Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day: Two Lessons on Litter

It's after midnight, so I can officially say happy Earth Day!!!! In the spirit of stewardship, I thought I'd share a couple of picture books with you that can be helpful when talking to young children about something we all deal with every day--trash. Whether we're taking it out, sorting out recycling, trying to figure out how to produce less of it, or lamenting all the trash we see on the side of road, trash is a part of our lives for better or worse. These two books teach children how proper disposal and management of waste is important for everyone's quality of life.

The Day the Trash Came Out to Play by David M. Beadle tells the story of Sutton Nash, the "cleanest town in the land" and how this idyllic town was sullied one day when a young boy named Robin thoughtlessly tossed a candy wrapper on the ground instead of in the trash bin. Laurie A. Faust's clever illustrations animate the "Super Sourpuss" candy wrapper by showing the caped superhero on the wrapper flying about on the wind, dismayed and disheveled as his wrapper blows all over town annoying wildlife and inadvertently encouraging other bits of trash to leave their proper receptacles and "come out to play." The story is told in rhyming verse, making it more fun to read aloud, and also a good selection to simultaneously celebrate National Poetry Month. The story teaches that it is important to consider how our trash affects others. At first Robin thinks it's funny to see to the wrapper blowing about and believes he need not worry about it once it is out of sight. "What Robin forgot to think about, is that it has to go somewhere." There's also a lesson about setting a proper example by doing the right thing. When other bits of trash see the wrapper flying around, they decide to come out and run all over town (the illustrations for this are cute as each bit of trash is animated, and it all looks mischievous). "Because they saw someone else go first, they thought it was okay." Of course we're really talking about people here. People will be more likely to litter or be apathetic about their own waste when they see others behaving that way or evidence that others have done so before them (i.e. litter on the ground). This lesson is underscored by the town sign, which is shown at the beginning and end of the story. At the end, an addition to the sign has been made: "Trash begets Trash." The citizens of Sutton Nash are dismayed by the rampant litter problem, and Robin realizes his mistake. He leads the town in a cleanup, and after the incident, the town builds a recycling center.

The Great Trash Bash, written and illustrated by Loreen Leedy, is a similar story about a town called Beaston--appropriately named because it is populated by anthropomorphic animals. As in the previous book, the story begins by describing the beauty of Beaston as we see a sign welcoming us to the town, but it is noted that "something is wrong." This is clear from the illustration, which shows an old abandoned car by the trees, litter along the side of the road, and a series of signs, spaced Burma Shave-style, that tell motorists to "Buy More More and More." The book is much like a comic book because in addition to the main narration, the story is told via speech balloons on the illustrations. Mayor Hippo feels that something is amiss but can't put his finger on it. He is shown interacting with citizens that toss litter on the ground, discuss throwing out their old possessions after buying new items and lament over a polluted body of water where no swimming is allowed. Finally, after slipping on a banana peel and landing in a pile of litter, the mayor realizes that there is too much waste and wasteful behavior in the town. He leads the reader on visits to the dump, the incinerator and the landfill, and he and other characters note the benefits and drawbacks of all of these alternatives for waste management. After discussing their trash problem, the citizens decide to make lifestyle changes that will reduce waste, such as buying in bulk, avoiding excess packaging, and reusing items. They learn to fix their possessions to make them last longer, to recycle and compost, and not to litter. In the end, we see the "Welcome to Beaston" sign again and have the beauties of the town reiterated, but this time we can see that everything is cleaner and all the citizens are out enjoying the landscape and celebrating. On the last page of the book, Leedy offers 13 simple tips for reducing waste. Due to the speech bubble format and the more complex ideas dealt with in this book, it's a bit harder to read aloud than The Day the Trash Came Out to Play, but it can lead to some interesting conversations with kids as you discuss the lessons the mayor learns about waste and what happens to items when you recycle them or compost them.

For more suggestions on books to read with kids as you celebrate Earth Day, see's search results on Earth Day,'s list of suggested Earth Day books for children and teens, and the Green Reading for EE Week list on the National Environmental Education Week website.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Read Me a Story, Mr. President

I just had to take a minute to share this article from the April 14, 2009 edition of the Huffington Post (article from the Associated Press, written by Natasha T. Metzler). The story is about the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, held on Monday, April 13. During the gathering, President Obama read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak to the children (an excellent choice). The article includes a video of the President reading, making sure all the kids can see the pictures and pointing out details in the drawings (which was a thoughtful touch for those who weren't sitting in the front row). He does a good job of getting the kids to try certain actions from the story (like staring without blinking and roaring like a wild thing), which is always an effective way to keep a child's attention. According to the article, the First Lady and her mother also read to the children, though the slide show depicts Sasha and Malia also getting involved (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff).

I always find it endearing to see world leaders taking the time to read to kids, even though the cynical response is to recognize that this is a lovely PR moment. I can't help but think that even if there are ulterior motives, if someone like the "Leader of the Free World" can take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to read a book to some kids he doesn't even know, then there's no reason at all why any of us can't take a few minutes out of our day to read a book to our own children. You're the leader of your own home, and the Commander in Chief of your child's first experiences of the world, his or her outlook and attitudes toward reading and learning, and the fostering of his or her imagination. So let the red phone ring a minute---they'll call back. Ok, so you can't always drop everything to take a book from your child's insistent hands, but if you can't read that book now, promise to read it later and keep your promise. And never think that your child is too old to want to be read to; everyone likes to be read to (even you do, admit it!). If they're older they might roll their eyes and refuse your offer of storytime, but make the offer anyway. They'll always remember that you did.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Pair to Share for National Poetry Month

It's National Poetry Month, and in my continuing effort to bring you resources for sharing poetry with the young folks in your lives, I thought I would highlight a couple of poetry collections that I've been reading with the Light and Seal.

Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry is a delightful selection of poems perfect for sharing with preschoolers. Collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, with illustrations by Polly Dunbar, this set of 61 poems focus on different aspects of a day in a child's life told from the child's perspective. The poems are organized into four sections: "Me, Myself, and I"; "Who Lives in My House"; "I Go Outside"; and "Time for Bed." Adorable round-faced and rosy-cheeked children populate Dunbar's drawings, bringing life to poetry from such pens as Margaret Wise Brown, Langston Hughes, A. A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack Prelutsky, Gertrude Stein and Spike Milligan to name a few. Both my children (who are 4 and 2 at the time of this writing) loved this book, and have wanted it read to them multiple times. It's great fun to read aloud because the poems capture the spirit of children. Some of our favorites include "The Swing" by Robert Louis Stevenson (my daughter relates to the description of flying high), "Cat Kisses" by Bobbi Katz (both Light and Seal squeal with glee when these are bestowed upon them), "Brother" by Mary Ann Hoberman and "Rickety Train Ride" by Tony Mitton (I love those last two because they're such tongue-twisters!).

The Oxford Book of Story Poems, edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark is more appropriate for older children (though my little ones still enjoy it), and includes both classic poems and more modern selections, all of which tell a story, of course. Classics from Lewis Carroll ("Jabberwocky," "The Walrus and the Carpenter" and "Humpty Dumpty's Recitation"), Edgar Allan Poe ("Annabel Lee"--one of my favorites!), Walter de la Mare ("The Listeners") are alongside Ray Bradbury's "Switching on the Night" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late." Nonsense, tragedy, suspense, mystery, cautionary tales, shipwrecks, witches, dragons and ghosts--the gang's all here. This is a truly rich anthology, and if you're an educator hoping to cover several bases with one book, this is an excellent one to check out. Colorful and imaginative illustrations from various artists pepper the text. Helpful indices of themes, artists, authors, titles and first lines are included in the back of the book.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Walk into my Parlor for National Poetry Month

I recently read Tony DiTerlizzi's picture book rendition of The Spider and the Fly with my kids and thought it was wonderful. If you're looking for a picture book to include in your celebration of National Poetry Month, be sure to check this one out.

The text of the book is Mary Howitt's famous poem, The Spider and the Fly, first published in 1829. You probably are familiar with this poem to some extent, though many folks misquote the first line as "Come into my parlor, said the Spider to the Fly." (It's actually "'Will you walk into my parlor?' said the Spider to the Fly." See the Wikipedia article on the poem, which includes a link to the text of the poem, as well as the text of a Lewis Carroll parody called The Lobster Quadrille that was included in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.) The poem is a cautionary tale about a cunning Spider that cajoles and flatters a Fly who has, in fact, heard of the Spider and knows better (at first) than to listen to his promises of a lovely visit and restful stay. Eventually, however, the Fly succumbs to the Spider's flattery (just as the Spider knew she would) and of course, never again returns from the Spider's lair.

DiTerlizzi's detailed black and white illustrations are wonderfully dark and old-fashioned feeling, with clever touches, such as furniture and curtains in the Spider's home made from dead bugs and butterfly wings, ghostly bugs trying to warn off the Fly (one pointing out a copy of The Joy of Cooking Bugs), and the fact that the Spider's home is inside a doll house. DiTerlizzi's visual interpretation of the poem was impressive enough to make the book a Caldecott Honor Book in 2003 (the Wikipedia article on Mary Howitt, linked to above, incorrectly states that the book won this honor in 2007).

DiTerlizzi includes a letter from the Spider at the end of the book, cautioning readers about the fact that "spiders are not the only hunters and bugs are not the only victims." Just as the poem itself says, "And now, dear little children, who may this story read,/To idle, silly flattering words I pray you ne'er give heed:/Unto an evil counselor, close heart and ear and eye,/And take a lesson from this tale of the Spider and the Fly." So besides being a treat to listen to (and look at in this version), the poem teaches a valuable lesson to kids about not allowing themselves to be lured by strangers or by crafty people in general. With older kids, it is worth pointing out that it is likely not by chance that Howitt made her Fly female and the Spider male--there are more complex lessons for girls and women that might be learned from Howitt's words.

Though great for any time of year, the dark nature of the tale and illustrations might make this a nice selection to share with kids at Halloween.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April is National Poetry Month

April is a busy month. There's Earth Day, of course, Easter (I don't celebrate it, but the kids and I feel compelled to color eggs), Arbor Day, and most importantly, my husband's birthday (35, if you're wondering; I'll get there myself in another six months). It's also National Garden Month and National Poetry Month. I'll probably touch on all of these topics at some point this month, but the focus of this post is National Poetry Month.

Poetry, in my opinion, is a magical thing. A lot of people, particularly young people, seem to think that poetry is stuffy or boring or somehow highbrow, but poetry is for everyone, and is possibly the most fun anyone can have with language. Most of us just don't realize how much poetry affects our lives--what is a song, after all, but a poem set to music? If you love music, then you love poetry. (If you don't love music, I'd love to hear more about your home planet sometime.) A well written poem creates its own music when you read it out loud. Poetry can be a great way to express yourself, and reading poetry with kids can spark creativity. Writing poetry is a challenge; expressing feelings or observations in a few words, with or without a specific rhythm, teaches brevity and clarity. Choosing just the right word helps build vocabulary.

If you're a teacher, librarian, or parent, I hope you'll take some time to celebrate National Poetry Month with the kids in your life. The Academy of American Poets have some great resources on their National Poetry Month web site, including curricula and lesson plans; tip sheets for teachers and librarians; Poem-A-Day; and the Free Verse Photo Competition (really fun--if I were a teacher, this would be an assignment for my class). You should also check out Poetry 180, a Library of Congress web site that provides "a poem-a-day for American high schools" and the Children's Poetry page of the Poetry Foundation.

I'll be writing some posts on resources to share with kids. Do any of you have favorite books of children's poetry that you remember from childhood? If so, leave a comment about it on this post. It needn't be a formal book of poems--perhaps you remember a favorite picture book that had text written in verse?