Thursday, May 23, 2002

My Two Cents on Audiobooks

The May/June issue of The Horn Book Magazine (which I have actually started reading already!) includes an article by Pamela Varley entitled As Good as Reading? Kids and the Audiobook Revolution. (It's the first article, which means I haven't read much.) It's a well-balanced discussion of a subject you wouldn't believe could inspire much passion. However, audiobooks--like television--are often attacked as being devices that will destroy reading skills and once we can no longer read it's only a small step to the end of life as we know it. (You know, there are probably people who would be happy to see that happen.)

So what's my take on this important issue? First off, I think it says something good about us that reading has such a central position in our culture that groups of people worry that other activities will undermine it. I also think that audiobooks aren't going to do it. Listening to a book is not worse or better than reading one. It's just different.

My own experience with audiobooks and children is that they expose kids to authors they might not otherwise have had an opportunity to know about. That is, of course, assuming an adult knows a child's tastes and what he or she has been reading and uses that knowledge to make a selection. Our own family started reading Roald Dahl because we listened to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the car on the way to New Hampshire. Though not a fan of Jack London, myself, Call of the Wild seemed like a good pick for the family to listen to on another trip. (It's grim, but that's us.) Notice I used the word family in each of the last two sentences. Though we all read, this is not the Nineteenth Century, and we don't sit next to the fire in the evening reading aloud to each other. Audiobooks in the car gave us an opportunity to hear a book together that we wouldn't otherwise have had. And audiobooks also introduced one young reader in our family to adult mystery novels--he would listen to one on tape and then read through all the author's works. He did this a number of times.

If the adults in our family had been purists and said they'd allow only traditional books in our home, a lot less reading would have been done. So in case I haven't made my point, I'll put it bluntly--I'm a fan of audiobooks.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Doing the Coffee House Thing

My latest excursion into polite society involved serving as the guest writer at a teen coffee house held at our high school. This was an extremely interesting experience for a number of reasons, only a few of which I'll inflict upon you.

I've never been one to attend a lot of public readings because I don't really enjoy being read to all that much. I'm one of those learners who needs to read rather than just listen. (If I'm at a real lecture I have to take notes. Listening truly isn't enough for me.) I also often find readings a little embarrassing and awkward. Often the audience is packed with friends of the readers/writers, and there's a little lovefest going that I get to witness but not be part of. The last time I attended one was maybe three or four years ago. I hadn't been there fifteen minutes when I thought, "Oh, I remember why it's been so long since I've been to one of these things. I don't like them."

But the coffee house I was part of Friday evening (I believe it was called "Generations," but I've lost my program) was a cut above what I've been used to, and I've spent a lot of time wondering why. Most of the readings involved poetry, though there were three musicians and a monologist. So there was variety. The audience was made up of friends and family (mostly friends--evidently parents of poets don't turn out for readings the way parents of athletes do for games). Yet there was no gushing. Instead, the audience treated the readers as if they were serious poets and performers, which, of course, they were. The ratio of good readings and performances to so-so was high.

All that was enough to make for the interesting experience I mentioned in my first paragraph. But what really made Friday evening different--and better--than other such events I've attended? I think it was the content of the material. These young poets (and that really fine monologist--I swear, that's a real word) were using writing to explore the world. They wrote about the differences between men and women, the existence of heaven and hell, war, and bigotry. Because their writing touched upon the world all of us in the audience live in, we could all take something from it. The so-called adult writers at the last few readings I've been to used writing to explore themselves. They wrote about dealing with estranged husbands and the deaths of relatives. Some of them cried through their readings. Their writing was a sort of therapy and was so personal that listeners couldn't take anything from it.

The kids were able to write of something beyond themselves. The adults weren't.

Friday night I listened to those young people talk about how they came to write what they were about to read, and I thought, "Wow. There are people in the world who write poetry in response to things they've experienced." Usually at those kinds of things I'm thinking, "I wonder when I can leave?"

Oh, and the high school students remembered to bring food, too.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

A Neat Idea for Teachers

Here's something I'm dropping from my Web site, but I think it deserves to be preserved so I'm posting it here. (Yeah, that's right. I don't have anything to write about.)

I was just contacted by a first grade class at Queen of Peace School in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. The students in Mrs. Major's class read 100 books and e-mailed (and received e-mails from) 100 authors by the 100th day of school. Now they're working their way to 200.

This great project got the kids reading books, using computers/the Internet, and researching writers by way of their Web sites. On top of all that, they wrote a story about their experience. You can read it here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

A Good Short Story is Hard to Find: Part II

I just finished reading Lord of the Fries and Other Stories (a title I love) by Tim Wynne-Jones. This collection was classified as YA in the library where I found it, though a review I saw described it as being for 10 to 14 year olds, which might be a better fit. These are stories that have a lot to recommend them--well-defined characters and a strong sense of place, for instance. Wynne-Jones is Canadian, and his stories have Canadian settings. That makes them similiar enough to the world Canada's neighbors to the south inhabit for American readers to feel comfortable but unique enough for them to feel they're being exposed to something different. They are comfortably different stories, you might say. One involves young people singing in a church choir who think that Lucifer may be trying to join their group. Another involves a girl obsessed with Anne of Green Gables. Many of the stories are a little predictable, however, ending in ways that teach a moral. Others don't seem to end at all, as in the afore mentioned Lucifer story. (I must admit, I am often dissatisfied with the endings of short stories so you might want to take that into consideration.) The most successful story is the last, "The Chinese Babies." It could be argued that it, too, ends predictably with a positive lesson for young readers. But because of the unique setting--the border between Ontario and Quebec--the bigotry involved is addressed toward French-Canadians, making the story fresh for American readers. On top of that, it deals with real family issues--conflict between fathers and teenage sons that other family members have to stand by helplessly and watch and a failing grandfather who needs his family's care but also earns their contempt because of his narrow-minded attitudes. There's a lot going on and everything is drawn together by the end.

Lord of the Fries is a good collection to have on hand in a classroom or library and certainly a number of these stories would make a good selection for reading in an upper grade or middle school class.

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

An Enriching Experience

For three years now I've been involved in an enrichment cluster program at our local elementary school. An enrichment cluster is a group of students and adults who have gathered together to study some aspect of a "real" problem or to learn about something members of the community actually do. The adults in the clusters act as facilitators, not teachers, and ideally the members of the cluster will plan their activities together. One of the goals for enrichment clusters (and there are many goals) is to provide a more natural learning experience. To some extent everyone in the work world learns what they need to learn. (For adults reading this, think back to your first two or three years at a job. I think you'll see what I mean.) Enrichment clusters try to reproduce that natural method of learning.

You often hear the term high-end learning in relation to enrichment clusters. Unfortunately, I find most of the writing on that topic almost impossible to comprehend. (Perhaps I have a high-end learning deficiency?) But, basically, what we're trying to do with enrichment clusters is get away from the traditional teaching model of adult spitting out information and kids understanding and memorizing it and move on to more sophisticated stuff. In enrichment clusters kids get opportunties to plan, analyze, make decisions, organize time, and try out many of the other skills actually used in the real world.

So far I've facilitated clusters on using journals twice, and this year I'm the facilitator for a writers' group for 4th through 6th graders. At our school the clusters are held one hour a week for six weeks. It's an opportunity for adults to do sophisticated--but short-term--volunteer work.

Visit a real school's description of its cluster program.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

A Good Short Story is Hard to Find: Part I

I have a morbid fascination with short stories. If I'm looking at the offerings on a library's 'New Book' shelf, I recoil in horror when I stumble upon a volume of short fiction. Once a year I skim through a "Best Short Stories" collection of some sort or another because, gosh, I don't want to read any bad ones. As my cousin, Bobby, once observed, it takes as much commitment to get involved with a short story as it does with a novel but by the time you're committed, it's over. Bobby and I are only interested in long relationships. On the other hand, because I write short stories, I have to think about them a lot, even if I don't read as many as I should.

Don't panic. I'm not going to give you the benefit of my random thoughts on short story writing. Instead, I'd like to point out that though I don't read them often, myself, I think the young should read them just as they should learn advanced math and how to conjugate foreign verbs--two other things I don't do. Now, I have a good reason for this. It's all very nice that children in the upper elementary grades and middle school read novels in class, but when was the last time they were asked to write one? Kids that age are asked to write short stories. And it's been my experience that they have little knowledge of this literary form that they're asked to write. So what do they have to model their work on? If they were in an art class and told to draw a pear, their instructor would make sure they knew what a pear looked like. Shouldn't they read and discuss short stories so they know what they "look" like?

This is all a lead-in to a discussion of a book of teen short stories I'm reading. But I haven't finished it yet, so I'll have to save the review for another day. You've been warned.

In the meantime, Amazon lists over 300 books as being collections of short stories for children.