Let’s celebrate Black History Month!

blog2pic.jpg

February is Black History Month! This is a terrific opportunity to celebrate, through the lens of children’s literature, the contributions African-Americans and African-Canadians have made to the progress and betterment of North American society and to the wider world.

Children are not oblivious to their surroundings. If they are asking questions about Black Lives Matter or the shifting political culture in the context of a Trump presidency, it’s important that we educate ourselves so that we can pass along accurate information.

Paula Young Shelton’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement is an autobiographical work that tells an abbreviated rendition of the struggle for racial equality in the US, from the perspective of the author as the 4-year-old daughter of civil rights activists. This book was written with a 4- to 8-year-old audience in mind, but it can also be of educational and moral value to older children, who can glean information from the story as well as from the biographical details of key figures at the back of the book.

While I’m not entirely convinced that the book’s language and themes are accessible to 4-year-olds, there is certainly value in laying a contextual foundation for the questions and conversations to come. Unfamiliar words are also great for the development of literacy skills. For instance, the story includes words like “racists”, “civil rights”, “protest”, “struggle”, “booming”, “symphony”, and “nonviolence”. Unfamiliar words are opportunities for learning! The story also includes the names of several relevant cities and states (Selma, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia), references to Jim Crow as her 4-year-old mind understood him (“CAWWW, CAWWW, you can’t sit there!”), her Uncle Martin (Martin Luther King Jr.), and other notable activists. The author lists some examples of discrimination in terms that a 4-year-old can grasp, and other examples might register more effectively as they re-read it year after year.

Parents can help to further develop these themes of justice and compassion by asking their kids what sorts of things make them feel sad, or mad, or left out. A useful exercise to follow this is a brainstorm of what can be done to make sad people feel better. One way to do this is to consider what the opposite action would be (ex: being mean -> being nice), and how that might make them feel better. Even if they are not yet at an age where they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, you can still communicate the idea that something can be done to make bad situations better.

The primary take-away message I get from the book is that sometimes making things better can be hard, but positive change can happen when people work together. There are a lot of fun games kids can play that show the value of teamwork rather than going it alone!

A final idea to extend the message of this book is to explore biographies of specific individuals and their contributions to Black history. I found several early childhood education websites that recommend looking at snippets of MLK Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech with preschoolers, distinguishing between a “sleeping dream” and a “wishing dream”, and then asking them to draw pictures of what they want to be when they grow up. So many fun ways to make the book come to life!

I give this book 5/5 flashlights for its effort to translate a difficult and complicated subject into palatable and poetic nonfiction for kids, thus helping them to grow into caring, compassionate members of their communities.

5-flashlight-rating

3 Ninja Pigs

Fairy tale modernization is not a new concept. Whether done in movie form by DisneyPixar, print form by Marissa Meyer or theatrical productions like Wicked or Into the Woods; modern re-imaginings of classic fairy tales are a very popular trend in recent years. 3 Ninja Pigs continues this popular trend with the delightful writings of Corey Rosen Schwartz and wonderful illustrations by Dan Santat. 

board-break

The setting is a fictional ancient China, where the two younger pig brothers and their elder sister are living in an area terrorized by the predatory wolf. Tired of living in fear of the wolf, the three pig siblings decide to enroll in the new ninja school. What follows is a clever re-imaging of the plot of the original story: the two pig brothers put in varying degrees of work into their ninja studies only to be defeated by the wolf, fleeing to the safety of their eldest sister. The sister, in contrast to the brothers, has studied long and hard at perfecting her karate and is able to frighten the wolf away with a display of her skill.

flying-kick

More than just a humorous book that is fantastically illustrated, 3 Ninja Pigs is an excellent learning tool and conversation piece for children and parents. The sister is a successful heroine not because of wandering lumberjacks or enchanted swords, instead she demonstrates the importance of hard work and perseverance to children. In addition, the detailed illustrations of ancient China and martial arts culture are supported in the back page with a glossary of terms used throughout the story. This helps parents to quiz their readers on various terms used during the story, or to help parents answer questions that young readers may have during the course of the reading.

wolf

All-in-all, 3 Ninja Pigs is an excellent and educational book. Rich illustrations and delightful, rhythmic story come together to form a book that is as fun as it is accessible to young readers. The book is a re-telling of a familiar classic, features a strong introduction to the importance of self-discipline, and offers parents a number of fun learning activities based around martial arts, ancient times or classical tales.

5-flashlight-rating

Green Eggs and Ham

220px-green_eggs_and_ham

This is a classic book by the iconic Dr. Seuss that some parents may remember having read in their own childhood. It is a masterful combination of words and pictures that would be ideal for children ages 4-6. Younger children will enjoy having this book read to them, as it is full of colourful illustrations and rhythmic rhyming language.

Green Eggs and Ham is set in a world populated by Dr. Seuss’ iconic anthropomorphic furry humanoid creatures. The nameless protagonist is accosted by a persistent Sam-I-Am, who insists on making him try the green eggs and ham. Sam-I-Am keeps up his pursuit for most of the book, setting up scenarios where he suggests to try the dish in various ways (in the rain / on the train). Finally, the exhausted protagonist relents, and finds he enjoys green eggs and ham after all! Parents of picky eaters will find much to relate to, and so will the picky eaters, too.

This book is ideal for helping a young reader’s developing literacy skills. Besides the rhyming, there is frequent repetition (You may like them. You will see. You may like them/ in a tree!) which means the reader has only a few phrases per page to decipher before they can read it in its entirety. Cognitive development is also helped along by the illustrations, which help keep the narrative together in such a repetitive text. Sam-I-Am, the protagonist, and a host of other Seussian creatures travel across the page by rail, by car, on foot, and by boat. All this visual interest helps the reader keep track of where they are in the story.

The unusual colour of the food provides a good frame for introducing this story. Parents can ask about their child’s favourite food, then ask if they would like it if it were… GREEN! Parents can extend the child’s interaction with the book by giving them pictures of food to colour, or making some green cookies with the child.

This timeless classic has a lot to offer the youngest generation, and parents should not hesitate to add this to the family bookshelf!

5-flashlight-rating

 

Piggins and the Royal Wedding

51qpp1ea2pl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Piggins and the Royal Wedding is a mini British mystery written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Jane Dyer. This picture storybook was published in 1988 as part of the Piggins series, which follow the butler Piggins and his employers, the Reynard family, as he solves mysteries within their social circle. Parents who are fans of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs will find the family / staff dynamics familiar.

In Piggins and the Royal Wedding, the Reynard family has, of course, been invited to a royal wedding. The two oldest children even have jobs to do! Trixy is to be the flower girl, and Rexy the ring bearer. Unfortunately, the wedding ring goes missing right before the wedding and Rexy is blamed. Piggins arrives to solve the mystery and find the thief, and the wedding continues without further complication.

Piggins and the Royal Wedding is rich with detailed illustrations, from lofty cathedral ceilings with stained glass windows to city streets with busy crowds. There are plenty of details for your kids to point out and discover, including a side mystery to solve.

The story is bursting with rare words that aid in literacy development. On the second page alone, the words “butler”, “petticoat”, “cathedral”, “handkerchief”, “gallantly”, “fondly”, “stickpin”, and “bonnet” are found. Whew!

Within the whole Piggins series, crime is punished and those who help solve the crime – Piggins – are rewarded. In the case of the Royal Wedding, Piggins is even given a medal by the Reynard family as a gift for solving the crime.

To give context to your kids, you might remind them of a wedding you recently attended together, or let them play with a costume jewelry ring.

img_0559
Piggins and the Royal Wedding “dollhouse” style illustrations.

The Royal Wedding offers a huge array of post-reading activities. You might set up a small
scavenger hunt for your older children, or perhaps name or count the objects within the illustrations with younger readers. You might ask, “Can you find Piggins?” or “Where is the kitchen?” in the “dollhouse” style illustrations, like the one shown on the right.

Piggins and the Royal Wedding is ideal for ages 4 – 7, with its simple plot, extensive vocabulary, and black and white morality.

The Royal Wedding gets four flashlights for Dyer’s intricate illustrations and the excellent introduction to mystery stories.

4-flashlight-rating

Let’s Read: Little Fox, Lost

littlefoxlost_image1

Little Fox, Lost is a beautifully written and illustrated book published in 2016 by Pajama Press, Inc. The author (Nicole Snitselaar), illustrator (Alicia Padron), and translator (Erin Woods) all do a wonderful job at producing a book that children ages 3-4 and their parents would love to have as a part of their collection. This quaint story is somewhat of a cautionary tale, dealing with themes of mischievous behavior and strangers. In the case of this story, the titular character, a small fox kit, gets lost and cannot find his mother. Throughout the story, the kit copes with his predicament and, eventually, remembers the words his mother told him to heed if he ever finds himself apart from her. In the story’s conclusion, the fox kit is rewarded by the reappearance of his mother and his return to home and to safety.

This heart-warming book is also a wonderful way to cater to a toddler’s personal level of cognitive development. According to Piaget, a child from this age group is still egocentric in nature and cannot completely grasp stories that they cannot themselves emphathise with. In the case of Little Fox, Lost, the little fox experiences a situation that a young child can easily relate to: being separated from his or her mother. Furthermore, this book also reinforces social rules. When the young fox is lost, he tells the strange owl that he cannot talk or follow her because his mother warned him about entrusting himself to strangers. These small but clear behaviors in the book can in turn be passed on to the avid young listeners.

littlefoxlost_image2 A proper frame, or preemptive activity for the children before the story, would be attempting to relate the feeling of being lost to the children’s own lives. This call for empathy can be prompted by asking the children questions such as: have you ever been separated from your mother/father? and how did you feel when that happened? These questions will cater to the child’s own egocentric nature and prompt them to reflect upon how situations and emotions are interconnected. Furthermore, throughout the story, the fox kit asks himself questions such as “where will I end up?” These questions can be directed to the children and they themselves can come up with imaginative answers to anticipate what might come next. The children can also be encouraged to recite the small rhyme that is repeated throughout the story. This rhyme will then become a part of their extension activity.

littlefoxlostimage3

“If ever you are lost, my child,

Don’t let a stranger guide you.

Be still, and I will search the wild

Until I am beside you”

 

This extension activity promotes the children’s literary and artistic skills, as well as strengthens their memory. Depending on the child’s literary level, this rhyme can either be written out by the child his/herself or can be printed out by the storyteller. After the child has the recorded rhyme, they can illustrate the paper with decorations or drawings of them and their parents. Not only does this help the children with their literary skills, it also teaches them a valuable lesson that safety and obedience are interconnected.

Little Fox, Lost boasts a wonderfully constructed story with emotional and reactive illustrations. The book also welcomes a fun variety of frame and extension activities that can help your child get the most out of this enriched experience.

This book and it’s furry little empathetic hero gets an easy five flashlights!

5-flashlight-rating

Sleeping Dragons provide some fun and help conquering night time fears.

sleeping-dragonsThis is the book that taught my four year old to use the word gargantuan.  It has been a favourite ever since.

Sleeping Dragons All Around by Canadian author Sheree Fitch is filled with rare words to encourage a budding vocabulary.  It also contains fun rhymes, repetitive features young kids will love and whimsical illustrations from Michele Nidenoff.  The writing style allows for dramatic readings that will engage both parent and child in this fraught journey past sleeping dragons toward a midnight snack fit for the sweetest sweet tooth.

In terms of message, this is a versatile book.  Parents with little ones who might be struggling with night time fears like monsters under the bed will find this a useful book to frame a discussion about overcoming those fears.  The ultimate resolution of the story also lends itself to discussions about sharing  The illustration of the dragons denied the cake can be used for early lessons in empathy.  Parents can ask children how they think the girl feels when the dragons start to eat her mocha maple chocolate cake and then about how the dragons might feel when the little girl yells at them.

The use of language in the text is wonderful for early literacy.  It is probably more accessible for children in the 4-5 age range as there are at least 1/2 a dozen rare words per page.  This is a wonderful tool for phonological awareness both because it is simply fun to read, but also because of the rhymes and repetition.  Each page describes a specific and decidedly odd dragon but it also repeats…

“I must tiptoe, tiptoes…. softly as I pass…” or a close variation on this sentence.

The size and capitalization of the words change, encouraging not only volume shifts for the reader but print recognition for the children as well.  The placement of words on the page is also very specific, with the justification of the repeated phrases always the same.  This way, children can easily see the words they are starting to repeat with the reader.

Sleeping Dragons All Around is a great introduction to the power of language.  Parents can point out the descriptive words and encourage children to describe the things around them.  Is the tree outside just big or is it huge… or massive… or gargantuan?

Younger kids could have fun with simple pretend games.  Set up some stuffed animals and tip toe around them, trying not to wake them up.  The parent could continue using rare words describing the toys as they go with the goal of having the child start using similar descriptive words as the game progresses.

This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend for young reader both for its emergent literacy elements but also because it is simply a fun story to both read and hear.

5-flashlight-rating