Book Fair Survival: Increasing reading and book recommendations

For JA – my partner in crime, and SN and SH – best backups ever.  For Husband and his patience.

Part of the reason for my long extended silence on the blog had to do with the explosion of my life called the book fair.  It’s a time of year which Husband dreads because I pretty much go into the mode of ignoring everyone and paying attention to no one in the home.  We rely on food from the fridge and freezer (I actually plan for it) and Children and Husband are left to their own devices for a lot of things.

It’s a time of year (twice a year) where I literally take on the role of book store owner (on campus) and throw my heart and my efforts into trying to get more kids to read.  The money that we raise for the school library is nice, but I find the conversation I have with a number of kids the interesting part, and a large number of kids actually seek me out and ask me, “What’s a good book for me to read?”  It’s always fun talking to those kids who are interested in new titles (I actually spend a good number of hours reading books during the fair, or at least trying out a few chapters so that I can meaningfully recommend new titles) and always challenging to get reluctant readers to read.

What’s most striking to me in the landscape of books in the last 20 years is the lack of time kids spend on books.  Brothers and I would spend hours on our favorite spot on the sofa, reading through stacks of books because it was that or play outside and ride our bikes.  We didn’t have a TV (Dad threw it out) and so books were our entertainment.  Fast forward 30 years, and there is so MUCH entertainment that kids have no way to prioritize reading.  They’ve got to play on their phones, their computers, their ipads, their xbox’s, their Wii’s and by the time they play through all of that, who has time for a book?

This year with my own group of students, I’ve reminded their parents that a lot of students simply CANNOT prioritize their own time welll.  The temptations of the digital age are so delicious and addicting that a book, for many, is not high on the list of “things to do for fun.”  This means that if you want your child to read more, you’re going to have to get them on the digital media a lot LESS.  This means less time in front of the TV, less iphones/ipods, less video games, less computer games over all.  The day is still 24 hours as it was when we were children, but there is just a lot more distraction filling those 24 hours that books are often forgotten.

During the book fair, I did an informal survey of as many students as I could, and asked them how many minutes a day they spent reading.  I think the most common answer was 15 minutes.  I asked how many minutes were spent playing video games or in front of the TV, and invariably I heard numbers in excess of 90 minutes.  Students justified their minutes in front of the digital stuff by saying, “It’s how I relax after doing my homework.”  I asked students to try and read as many minutes as they played with their digital media and the looks of horror I got were amusing.  “You want me to read for 2 hours?” exclaimed one student, aghast.

“Well, you are playing video games for two hours,” I pointed out.
“That’s DIFFERENT!  Reading a book for two hours isn’t FUN!”
“How about you just play video games for less than – 1 hour of reading and 1 hour of video games,” I countered.
“NO WAY!  That’s still too much!”
“Okay.  30 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of video games”
“Why does reading for 30 minutes sound so long and 30 minutes of video games sound so short?”

An interesting quandry we’ve gotten our children into.  30 minutes of reading is an eternity and 30 minutes of video games goes by in a blink of an eye.

Below is a short list of books I loved at the book fair this year.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio – this is the story of August, a 5th grader, who due to a series of birth complications is completely disfigured.  It is the face that make people stare because it is so unusual.  However, after being homeschooled for his entire school life, his parents make the tough and emotional decision to mainstream him in a private school.  At this school August is faced with a number of challenges, as one could guess given his physical differences.  Although his exterior is one way, his interior is another and thanks to the love and support of wonderful parents and a few friends who find it in their heart to befriend someone who is mostly shunned by the school, August is a wonder.

The book is a great read for 3rd grade and up, told from a variety of perpectives – from August, from August’s sister, from the boy friend of the sister, from the friend of the sister, and from the friend who struggles with the choices.  The different points of view are what make the story particularly engaging because different people look at August in different ways.  The book becomes less about his perception of himself in the world, but other people’s perceptions of themselves in August’s life.  All in all, fantastic, heart-wrenching book.  In terms of content, there is a kiss between August’s sister and her boyfriend.  Her parents handle it remarkably well.  Not sure if I would.

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
I’ve struggled often and long with appropriate material for #2 to read, and I found what I want her to read in this book.  As she’s in 2nd grade, this book is perfect for her as it’s the story of young Billy Miller as he embarks on the beginning of 2nd grade.  The writing is pure Kevin Henkes warmth, with wonderful dialogue and hysterical family situations, and great internal monologues of the young Billy, as he questions and evaluates some of the choices he inadvertantly makes in 2nd grade.  This book has depth and interest and it is challenging enough for many 4th graders even.  Now, will a 4th grader read about a 2nd grader?  He or she will if the book is funny enough, and this one is.

Turtle in Paradise by Jenny Holm
From the writer of Babymouse (and if you don’t know Babymouse, it’s a series of super cute graphic novels that are perfect for readers from about grades 2 to 5, although I’ve seen both younger and older kids pick it up) comes this wonderful story of young Turtle, who grows up in the great depression.  I’ve used this book with my own students to talk about the Great Depression, Prohibition, the New Deal and to make connections to history with the ideas in the book.  The two areas of pause have to do with Turtle, who is born to an unwed mother, which is briefly touched up on in the book but not completely spelled out, and the discussion of a young woman being kicked out of her home because she is pregnant out of wedlock.  Again, it’s not fully fleshed out in the narrative, but a sharp older reader will pick it up. The book is filled with amazing figurative language (tons of metaphors and similes) and really sharp and witty dialogue.  Turtle is tough, and she’s not afraid to let people know it.  Because of the content (I’m using it with 7th graders) I do think it is more suited for an older audience of at least middle school, but the text isn’t difficult nor overly dense.  It’s a great entertaining book, even for adults.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate Dicamillo
I love Kate DiCamillo’s books as there is something magical and fantastic about them.  A pig being raised like a human (Mercy Watson), a china rabbit (Edward Tulane), and now this fantastic squirrel named Ulysses who has superhero powers because he was sucked up by an out of control vacuum cleaner. This novel is innovative as it intersperes text with hysterical cartoons (the first three pages is a cartoon of a clueless husband who decides to present his wife with a vacuum cleaner…BAD MOVE) and within the novel are more cartoons.  The protagonist is Flora, who is cynical and not really into imagining the amazing in her life, but with the help of the squirrel, things begin to change. As always her writing is exciting, moving, and engaging and her humor is still witty and subtle.

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