Friday, August 2, 2013

Three Books for Second Grade

Sunrise 5:42, sunset, 8:49.  It's hot.

There is poetry everywhere.  I was walking home from work and heading up Yesler Street, just across from Smith Tower, up the street from the Mission.  There's a little square, a park, there, with some granite pieces, lots of bricks, homeless guys, drug dealers and buyers, and poetry.  One, maybe two, words per brick describing the history of Seattle in this out of the way, kind of scary at night, corner of poetry.  If the sun hadn't been at just the right angle, if I hadn't had to move to the right to get out of the way of a woman having a violent argument with herself, I never would have seen these words stamped into the cobbled bricks that make up the sidewalks in this park.  There are poems about the trees being cut down, poems about the skid road that Yesler once was, the hotel that in the '70's became a free or pay what you can place to stay that was on this corner.  There is the history of the man and the daughters who lived here and built the buildings and ships that helped make Seattle the city it is.  I was stunned and surprised and now find myself searching for other hidden art in the city.

I suppose there is some sort of plaque somewhere with information, I didn't see anything, but I was a little shy of asking people to move so I could look where they were standing.  I may have to go to work earlier one day and see what I can see while everyone is still in bed.  If you are ever on that corner, it's next to the Quintessa condos, let me know what you find.  It's a little bit of overlooked, off the tourist grid, made for those who live here every day, Seattle magic, like the UPS park with the waterfalls and those gorgeous manhole covers you find just out in the open.

The three books I'll be telling you about next are also little bits of art that could be easily overlooked, not because the authors aren't known, but because they are aimed at second and third graders.

Often, adult readers will hand these books to their kids, without reading them themselves, thereby missing some of the most touching, best written pieces of the book arts!  Some of the best books written are written for this age. Authors of this level of book must be extraordinarily selective with the words they use, nestling each to the next carefully, that the language is often  richer and more nuanced than books for older readers.  Just try to write something interesting for an eight year-old without bludgeoning them with words!  It takes a master of language to choose the exact words to convey an idea that is new to a new reader, without expanding the page number, making the font size smaller, or making it all too cute.  The best books for this age include exquisite writing tangled with realistic memories of discovering just how big the world is at the very moment the (often very small) child realizes his place in it, and then giving the story an engaging, realistic reason for reading.  (These books are in alpha order by author.)

The Great Unexpected, by Sharon Creech, is magical in the way only real life can be, filled with serendipity, boys falling out of trees, friends and families connected across time and space. The Great Unexpected is about two girls, best friends and orphans, one practical, one flitty, and the very charming boy they find when he falls out of a tree.  The sudden insertion of Finn, making a trio out of what was once a duet, changes the dynamics of their friendship.  Toss in the machinations of adults (who still act like their childhood selves), a few locked trunks, and the lives of three children are changed forever in this lovely story about growing up.

The back of the book says it's good for ages 8-12.  You have to know your audience for this particular book.  Yes, 8 year olds will be able to read it, but there is an awful lot of reflection about change and desire.  The best age for The Great Unexpected might be 10-12, young enough to still want magic in the world, unworldly enough to only think about what a first kiss might be like, and old enough to want to know more. (HarperCollins.  Available now in hardcover for $16.99, but coming in paperback in September for $6.99.)

Fly Away, by Patricia MacLachan, is a tiny little jewel of a story with great big concepts and problems.  Lucy is the oldest child in a family who can all sing.  Lucy can't sing, her words won't come in song. She longs to be a poet, setting her words loose in the world that way.  When Aunt Frankie's farm is threatened by flood, the whole family goes to help her out.  Aunt Frankie is a very capable woman and unhappy that they've all come - she is sure she can handle the water, the missing porch, the handyman who's attached himself to the house. But when Lucy's little brother, Teddy, goes missing in the storm, Lucy is the only one who can sing him home.

Tears in my eyes for the ending of this one.  No, not just tears, there was a hiccup of a sob going on, too.  I LOVE Lucy.  She is brave and uncomfortable, she keeps good secrets and keeps secrets well, she is a good and giving friend and sister.  One of the main tangents in the book is that Lucy's dad really wanted to be a poet and now raises cows because he could never "write anything better than a cow".  Lucy wants to write him a poem, one day, one that will be as beautiful as a cow.  Make a note of this one, kids, it's really good.  You'll want a stack of this on your shelves.  Ages 7 and up.  McElderry Books.  (Available April, 2014!  $15.99.)

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes, is one of those perfect books for kids of this age.  Billy Miller is going into second grade after a summer of small trauma.  He fell and hit his head, had a huge bump, and then overheard his parents talking about how that might affect him.  He begins to worry about whether he's going to be smart enough to go to second grade, he was so happy, beforehand, so looking forward to everything.  He's reassured about that but when he gets to that first day of school, everything that can go wrong does.  He's in the wrong seat, does something that might have hurt his teacher's feelings, meets his first bully...not the most stellar of beginnings.  Billy's family is wonderful and real.  His dad is a stay at home dad/artist in a slump and his mom works long hours.  There's a bit of sibling rivalry.  There's tension here but nothing that can't be solved. 

This is such a good look into this time period of a child's life.  Things start changing when you get to second grade.  There's a lot of new information, friendships change, there's an awareness of adult tensions and worry, and it's a time when the child realizes s/he isn't the only one in the world and that their actions matter.  Kevin has a deft way with dealing with the worry and travail of the lives of children.  There isn't anything pat or condescending in how things are resolved, Billy has to solve these problems on his own, sometimes not making the best choices.

I love how normal Kevin's (yes, I call him Kevin because his books make me think I am his friend) families are.  Unlike many books for these ages, there's nothing spectacular that happens, no flying cats or hidden doors (although those are good things, too).  The joy of reading his books is seeing ourselves and our small joys, worries, and successes reflected in the pages.  Greenwillow Books.  (Available September 14, 2013.  $16.99.)

There are other books like these, small books well-written, for the younger reader that are just as appealing to the adults who share them.  What follows are a few you adults might check out when you are in the mood for something you can take to the tub, read and maybe finish at lunch, or are at the bar while waiting for someone. 

Cobble Street Cousins, by Cynthia Rylant:  6 little books about three cousins living with their aunt while their parents are on a ballet tour around the world.  We all know that a lot of kids' books remove the parents in some sort of horrible way, death, jail, some unknown removal.  How nice that these kids will see their parents again!  AND the art work by Wendy Anderson Halperin is perfect for these stories.

Alvin Ho, by Lenore Look, is a funny series about Alvin, a second grader who is scared of EVERYTHING!  Until he gets home where he is a superhero and a gentleman-in-training so he can be like his dad.  Great illustrations by LeUyen PhamThe Ruby Lu books, also by Lenore Look, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf, are not quite as popular but I think that's because boys need books at this level more than girls do.  And we know that boys often won't read books about girls...

Frog and Toad, by Arnold Lobel, may seem a little easier, but they are perfect first chapter books.  I love the way the books are set up with chapters and page numbers and enough pages to read to the end of a chapter and to then need a bookmark so you can find where you left off.  How empowering is that for a new reader?  Filled with upsets and problems, Frog and Toad will always be best friends, no matter where there adventures lead them.

Well, that's enough of that.  This is a really long post already - there are just so many good books out there! I hope you enjoy these books, let me know what you think.

(There has been no remuneration for the mention of the books on this blog.)

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