating this brilliant, fascinating person … and if you’ve done your job right, at the end of eighteen years they leave you.2  Similarly, if stage two books have succeeded, then a reader need never go back to them — and if they do decide to return, they might not like what they find.3

I think it’s appropriate that so many of these series books are mysteries.  Mysteries are, by and large, not much fun to read once you know whodunit.  Put the two things together and you’ve got a perfect marriage between form and function.

So what does all this have to do with “Unlocking Literacy 2.0?”  Well, I tend to wonder whether an e-reader is a perfect device for disposable books — especially if young readers are able to pay for a subscription service that gives them access to all the Magic Tree House (or Tom Swift or Goosebumps or Boxcar Children) they can handle without burdening them with the physical remainder.

Then again, what’s the fun of reading a book if you can’t put it on the shelf when you’re done?

*     *     *

That’s it for me.  If you want to read more about Literacy 2.0, go visit Danielle Smith at There’s a Book.

  1. To hear me dump on more of your childhood, click here.
  2. My notes from ALA were particularly scribbly, so this is actually more of a reconstruction than direct quote.
  3. Thanks to Betsy Bird for the link!
Conversations with Ray

As some of you know, this week marks Share a Story – Shape a Future 2011.  Each day bloggers around the world will write on a specific topic related to literacy.  Today’s topic is “The Gift of Reading” — a subject that just happens to coincide with a post I’ve been planning for a while now, ever since I stumbled across this old photograph …

That is my father, John Wheeler Auxier.1  He’s reading Doctor DeSoto to me and my sisters.  This was one of hundreds of books he read aloud to us, always using voices, always willing to indulge us with “just one more.”

All through elementary school, my father made regular visits to our classes to read aloud.  He did this every week from first to sixth grade.  This was not a luxury of time;  during many of these years he was working two or three jobs to keep the family afloat — all while trying to complete graduate school.  Still, he always made time to read.2

When I think about “the gift of reading,” I picture my father standing before my class, caught up in a terrifying impression of Blind Old Pew or Jadis, the Last Queen of Charn.  I remember watching him, proud and hopeful that I might one day be able to orate with such passion.  I suspected then what I know now:  it is not enough just to buy a kid a book.  It is not even enough to let kids see you read.  Reading must be relational.  The difference between reading a stop sign and reading a book is that the latter is a conversation between the audience and storyteller.  Everything else is just words on a page.

Even after I reached “reading fluency,” my father continued to read aloud to me — sharing books that were otherwise just out of reach.  I was in fifth grade when he read  Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.   Anyone who knows this book knows that it is a story meant to be handed down from father to son.  The copy he read to me was a tattered first edition, stamped inside and out with the words “Property of John. W. Auxier” from when he was a boy.  Of course, I didn’t understand everything I heard, but I understood enough to be thrilled.  When he finished reading it, he gave the book to me, and I have re-read it every October since.  Often aloud.

Ray Bradbury soon became my favorite author, and a few years later, my father took me to a writing convention to meet him in person.  I only remember two things from that busy day.  The first was when my father mentioned — almost in passing — that he thought I should be a writer.  The second was something that happened at the end of the day:

Bradbury had finished his keynote address and was now signing books, battling off hundreds of eager fans all clamoring to meet him.  My father, who had gone to the washroom, returned from the hall a moment later with a bemused smirk. “I just peed next to Ray Bradbury,” he said.

A million things rushed through my mind — among them the realization that Bradbury was, in fact, bound by the laws of nature.  And imagine the luck!  Hundreds of people were waiting in line for this man’s signature, and my father got a private audience.  “What did you say to him?” I asked, imagining what question I might have chosen.

He shrugged. “I told him ‘Your signing-hand must be pretty sore.‘”

I remember being in total awe:  when faced with his childhood hero, my father had remained completely calm — casual even.  But looking back on that day, his reaction seems less shocking to me now.

After all, my father had been having conversations with Ray his whole life.

*     *     *

For those interested in other “Gift of Reading” stories, I highly recommend you check out BookDads, where Chris Singer has brought together dozens of bloggers to tell stories about fatherhood and the Gift of Reading.  Then pick up a copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes and read it to someone.

  1. Please note that he is John and I am Jonathan … a  difference I cling to when accused of being a “jr.”
  2. In fact, I would argue that reading aloud is one of few “advantages” a parent can give their child that doesn’t cost money.

“Who has more pockets than a magician?
A boy.
Whose pockets contain more than a magicians?
A boy’s.”

– Ray Bradbury
Something Wicked This Way Comes, ch. 49


I am not the biggest fan of Twitter.  I can only get work done when my internet is disconnected, and the idea of a “community” that requires constant input is both daunting and distracting.  Still, a few months ago I signed up … and quickly discovered that I am the worst Twitterer in the world.1

Case in point:  last week I wrote the following message —

With hindsight, I can see that this is a bit, shall we say … desperate?  At the time, however, I was simply thinking “Gee, people post these kinds of messages all the time and then get a zillion followers — I want a zillion followers!”  I hit “tweet” and waited for success.

So how many new followers did I get?

Zero.  None.  Not even a spambot.  In fact, I lost a follower.2  If  there’s a moral to this story, it’s something about how I should never again be allowed near a computer.

Despite the shattering of my fragile ego, there has been one big upside to using Twitter:  I’ve made connections with a number of interesting people in the children’s book world — people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  For example, Deer Hill Elementary teacher Mike Lewis reached out and invited me to contribute a video to his school’s annual Read Your Heart Out Day (warning: contains me in pajamas).

Another example is Share a Story – Shape a Future 2011.  This is an annual literacy event hosted by a variety of children’s book bloggers.  My involvement was slightly accidental.  A few weeks back I answered a call for photos of writers’ notebooks from teacher-blogger Sarah Mulhern.  I sent her a few photos of my old journals.  Little did I know what I was getting into.  You see, Sarah’s “author notebook” post is a part of a massive event that includes dozens of teachers/librarians/writers/book lovers all over the world.   The theme this year is “Unwrapping the Gift of Literacy,” and each day will tackle a different topic:

MONDAY – The Power of a Book

TUESDAY: The Gift of Reading

WEDNESDAY: Unwrapping Literacy 2.0

THURSDAY: Keeping School from Interfering with the Gift of Literacy

FRIDAY: Literacy: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Once I figured out (through Twitter, of course) what this event was, I asked if I could join the fun.  The coordinators are nice people and said “dive in!”  I’ll be posting related pieces this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  In the meantime, check out posts about “the power of a book” at The Book Whisperer and Reading is Fundamental.

  1. Of course, Charlie Sheen has since won this title out from under me
  2. It was a Thai restaurant from Minnesota … why they were following me in the first place, I’ll never know.

Perhaps the second greatest book dedication of all time:

“For my parents. Obviously.”

Adam Gidwitz,
A Tale Dark and Grimm

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