Tuesday, September 01, 2009

RIP, Reading Rainbow

Butterfly in the sky...
I can go twice as high!
Take a look!
It's in a book!

If you are of a certain age (or have kids of a certain age), those lines will probably evoke memories of watching Reading Rainbow. The show aired new episodes on PBS from 1983-2006. But now, even the reruns are no more.

According to the NPR article linked above, no one is willing to put up the money to renew the broadcast rights of the books in the episodes. The economy is only partly to blame:

"John Grant, who is in charge of content at ... Reading Rainbow's home station[,] ... says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read — but that's not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do.

And no, that was not the point of the show. The point of the show was to revel in the joys of reading, the love of reading, and exploring all the wonderful things than can be found in books. It is the piece that tells kids why they should read. If there is no why, is it any wonder that kids struggle more with how?

This is not to disparage the newer shows that focus on teaching kids how to read. I've sat down and watched Between the Lions a number of times, and even Super WHY! once, and they are entertaining and educationally sound. There's certainly some real magic to Between the Lions, and I've seen it first hand up on a stage with the puppeteers, reading to one of the puppets before a packed auditorium. That one may resonate strongly with today's kids the way Reading Rainbow did with us. But this is the strong, obviously educational piece of the puzzle. Reading Rainbow never felt like work. The two concepts should really go hand in hand.

I have no doubt that Reading Rainbow was a strong influence on me. I always wanted to be one of the kids giving book recommendations to other kids. And look at me now. What am I doing? Giving book recommendations to kids! Somehow I don't think there's a coincidence there.

And yet there is a sense that this ending is inevitable somehow. I have to say that I wasn't aware that the show was still producing new episodes as late as 2006. The last new episode was November of that year, and I began my professional career in May. No one ever came in to ask about the latest Reading Rainbow book.

We still have books from the 1980s that have special markings designating them as Reading Rainbow books. If you ask my colleague, they'll tell you that back then it was a huge deal, and you really had to be up on it. I think I've had exactly one parent of a current young child mention that the kid had a beloved book because he saw it on Reading Rainbow and checked it out of the library.

So, it may indeed be time to say goodbye to this show, as it doesn't seem to resonate with kids that strongly anymore. Or maybe it's just been in a bad time slot, or missing a marketable cartoon character for merchandise. Who knows?

But I think that pulling reruns entirely because instilling the love of reading is not as important as teaching building blocks of reading is poor pedagogy. I would hope that someone has the foresight and energy to create a new show for today's kids that explores these ideas.

In the meantime, we librarians will carry on as the bearers of the flame for the joys of reading. We'll just have to do it with a few less "butterflies in the sky..."

This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

That Takes Me Back!

It's a funny thing reading children's books for a living. Sometimes you will come across a book that takes you right back to a specific time in your childhood. And it doesn't even have to be a particularly interesting book if the emotions ring true. You can be decades away from that moment, living a perfectly fine adult life, and suddenly "pow!" you are a gawky kid again reliving some wonderful or traumatic incident.

Years ago I was in library school reading Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly for a YA class. And I wasn't all that interested or invested in the book, when a particular scene hit me and I got angry. Not about anything that was happening in the book, but rather the scene reminded me of some patently false rumors that had been spread about me in high school. And I was taken aback at how strongly those emotions still were when I had lost touch with everyone involved in the incident many years earlier. I got worried the the class would wind up being a study in dredging up old high school resentments. Luckily, the books that do this are a select few.

Cut to last week. I was reading The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club by Catherine Stier (due out on September 1st):

This is a book all about the intricacies of a social life at the ripe old age of ten. How does the savvy ten-year-old balance school, family and a burgeoning sense of self and yet still fit in? It is told from the points of view of four classmates: Kiley, the popular girl starting to be interested in boys; TJ, who is great at sports and always getting in trouble, but who also harbors a deep secret; Josh, who secretly hates sports, living under the shadow of a bully of big brother who just wants to fit in; and Anne who doesn't understand why her good friend Josh is suddenly really mean and wants to take revenge on him. Stier does a very good job of giving each kid a distinct narrative voice, and letting them each be a well-rounded character instead of a stereotype.

As an adult reading this book, the situations just felt so silly and quite ridiculous. The older brother is teasing Josh about "liking" Anne, so he screams that he hates her and she overhears and wants revenge. TJ gets in trouble because he throws a snowball through a basketball hoop when snowballs are forbidden at school. And so on and so forth.

But all of the situations are so plausible for a ten-year-old. In my elementary school we could only have "no-ball snowball fights" for safety. And at ten I accidentally cut up the face of a friend of mine when I held my "no-ball" in my hand too long and it turned to sharp icy shards before I threw it. She never turned me in, thank goodness, (and Dr. Mason if you ever read this, yes it was me, so what is the interest on a 20-year-old punishment?) but the whole class got a stern lecture.

Reading this book I could see ten-year-old me loving all the machinations within the relationships and eagerly following the developments. And I had a moment of being whisked back to the Valentine's Day party in 5th grade at someone's house. I got asked to dance by the boy I had been crushing on for 3 years, but saying yes would mean going into the room with the popular kids so I said no. And I spent years kicking myself for blowing my one big chance. (For the record I have been happily married for almost 8 years, and when last I saw this guy at a high school reunion he was a very happy newlywed.)

And that is the power of a children's book that is emotionally truthful. This is not the world's greatest children's literature, and it's not destined to win prizes. But it will ring true to the kids going through this stage. And I would gladly recommend it for kids in grades 4-6 who like contemporary school stories that aren't too heavy (just the right balance of problems with humor). The chapters are each only a few pages long, making it easy to zip through in big gulps, or take in snippets depending on the reader.

My big disappointment is that the story resolves just before the promised big dance at camp. I felt cheated out of the dance scene which would have made a nice closer and denouement. I would imagine many readers would feel the same way.

This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Childhood Without Fairytales

Did you read or hear fairytales growing up? I'll bet that you did. Can you remember your favorites, or do you find that they come to mind on occasion over the course of your life? Have you noticed that allusions to fairytales pop up in the literature you read as adults? In technology or on commercials (think "breadcrumbs")?

Now imagine a generation of children who largely don't hear these tales. Hard to do? Look around you.

As a librarian, I hear it all. There was the preschool teacher who came in looking for a version of "Little Red Riding Hood" where the grandmother doesn't get eaten. I started to show her versions where both Little Red and the grandmother survive perfectly intact from the wolf's belly. But no, that's "too scary," and didn't I have one where no one gets eaten?

Now, I suppose there may be versions out there where dear old granny gets shoved into a closet, or has miraculously left on a cruise to the Bahamas. And maybe these are even good children's picture books. But I've never seen them, and frankly, I have to ask what the point of the story is if no one gets eaten at any point?

Of course, as a librarian, I was willing to do the research, but the teacher was absolutely shocked that I would consider giving her the other ones and left saying that she had decided it wasn't a good story for children.

This is not an isolated incident, just the one which I always think of when this topic comes up. (Although I did hear from a nanny the other day that the last nanny working for that family was practically fired for reading the kids "Hansel and Gretel" because it was a book about child abandonment.) So now we are raising a generation who are largely not hearing these stories because of their "disturbing" or "violent" content. And that means these kids will not have the background for later literary and cultural references. I first encountered this about 5 years ago when I watched a librarian try to read a funny book to second graders that hinged on knowing basic Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, and they just didn't understand. She had to stop and go over the nursery rhymes that few of these kids had ever heard.

Now, I am not suggesting that this is the first time that stories have been tempered to better suit childhood sensibilities. Think back to "Little Red Riding Hood." How did it end when you heard it as a child? Did Little Red get eaten and that was the end of it? Did she and her grandmother get rescued by a passing woodsman? What then happened to the wolf? Did he slink off? Did his belly get filled with stones? Certainly you never heard the versions that were sexual in nature, or cannibalistic, or involved bodily functions when you were a child?

Obviously, I now know a great many versions of that story, and I cannot remember how it went when I first heard it. I know that I did not come across the Grimm version with the stones in the wolf's belly until I saw Stephen Sondheim's musical "Into The Woods." But that is all I can tell you. Was the girl dead at first, or was she alone rescued, or both her and her grandmother? I don't know, but I certainly loved the story and got the point about strangers being dangerous. And I wasn't traumatized.

I think these stories are essential to sparking a young child's imagination. And if they are not getting them through their parents, then I make sure they get them from me in the library storytimes. And generally the children love these stories and songs (although the kids themselves were fairly upset by hearing "Three Blind Mice" for the first time, which surprised me, and leaves me wondering how to deal with that), despite parents' initial reservations. And once the parents see the kids enjoying the story and not being traumatized by it (and because it is a professional pushing it) they tend to relax and get into it. And sometimes take out other versions of the story to read at home. Then I feel like I've done my duty to these kids.

And I don't leave out the "scary bits" of stories. But at the young ages that I deal with (ages 2-5 in preschool storytime), it is best for the stories to have happy endings. Granny and Little Red will always be rescued for this crowd. But they do get eaten.

One of my favorites for this purpose is The Gingerbread Man retold by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Megan Lloyd:

The story stays intact, all the way through the fox eating up the gingerbread man at the end in the river. But it tempers that afterwards by saying that you never know whether the gingerbread man might rise again the next time you bake gingerbread.

One story I have had issues with in the past is "Jack and the Beanstalk." It's a great story to catch the imagination. But it's way too long for group storytime at this age. I have looked and looked for shorter versions I like which would work, and I always have to compromise. I find one with decent text, but then it leaves out the rhyme, and I have to put it back in. It's just not the same story without the rhyme. I've tried a number of times, but either they change integral aspects of the story, lose the danger element and so on and so forth. (One version had Jack and the giant wind up eating pancakes together, if I remember correctly.)

And that rhyme has always been delicious and evocative for me. And I find that many people don't know the full four lines:
"Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive, or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread!"

And yes, I've used that with children, much to their parents' surprise and sometimes consternation. But again, they have always seemed appreciative in the end, and I've never had a complaint.

So, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a recent picture book which changes the story and the rhyme, and I actually like it!
(Full disclosure: this book was written by the father of one of the mangers at my library, though I did not know that when I found it, nor does she know about this blog at the time of this writing.)

Author John Cech and illustrator Robert Mackenzie have put out a beautiful new version of Jack and the Beanstalk:

The language is somewhat simpler than one tends to find in a literary fairytale, but the word-images are evocative: "At the top of the beanstalk, he found a country like none he had ever seen before. Everything was much, much bigger - the grass came up to his knees, and the butterflies were as big as birds." It reads much more like oral storytelling, and includes wonderful words like "scampered" and "devoured." It should make a wonderful read aloud.

But what of the story and the rhyme? Well, the mother in this version is very loving, and it is Jack who chooses to keep going back up the beanstalk - when the goose flies away, and the magical sack is stolen. And the scary bits are still there, with Jack hiding in the giant's house while he tears it apart looking for him. The rhyme I actually like for this younger age. It gets the point across in less bloody and brutal language while still being memorable:
"Fee Fi Fo Fum,
I smell a visitor, yum, yum, yum.
Fish or fowl, cold or hot,
We'll cook him up inside my pot."

The ending has been changed so that no one dies, but it doesn't actually hurt the story. The giant's wife (in this version the size of a regular human) is tired of her life of servitude and goes down the beanstalk with Jack at the end. And they do get chased by the giant, and Jack does chop down the beanstalk. But the giant well, he wants to chase them down the beanstalk:
But he was frozen to the spot. You see, the giant was not afraid of many things, but he was afraid of heights. So he did what giants do. He bellowed and bellowed and bellowed. And he shook all the beans off the beanstalk. He almost shook off his wife and Jack as well, but they hung on for dear life."

So there is danger, but it's slightly safer danger. Like Little Red and Granny being rescued. I don't feel that it's wrong to temper stories for young children if you keep the core intact. What I find a damn shame is not telling them these stories at all out of some misguided fear that you will scar them for life. Their little imaginations are thirsty for these images. Feed their minds, please!

This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.

The Musings of a Curious Librarian

Hello fellow book enthusiasts!

Here you will find the various literary musings that rattle through this old noggin of mine. You may find posts on children's literature (your host is a children's librarian after all). You may find posts on the nature of fairytales and folkore, and how it relates to storytelling or modern writing. You may hear about the current state of comics whether American, Japanese, or European. You may hear about interesting things libraries are doing, or just a beautiful new reading room.

For I am eclectic of mind, and curious of nature.

So, come, pull up a chair and a nice mug of cocoa and stay for a time.

This journal cross-posts to http://curiouslibrarian.dreamwidth.org/.