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Monday, March 15, 2010

Old Stories for Young Minds

Recommended Reading for Parents
By Jennifer Rogers

It would be hard to exaggerate the value of time spent reading to a young child. Early childhood educators, parenting gurus, reading tutors and experts in literacy agree that children who have been read to have a distinct advantage intellectually and emotionally. The benefits of even the best educational videos and television pale in comparison to the advantages of one good book shared by a parent each night at bedtime.

Research into children’s literacy indicates that phonological and phonemic awareness -- the simple, fundamental awareness that sounds form words and words communicate meaning-- is the single, surest predictor of a child’s success in learning to read.

Children are as peculiar as adults in their preferences and interests. Some three year old boys are fascinated by construction, big machines or racecars; others spend hours studying law enforcement officials. Some kids memorize the scientific names of dinosaurs; some prefer dogs or farm animals or princess lore. While a child’s fascinations could be attributed to parenting and exposure, most parents with more than one child scratch their heads at the mysteries of temperament, talent and interest.

How then should good parents choose good books for smart kids? Interest is an excellent guide. The child who is fascinated with volcanoes will probably enjoy a nonfiction book on the topic. A Caldecott Medal
guarantees a book full of captivating illustration. Authors who have multiple books in print typically have a broad, eager audience. The Newberry Award indicates a “most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children.”

I think one of the surest predictors of a good book is a long-ago first publication date. Books that have been in print for decades survive because their stories endure. The authors have created narrators, heroes and heroines that transcend trends and continue to capture the imagination of children. Other fine authors could be added to the following list. These are just a few suggestions to facilitate good start:

Lois Lenski
Lenski wrote and illustrated more than 90 books in her career. Many have remained in print for more than 60 years. Strawberry Girl won the Newberry Medal in 1946.

Lenski’s books for toddlers and young children are compact. The smallest hands can hold her books about Mr. Small, turning the pages as a parent reads. Mr. Small appears as a policeman, a train engineer, a cowboy, the owner of a new car and a sailboat. Her sentences are simple and repetitive. Her illustrations are cartoonish.

Toddlers find Mr. Small’s adventures riveting. For reasons it is very difficult for adults to discern, toddlers stare at Lenski’s illustrations as if they are the finest art available, engrossed in the habits and interests of Captain Small.

Margaret Wise Brown
Wise’s Goodnight Moon is a classic tale, cherished by sleepy children since 1947. Bunny’s Noisy Book is less well know, but equally delightful, especially for children who love to imitate noises. The Little Island won a Caldecott Medal in 1946. Wise’s repertoire is vast, as was her talent.

Robert McCloskey
Blueberries for Sal won a Caldecott Medal in 1948 and has been in print ever since. McCloskey writes and illustrates his books. Though very few remain in print, each one is magnificent. His stories brilliantly capture the interests, fears and humor of young children. His pen and ink illustrations are richly detailed, full of life, motion and the energy of young children.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson’s life was brief, tragic and incredibly prolific. Haunted by illness and infirmity, he nonetheless produced the classics A Child’s Garden of Verses and Treasure Island. His prose is as musical and memorable as his poetry. First published in the late nineteenth century, his collected works continue to capture the minds and imaginations of young readers.

Beatrix Potter
First published in the early years of the twentieth century, Beatrix Potter’s books are still cherished volumes in the libraries of some fortunate children. Many of us can’t look at a rabbit without thinking of Peter.

Beatrix Potter treats her young audience with respect and great dignity, occasionally addressing her readers as a grandmother talking to her own. Potter dresses hedgehogs in petticoats and rabbits in tailored suits, but entirely avoids condescension or comedy. Each illustration is a work of art, each character as memorable, interesting and curious as Beatrix Potter was.

E.B. White
Each of his books is a masterpiece. Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan . . . . White’s books are national treasures. The movies pale in comparison.

Mother Goose
Who was Mother Goose? No one knows. Some of her rhymes have been found in volumes dating as early as the late 17th century. Much of her commentary is nonsense, balderdash, hilarious juxtapositions and ridiculous tomfoolery. Countless volumes with as many illustrators have been in print through the centuries. Mother Goose is one of the few volumes of literature that has endured our changing attitudes about childhood.  Sing Mother Goose to your toddler. Cradle your infant in your arms in a rocking chair as you recite the rhymes you remember from your childhood. Few experiences are more valuable, memorable, enduring. Mother Goose will survive. Our children outgrow our arms very quickly.

Jennifer holds AMI diplomas at the A to I and Primary Levels. She has taught for 17 years, the last seven at Countryside Montessori School in Northbrook, IL. Her work has been published in the AMI publication, “Parenting for a New World,” Detroit News and Free Press, and the Chicago Tribune. She is also a certified OrtonGillingham Tutor.

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