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By Walter Cook
Inside and outside the classroom, books open doors to learning and entertainment.
Autumn! It’s the time for hearth, home and school! Once summer ends, most youth activities are geared toward academics and extracurricular school activities. At this time of year I encourage parents and students to be aware of upcoming books and academic subject areas that teachers may assign, and make sure they have access ahead of time to these materials or their children may not have them when needed.
Books on the “back to school” theme can help ease the transition to the school year. For young children, an old favorite is Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate. There are several Miss Bindergarten books, all great. The illustrations are distinct and easy to understand, and they help children gain a positive insight into a school setting. In this particular story, Miss Bindergarten (a kindergarten teacher and dog) gets her classroom set up for the first day of school. Meanwhile, her students — a hippo, alligator, beaver and many more — prepare for school by brushing their teeth, getting dressed, packing their backpacks and doing other activities that children will recognize as they get ready for their own school day.
Teachers count on the support of parents and guardians in order to help students achieve success. A critical stage is helping children learn to read. For those students just beginning to read, Mo Willems’ pig and elephant stories are well-loved books that children can attempt with a little help. Piggie and Elephant are friends facing experiences that kids may identify with. They fret over going to parties, sharing, getting hurt and being there for each other. Most of the books are written with dialogue bubble text — a technique that does not usually translate well for beginning readers, but in this case it does. The dialogue is short, to the point and reads clearly.
Evenings and weekends are great times to share reading aloud. Many of the best choices are series books. The world of books for youth is in fact riddled with series. Traditionally, series books are formulaic in style. Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys are classic examples of formula series books, and in recent years we have seen many new ones. Beginning readers may struggle with the first few books of a series, but with practice they learn to master entire books independently. I suggest taking turns reading paragraphs aloud. Remember, always be supportive and provide positive reinforcement.
Some good beginning series are A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy, Owl Diaries by Rebecca Elliott, Rainbow Magic by Daisy Meadows, Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park and Magic Tree House by Mary Osborne Pope. Finding the right series for the right child can be a challenge but often the best method is to let children decide for themselves.
Children, like adults, develop an interest in specific subjects. If Magic Tree House’s dinosaur book sparks an interest, then check out more books on dinosaurs. Likewise, Santa Fe events open avenues for exploration. Our annual Fiesta de Santa Fe is an invitation to study Zozobra, New Mexico history, American Girls’ Josefina (straight from El Rancho de las Golondrinas) and fiestas throughout the Latin world.
Autumn will not pass without a blaze of colorful glory. Take time to visit the aspen forests when they change colors. Be sure to take a camera and leave early in the morning to beat the crowds. But before you take the family on an outing, look for books on autumn and photography. How do leaves change color? Two good places to find answers are Autumn Leaves by Ken Robbins and Why Do Leaves Change Color? by Betsy Maestro.
Photography can enliven the imagination. The Kids Guide to Digital Photography by Jenni Bidner and Click Click Click! by George Sullivan are two good choices to help would-be photographers learn about basic techniques and compositions. Another fun choice is Cottingley Fairies by Ana Sender. This is the story of two girls in Victorian England who captured public interest with their photographs of fairies. Or, were they faked? Read the book and you decide!
As the days grow colder, and after the homework is completed, activity books help pass the time. Among the dozens of craft books to choose from, Step-by-Step Crafts for Winter by Kathy Ross and Fairy Crafts by Heidi Boyd work really well. Science experiment books are also a lot of fun. Big Science for Little People by Lynn Brunelle, Science Experiments that Surprise and Delight by Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt and Maker Lab by Jack Challoner will stretch minds beyond the baking soda and vinegar volcano. These books will also lay the groundwork for thinking about upcoming science fair projects.
For me, the best memories are those shared in the kitchen. There are many children’s cookbooks to help celebrate world cultures, religions, holidays and lifestyles. Pizza is nearly always a favorite, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Cookbook by Peggy Paul Casella is a sure winner. The Pinkalicious series by Victoria Kann is a nice beginning reader series and the Pinkalicious Cupcake Cookbook…need I say more? Families can thumb through The Jumbo Vegetarian Cookbook by Judi Gillies and Jennifer Glossop or Cool World Cooking by Lisa Wagner, select recipes, find the ingredients in the grocery store and learn about weights, measures, temperatures, cooking times and washing hands. If you don’t mind a little bit of a mess, then you won’t mind cooking with kids. And, it’s a good time for children to learn about (shudder!) clean up.
For strong readers, ready to explore a world beyond their own, Greenglass House by Kate Milford is a lovely story. I don’t want away to give too much, but it is a mystery set in a secluded old bed-and-breakfast during a school holiday. In the audiobook version, the author tells us she conceived the book while she and her husband were preparing for the arrival of a child they were adopting from Asia. She used this story to tell the child how much love they had, waiting to be given. Greenglass House is a great stand-alone with sequels and prequels. But start with Greenglass House.
Frindle by Andrew Clements takes place in the reality of a school setting. If you were to singlehandedly set out to redefine social norms practiced by schools and society at large, what obstacles would you likely encounter? This book offers an insight into those actions, without being violent or over-the-top dramatic. Share and talk about this story. Our protagonist explores pushing boundaries but in language well-suited for youth and comfortable for their adults. If you like Frindle, read more of Andrew Clements’ books. Part of learning to read is learning to search. Series books are appealing, but exercising the skill to search for subjects beyond a series is better.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill ends up on many educators’ reading lists. It’s worth it. It tells us the story of a young girl, a strong protagonist, who sets out on a quest to make the world a better place. She encounters a world of magic, an ancient forgotten past and a good-hearted boy. Together and independently, they learn to be all that they can be.
Autumn is a busy time. Academics and extracurricular school activities, jobs and chores dominate each day. For those few precious moments of free time, our public library generously shares enrichment and entertainment choices, to offer enrichment or accent the activities we see around us. Happy reading!