One-Minute Book Reviews

March 26, 2012

Are School Reading Assignments Making Your Child Dumber?

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High school students are reading books appropriate for fifth graders, often assigned by teachers

By Janice Harayda

Schools are supposed to make you make you smarter. Are American teachers routinely assigning books that make kids dumber? You might think so after reading a major new report by Renaissance Learning, which develops hardware and software that helps schools measure students’ educational progress.

The top 40 books read by teenagers in grades 9–12 have an average of reading level of grade 5.3, appropriate for the third month of fifth grade, the report said. And the picture wasn’t much prettier for younger students. The book most read by seventh graders is Diary of a Wimpy Kid (reading level: grade 5.5). For eighth grade, it’s The Outsiders (grade 4.7). And students often read these books because their teachers assign them.

Students sometimes can benefit from reading books that are below their level. Easy books can build confidence, keep reading fun, and reinforce educational gains. But a steady diet of too-simple books won’t prepare students for the demands of life after high school. David Coleman, a contributor to the Renaissance Learning report, notes that the most important predictor of success in college is the ability to read and understand challenging material. And many books on the top 40 lists aren’t “complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” Students may also lose interest in reading for pleasure if they find easy books boring.

That’s why parents need to fight back when schools frequently require children to read books that are below their reading level. Here are three ways to do that:

Check the reading levels of books that seem too easy. You can find the levels of many books used in schools by entering their titles in the search box on the AR BookFinder site. You can find the levels of others by pasting text from them into the box at ReadabilityFormulas.com. The Renaissance Learning report “What Kids Are Reading, 2012″ has the reading levels of the top 40 books read by grades K-12.

Talk to teachers who assign too-easy books. Find out why they thought your child would benefit from the books. If the reasons aren’t convincing, ask teachers to substitute others suited to your child’s level.

Let the principal know. Don’t quit if teachers won’t assign books at your child’s level or if your concerns go beyond one assignment – for example, if an entire summer reading list is too easy. In some schools or districts, most lists are dumbed-down, and the problem requires action at a higher level.

Some children will find their way to harder books if you do nothing. But most won’t, Coleman says. Children, he says, “need to be challenged  and supported to build  their strength as readers by stretching to the next level.”

For more information: Read the Huffington Post summary of the Renaissance Learning report. You may also want to read this One-Minute Book Reviews post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level, which compares his level to that of other bestselling authors.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 26, 2010

A Middle-School Student Auditions for a Music Video ‘Cinderella Cleaners: Rock & Role,’ a Preteen Series Set in Weehawken, NJ

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:11 am
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An eighth-grader likes clothes, music and acting, but not having a stepmother

Cinderella Cleaners #3: Rock & Role. By Maya Gold. Scholastic, 173 pp., $5.99 paperback. Ages 8–11.

By Janice Harayda

Are stereotypes of stepmothers making a comeback? You might wonder after dipping into a new preteen-fiction series about a middle-school student who helps out at her family’s dry cleaning shop in Weehawken, NJ.

Thirteen-year-old Diana Donato loves clothes, music, acting and her three best friends. But she wishes her kind-hearted father had never married her stepmother, Fay, who “always says no.”

In Rock & Role, Diana gets a chance to try out for a music video when, on her way to make a delivery for Cinderella Cleaners, she meets a 16-year-old pop star. Will her stepmother thwart her hopes? Fay is so bland that she turns out to be less of an obstacle than the questionable judgment Diana sometimes shows while pursuing a role in the video.

But the outcome is never really in doubt. Rock & Role is Cinderella story on more than one level. Apart from her unwelcome stepmother and her overindulged stepsisters, Diana has a counterpart to the industrious mice in Cinderella – a friendly tailor at Cinderella Cleaners who whips up a vest for her to wear in the video. Rock & Role is also as sanitized as 1950s Disney movie, a novel free of sex, profanity and descriptions of the adolescent body changes that some preteens have been reading about for years in Judy Blume. And yet, on its own terms – which are the terms of literary fast food – it has more going for it many similar books. Diana is an upbeat, hardworking eighth-grader who has goals and faith in her ability to achieve them. She knows brand names – Converse, Hollister, iPod – without being obsessed with them. Her friends aren’t mean-spirited.

Even so, you wish Maya Gold had tried harder to avoid stereotypes, and not just of evil stepmothers. Diana’s friend Sara Parvati, whose family comes from India, gets straight A’s in school. Literary images of brainy Asian children may not be damaging as ethic slurs, but they’re still stereotypes. And equal opportunity won’t exist in children’s books until young Indian, Korean and Japanese characters have the same freedom that others do – the right, at times, to be mediocre students.

Best line: “Now it’s like we’re stuck halfway out on this wobbly bridge between Just Friends and We’re Going Out …”

Worst line: “Sara gets straight A’s and once won a regional spelling bee.” Again, are any Asians in children’s fiction not brainy (or, alternately, computer geeks)?

Published: June 2010

Furthermore: Other books in the Cinderella Cleaners series include Change of a Dress and Prep Cool (both published by Scholastic, April 2010), and Mask Appeal (Scholastic, August, 2010).

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 10, 2009

Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ in ‘Five on a Hike Together’: ‘I Say — This Has Boiled Up Into Quite an Adventure, Hasn’t It?’

Enid Blyton has been translated into more languages than anyone except Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare

The Famous Five: Five on a Hike Together. By Enid Blyton. Illustrated by Eileen A. Soper. Hodder Children’s Books, 196 pp., varied prices. Ages 12 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Enid Blyton is the Agatha Christie of children’s literature. Not all of her books are mysteries. But like Christie, she was born in Britain in the 1890s and achieved an unparalleled fame for her suspenseful plot-driven novels that remain popular worldwide with readers and filmmakers. And like Christie, she has drawn fire from critics who have accused her of perpetuating the stereotypes of her era and social class.

Blyton is best known for the 21 novels in her “Famous Five” series, most of which have been adapted for television. Each book involves three English siblings, their cousin, and a mutt named Timmy. Five on a Hike Together is the tenth, and it suggests why the novels still appeal to children: Blyton gives her young characters a freedom that if allowed by real-life parents might bring a visit from the Department of Youth and Family Services, if not an arrest.

In Five on a Hike Together the four children and their dog spend several days hiking unchaperoned on moors during a long weekend in October. They are undeterred by their discovery that the heather may shelter a convict who has escaped from a local jail. But they split up when Timmy gets hurt chasing a rabbit down a hole. Julian and Georgina, known as George, set out to find someone who can tend to the dog’s injury, and Dick and Anne go off to look for Blue Pond Farmhouse, where all of them hope to spend the night. Nothing goes quite as expected. Dick and Anne get lost and end up at a ramshackle house where Dick gets a message from the escaped convict, who passes him a cryptic note through a broken window pane. All of the children realize when they reunite the next day that they must take the note to the authorities, but when a policeman scorns their efforts to help, they resolve to decipher the clue on their own. Soon the four are paddling a raft with Timmy on board in search of a treasure that may lie at the bottom of a lake.

Five on a Hike Together has several of Blyton’s hallmarks — a fast pace, well-controlled suspense and little character development. The four children don’t grow so much as carom from one exciting adventure to another, and their appeal lies partly in their enthusiasm for all of it. They are cheerful, intelligent, self-sufficient and generally kind and well-mannered. For all their limits, you can’t help but agree when a policeman tells the children in the last pages, “You’re the kind of kids we want in this country – plucky, sensible, responsible youngsters who use your brains and never give up!”

Best line: No. 1: “I say – this has boiled up into quite an adventure, hasn’t it?” (A comment by Julian, the oldest of the Famous Five.) No. 2: “A wonderful smell came creeping into the little dining-room, followed by the inn-woman carrying a large tray. On it was a steaming tureen of porridge, a bowl of golden syrup, a jug of very thick cream, and a dish of bacon and eggs, all piled high on brown toast. Little mushrooms were on the same dish.” Both lines suggest an appealing quality of the Famous Five: their infectious enthusiasm for their circumstances, whether they are lost on a moor or getting a good breakfast.

Worst line: Blyton wrote most of the “Famous Five” novels during the 1940s and 1950s, and they reflect their era. Julian, for example, tells his cousin Georgina, known as George: “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” George puts Julian in his place by telling him that he’s “domineering” and she doesn’t like being taken care of. But some critics see the series as sexist, though the girls of the “Famous Five” novels show far more courage than many contemporary heroines. Other books by Blyton have been faulted for racial characterizations that are today considered slurs.

Published: 1951 (first edition), 1997 (Hodder reprint).

About the author: Blyton is the fifth most widely translated writer in the world, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum Statistics. The five most often translated authors are “Walt Disney Productions,” Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, and Blyton, followed by Lenin, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Hans Christian Andersen, and Stephen King.

Furthermore: Helena Bonham Carter will star in a forthcoming BBC movie of Blyton’s life.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 10, 2009

Rick Riordan’s ‘The Last Olympian,’ the New Book in His Percy Jackson Series

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:36 am
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Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series has well-entrenched spot in the pantheon of books worshipped by boys (typically, by strong readers over the age of 8 or 9 and by others over 10). In a sense, it’s life following art: The novels involve a modern 12-year-old who learns that he is the son of a Greek god. And in my suburb, the series (which I haven’t read) may have gotten entire soccer leagues excited about Greek mythology. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviews the latest installment, The Last Olympian (Hyperion, 381 pp., $17.99) in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, and a teacher gives his view of Riordan in a post I wrote in February.

March 14, 2009

Good Poems for Middle-School Students (Grades 5, 6, 7 and 8)

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 am
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The middle school years are treacherous for reading in general and poetry-reading in particular. Up to a certain age, children enjoy poetry and may even prefer stories that rhyme. But by the time they reach middle school, they are often starting to lose interest. What books have poems that will hold their attention? Here are two possibilities:

Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 9-12), by Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Richard Hull. The short and mostly rhyming poems in this book have the irreverent — and, at times rueful — wit that you expect from Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Some of the poems in Sad Underwear deal with near-universal childhood woes like mosquito bites and lost sneakers. Others describe the trials of a certain sort of worldly wise preteen or teenager. (“I’m freaking! I’m freaking! / My mom’s gone antiquing. / And guess who she’s dragging along?”) Sad Underwear has more than a few poems sophisticated enough to engage adults. But its picture-book format may limit its appeal mainly to younger middle-schoolers.www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=411400.

Classic Poems to Read Aloud (Kingfisher, 258 pp., $8.95, paperback, ages 9 to adult), compiled by James Berry. Illustrated by James Mayhew. Should you still read aloud with children in the fifth grade and beyond? Absolutely, if you read poems of the quality of the 138 in this book. The great virtue of Classics to Read Aloud is that it doesn’t patronize children. It has easy poems like Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” And it has many that are more complex: Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare to a summer’s day?”). It also excerpts from epics such as “The Iliad” and “Hiawatha” (bereft of the famous lines, “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water”) So children won’t outgrow Classics to Read Aloud. Neither will their parents. If you keep promising yourself that you’ll look up “that poem in Four Weddings and a Funeral,” you can stop now. Berry reproduces W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” on page 186.

You’ll find suggested books of sports poetry for middle-school students on the site for the Horn Book, the leading children’s literature journal
www.hbook.com/resources/books/sports.asp.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 21, 2009

Books Middle-School Students Like to Read

I’m tied up this weekend with the candidates for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, the shortlist for which will be posted Thursday, and nonliterary activities that I’m describing on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

So instead of a review, I’m giving you an interesting quote from the January/February issue of The Horn Book Magazine about the literary tastes of middle-school students. Dean Schneider, who teaches seventh and eighth grade at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee, writes:

“Middle-school readers hate open-ended endings. They are sure that The Giver ends the way it does because Lois Lowry got tired or ran out of ideas. They often reject historical fiction as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘too sad.’ Students are capable of dismissing a whole Holocaust unit in two words: ‘Too sad.’ An eighth-grade girl I’m currently tutoring panned Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever as ‘so sad; everyone died.’

“But the flip side of the middle-school personality is their unalloyed enthusiasm when they latch onto something they like. They loved Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief when I decided to try it as a class novel two years ago. It became so popular with both boys and girls that I lost control of the book. Everyone raced through the reading and finished way ahead of schedule. They clamored for the sequel, The Sea of Monsters, which was then still in hardcover; I could afford only a few copies, so students kept a list on the board of who got it next. When I scored a couple of advance galleys of the third entry, The Titan’s Curse, they were beside themselves with excitement.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 8, 2008

The ‘How I Survived Middle School’ Series – Nancy Krulick’s Fiction for Preteens, ‘Can You Get an F in Lunch?’ and ‘Madame President’

The first novels in a popular series tell fourth-graders how to apply eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys

Can You Get an F in Lunch? (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

Madame President (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

The advance reading copies of these novels included publicity material that recommended them for 8-to-12-year-olds – a surprising age range for books that offer a full page of makeup tips and a quiz called “What Kind of Girl Are You?” that begins, “There’s a new boy in school and you think he’s really hot …”

Did Scholastic think that third-graders needed to read about how to put on eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys? I went to its Web site and found that that the answer was “No”: Scholastic thinks fourth-graders need to read about them. It apparently raised the lowest recommended age for the books by a year after printing the advance reading copies.

This change was hardly reassuring. Tips on makeup and boys may be fine for girls at the upper end of the age range for these books, the first in a popular series. But their heroine is 11 and ½ when her story begins, and children generally prefer to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. So most readers of these early books are apt to be 10 or younger. What will a 9-year-old fourth grader find it in them? Tips like these from Can You Get an F in Lunch?:

“BLUE-EYED BABES: Brown and rose eye shadows were made for you. Apply the shadow from lash lines to creases in your eyelids. Then top it with some dark brown or black mascara.”

Any publisher who tried to sell 9-year-olds a nonfiction book of makeup tips might face parental anger and resistance from school libraries. But Scholastic has found a way around the problem by incorporating the advice into novels and a companion Web site that its heroine consults and young readers may also visit.

You can read this marketing ploy as either as a) a harmless sign of the times and a logical extension of girls’ interest in toys like Bratz dolls or b) another sick example of premature sexualization and a publisher’s hope that people have forgotten the horror of seeing pictures of JonBenét Ramsey in full makeup. Either way, girls are finding their way to the novels. Jenny McAfee, the main character, has a blog on the series Web site that drew more than 700 comments for one post alone. And you wish that the books repaid that interest with more literary merit.

Jenny is kind and wholesome — her worst word is “Yikes” — and tells her story through down-to-earth first-person narration. She recovers quickly from her early setbacks in middle school (in Can You Get an F in Lunch?). And she wages a clean campaign against the odds when she runs for sixth-grade class president against her nasty ex-best friend, Addie, who has dropped her for a popular clique (in Madame President). Both novels spell out their themes plainly: Difficult situations get easier, hard work pays off, and true friends like you for who you are, not for what you own.

But this is standard tween series fare, built not on character development but on a fast pace and familiar anxieties – homework, new teachers, bad cafeteria food, taunts from older students, and off-again, on-again plans for trips to the mall. The “How I Survived Middle School” novels differ from others mainly in the women’s-magazine-style tips and pop quizzes scattered throughout the books and their Web site. And the advice raises its own problems.

Some of the tips in the series might help younger middle school students. But even the best raise the question of whether girls benefit from such an early indoctrination into the idea that they need advice on beauty, popularity and similar topics from people besides their parents, teachers and others who know them.

This series makes you wonder: Is anybody giving such advice to 9-year-old boys? You might argue, correctly, that boys tend to read other kinds of books. But to the degree that that’s true, this series reinforces stereotypes of girls no matter how much interest Jenny may have in playing basketball and running for class president.

If I had a 9- or 10-year old daughter, I wouldn’t refuse to buy these books for her. But I would offer her many other things to read, too – classics, good contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and, yes, the novels her brothers like. If she wanted advice on dealing with cliques and the other topics covered in the series, I would encourage her to visit the appropriate pages (“Kids” or “Teens”) of the award-winning Web site, KidsHeath, including kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/friend/clique.html. And in gentle way, I would suggest a potential drawback to those recommended “rose eye shadows”: Instead of turning her into” blue-eyed babe,” they could make her look as though she got a chronic eyelid disease at sleepaway camp.

Best line: From Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “If Addie and Dana and the rest of their clique were supposed to be so popular, how come there were so few of them? Didn’t being ‘popular’ mean that you were liked by everyone?”

Worst line: Also from Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “Soon, Addie, Dana, and Claire were exchanging pots of eye shadow and blush with the older girls, bonding over their collections of Cover Girl, Hard Candy, and Jessica Simpson Dessert makeup.”

Caveat lector: In this series, middle school begins with the sixth grade — not with the fifth as at many schools – and Jenny McAfee is 11 ½ years old in its first book. The upper age limit for these novels would probably be 10 or 11 in places where middle school begins in fifth grade. But there’s a weird disconnect: At least in the first two books, the series doesn’t deal with topics that would naturally interest girls who are old enough to wear makeup, including menstruation and breast development. This review was based on an advance reading copy, and some material in the finished books may differ.

Read an excerpt from the series at www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=10789.

Published: June 2007 www.middleschoolsurvival.com The latest novel in the “How I Survived Middle School” series is Who’s Got Spirit?.

Better choices: A few that are available in most bookstores and libraries: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and perhaps the year’s biggest hit among 9-year-olds; The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, which may appeal to 10-year-olds; and Russell Freedman’s fine biographies for ages 9-12 Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery and Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life.

Furthermore: Nancy Krulik has written many popular books for children and teens.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday on this site, often in more depth than publications such as School Library Journal do. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 1, 2008

Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry About Sports for Grades K–8, Recommended by the Country’s Leading Children’s Literature Journal

Often I disagree with the reviews in the Horn Book, the country’s leading journal of children’s literature, which at times seem to favor books suited for schools and libraries at the expense of those that are pure fun. You probably aren’t going to find the magazine giving much play to Bob Phillips’s Awesome Good Clean Jokes for Kids (Harvest House, 207 pp., $3.99, paperback), which you can buy off the rack at CVS and might delight any 5-to-8-year-old on your holiday list.

But the Horn Book brings a seriousness of purpose to reviewing that’s all the more valuable now that so many book-review sections have died. And its editors have a leg up on most children’s book reviewers – to say nothing of bloggers — at gift-giving time: They see pretty much everything that gets published.

So if you’re looking for good books about sports for ages 5 to 13 or so, you could do worse than to look at its list of recommended fiction, nonfiction and poetry for grades kindergarten though 8 (and maybe higher)
www.hbook.com/resources/books/sports.asp. The Horn Book editors also suggest books about sports for preschoolers. I’ll post my gift suggestions for sports and other books in a few weeks.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 4, 2008

A Good Sports Book for Middle-School and Older Students

Good news for anyone who is looking for a well-written sports book for middle-school and older students: Phillip Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me (Walker, 176 pp., $10.95, paperback, ages 10 and up) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/ has come out in paperback. In this lively memoir Hoose www.philliphoose.com remembers when he was in the fourth grade and his cousin once removed, Don Larsen, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Walker Books www.walkerbooks.com/books/catalog.php?key=614 is rightly cross-marketing this book to adults and adolescents, both of whom may especially enjoy its moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game. The bright new cover art for the paperback edition, shown here, should heighten its appeal for young readers. Perfect, Once Removed was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2007 by Bill Ott for the American Library Association’s Booklist.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 8, 2008

Did Laura Amy Schlitz Deserve the 2008 Newbery Medal? Quote of the Day (Meghan Cox Gurdon)

Many people were suprised when Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village won the most recent John Newbery Medal, an award that usually goes to a novel, for a collection of monologues and dialogues. Did the book deserve the honor? Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal, called the collection “remarkable and poignant” and added:

“As with any prestigious award, the Newbery also brings new readers to the author’s other works, which in this case is a particularly welcome effect. Ms. Schlitz has a rich and humane style of writing, with stories that manage to be both sparkling and substantial. Better still, her storytelling is a return to the moral traditions of the greatest and most enduring tales, yet with not the slightest taste of cod liver oil nor any of the tiresome left-leaning didacticism that has characterized so much writing for children since the late 1960s.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19-20, 2008.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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