Lots going on in the library at school – and in the “library” at home….
At school, the spring season is fully underway. With fingers crossed, we are planning outdoor events, including a book fair the week of May 10 and an 8th grade graduation ceremony.
To brighten things up a bit, we have asked the 1st through 6th grade students to write the title of their favorite book in the center of a paper flower, and we are hanging them around the library. Unsurprisingly, our “book garden” includes lots of Harry Potter and Dog Man flowers, but I was happy to see that a student chose The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. If I could vote for my five favorite books in the library, that would be one of them – along with Charlotte’s Web, Life on Mars by Jon Agee, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, and A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead.
I also had two reminders of how much kids, like many adults, enjoy an entertaining story. Sometimes, I try too hard to find the most creative and artistic picture book for story time, and it’s even better if the book contains an important message. These books are great, but so is a funny story that just makes kids laugh. In a rush to select a book for our lower elementary classes this week, I grabbed Floaty by John Himmelman off the shelf. I remembered it as a sweet book, but I had not looked at it in awhile. Floaty is the story of a dog who floats. You can’t put him down inside because he will rise to the ceiling – and, of course, outside would be a disaster! To feed Floaty, his new friend Mr. Raisin has to toss cornflakes into the air. After reading it to a class on Monday, I knew Floaty would be our read aloud all week. It was great to hear the kids laughing at the picture of Floaty drinking water from a spray hose pointed toward the ceiling.
While Mary and I were reading Floaty to our groups this week, the parent of an Upper Elementary student told me that her daughter mentioned that all of the books she read for school this year were sad. My heart sunk a bit. This is the challenge of middle grade “problem novels,” right? It used to be that stories about divorce and mental illness and sexual identity were primarily written for young adults. Today, with urgent conversations going on 24 hours a day, authors are responding with books that help kids navigate hard topics. That’s a good thing. Books can spark questions and give kids a safe place to explore issues – and they certainly provide a wider perspective.
But when I look at the library’s middle grade fiction shelves, I see far more issue novels than light and funny stories. Kids need those too – just like we do. I’m going to pay more attention to a balanced reading diet in both their classroom reading and in the books they check out.
At home, I’m reading a new book: Red Island House by Andrea Lee. Part of the appeal, beyond the glowing reviews, was the fact that the novel takes place in Madagascar, a place I knew two things about: vanilla and lemurs. But now, since I’m looking at pics on Google images and videos on YouTube after every chapter, I’ve got a much better sense of the island nation. The novel centers on Shay, an American professor who marries a wealthy Italian man who owns the Red House, a mansion on Madagascar’s coast. Shay becomes the “foreign mistress” of a house with a small army of housekeepers and groundskeepers, people who understand Madagascar’s history, hierarchy, and complex relationships far better than Shay does: “She is struggling,” Lee writes, “to negotiate the currents not just of Italian and Malagasy etiquette, but of a universal colonial tradition that once seemed to her extinct, but which she knows now is all too alive.”
Before reading Red Island House, I digressed from my official “to read list” and read Catherine Reef’s dual biography, Frida and Diego: Art, Love, Life. Reef is the award winning biographer of nearly 20 biographies for young adults. I’ve read many of her biographies when I want to learn more about someone’s life – but not enough to commit to 600 pages. Reef has written about the Bronte sisters, Florence Nightingale, Sarah Bernhardt, and Jane Austen, among many others. Although I had a Wiki entry “first paragraph” kind of sketch of both iconic Mexican artists, I did not know very much about their individual trajectories and tumultuous relationship. Their intertwined stories are fascinating, both tragic and romantic. Side note: I did not know that Kahlo had an affair with Leon Trotsky before reading Reef’s biography.
When Kahlo was eighteen-years-old, she was seriously injured when the bus she was on was hit by a streetcar. Reading that brought to mind two famous people who died in similar accidents. Pierre Curie, Marie’s husband, was walking across the street when he was killed by a horse-drawn cart. And the architect Gaudi was taking his daily walk when he was hit by a tram and died. A reminder to look both ways!
There are maybe 10 books that I plan to read next. Knowing that’s impossible, I will narrow it down over the next few days, but for now – a few more days in Madagascar.