Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Clever Jack Takes the Cake and Reading Aloud

Sunrise was at 6:28, sunset will be at 7:50. Dark! Dark when I got off work last night, dark when the alarm went off this morning. I went to get cat food and I didn't want to leave the brightly lit store! Although I do like how cozy my car can be at this time of year.

It's cold and wet again and I realized I left my favorite gardening tool, snips, nothing too exciting, out on the patio table, in full view of the all the elements. I got them dried off, I'll see how they fare. I had to find my socks and a sweatshirt and make some new and HOT coffee.

D and I don't have a lot of traditions, even after 25 years of marriage, but one that we indulge in fairly regularly is "family reading night". I bring a bunch of picture books to bed and I read aloud while he listens and looks at the pictures.

D is an artist so looking at and deconstructing picture book art is one of our favorite things to do. I read the books aloud, you really do need an audience for this, and that way I can hear whether something is clunky or if a rhyme just doesn't work, and then we talk about the way the illustrations work with the story.

Since most picture books are meant to be read to an audience the words should reflect the age of the person being read to, they should flow like honey, they should shoulder up to each other as if they were meant to hold the story like walls, not too many words, and not too few.

Picture books are the hardest books to write- they take extreme editing and sometimes I think that publishers are in such a hurry to get books out to the public to the detail work of reading it out loud to someone. There are too many picture books out there that have one element of what makes a good book for sharing, but not both.

If you don't read a book out loud, you can't hear how the end of one word inhibits the beginning of the next one, or if it makes you hesitate or blurs what the listener hears. Often, there are clumsy rhymes, there are inappropriate words for the age, there are sentences that are either too short or too long or the design of words on the page doesn't break in a place that leads you naturally to the next phrase.

It is a joy to read a book with pictures when the words enhance what's on the page, when a kid puts a hand on the page to keep you from turning it, replaying the words in their heads while they take a closer look at the pictures. A couple of the books we read last night were especially good for reading aloud.

Clever Jack Takes the Cake, by Candace Fleming and illustrated by G. Brian Karas, was a hoot to read. Jack has been invited to the princess' tenth birthday party and is sad when his mother tells him they are too poor to provide a present.

Well, Jack isn't Clever Jack for nothing! He is going to make her a cake! He sells his axe for sugar, his quilt for flour, gives extra seed for the hens for two eggs, and kisses the cow for a pail of her sweetest milk. The cake is magnificent.

Now, all he has to do is get from his shack to her castle. He will encounter crows, trolls, a deep, dark wood, and allergies that will leave him empty handed when he meets the princess. But, remember, Jack is particularly clever and he comes up with the perfect gift for the princess.

It is a funny story and the words read like water running downhill. It is obvious that this story was read aloud through all the drafts, pushing and pulling words into the right place. It is told in straight narrative, no rhyming, and, as you read along, you'll know when to lower your voice to a whisper, when to growl,and when to speed up.

The illustrations are perfect for the story. They are painted in a fairly muted palate (it is the middle ages, after all), no tricks in the artwork, straightforward art that illustrates the words, but with great humor: when Jack gets an idea, there is a lit candle over his head instead of a light bulb.

This is a book that can (and will) be read over and over. It is probably best for age four and older. It's long enough for them, it may be a little long for threes, and four year-olds, with their new knowledge of justice and how the world should work, will understand the unfairness that occurs and will appreciate the very fair ending. It is a very good book for reading to both boys and girls.

And it's a Schwartz and Wade book! I love Schwartz and Wade books! (S&W is an imprint of Random House. Hardcover. $17.99. Available now.)

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I love that you have family reading night. My husband and I just finished reading "Mockingjay" to each other. There's something so special about sharing books, even if we're grown-ups.
    "Clever Jack" is delightful, and your descriptions are perfect. I wish all publishers and authors would reference this post when they create a picture book.