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Kids Who Read

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. This is the season when I visit the Mock Newbery and Mock Printz clubs in Imageour library system. There are three of them, two Newbery (middle school) and one Printz (high school), and the kids in these groups are avid readers. They have to be, since each group reads about 200-250 books each year! Their purpose is to read all of the books published in each calendar year that are eligible for the Children’s Media Awards, and to vote on them using the same rules as the official committees. They hold their votes just before the national committees do, and then wait to see if their choices won the awards. When I worked in a library, I helped to run one of these groups for five years, so now I look forward to seeing them when I can.
We often assume that reading kids are introverts, but that’s not necessarily so. In these clubs, a lot of the kids are very outspoken about what they like or don’t like. Every week, they have to defend their choices. It’s so funny to watch them change over the years! They come into the Mock Newbery clubs as shy eleven-year-olds, saying things like, “This fairy book was so cute and I loved it. I think it will win the Newbery.” Four years later, they say, “Although the character development in this book was phenomenal, the pacing faltered somewhat in the middle, and I found the writing style to be rather pedestrian.” In other words, they come in as typical kids and leave as forty-year-old book critics. Kids who read books and talk about what they read will inevitably become more articulate.

When we read nonfiction, we learn something. When we read fiction, we become something. That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, because we can have emotions about our nonfiction and learn a great deal through good fiction, but the experience of losing consciousness of our surrounding environment and seeing the world through another set of eyes belongs in the world of fiction. We all, children included, surrender ourselves to the mind and heart of a well-drawn protagonist, which is why it is vitally important to choose our reading wisely. If we thrill to the adventures of a courageous hero or heroine, we want to be more courageous ourselves. If we read a tragic story in which the main character shows great compassion, we know how to act with compassion when we encounter similar circumstances in our own lives. The reverse, of course, is also true. If a girl reads a steady diet of “mean girl” novels, what sort of person will she admire—or become—in real life?

If a child reads widely from an early age, he will have the opportunity to try on many lives. We all live once, but through books we can live for a short time in another country or another time. We can experience the perspectives of people who are very different from ourselves. A friend of mine once said that when she was going to high school in the early ‘70s in the Illinois suburbs, she had friends living through the race riots in Chicago high schools. Although they were not far away, it could have been a different country. The Chicago kids were drinking in racism with their lunch milk, while my friend, who had not yet met a black person, was drinking in lofty ideals and compassion in the good books that she was reading about the civil rights movement. Later in life, when she moved to a more integrated area, her worldview was already formed by the fictional heroes and heroines she had “lived” with during her formative years.

In the Newbery meeting last week, I heard a twelve-year-old girl talk about a book she’d read in which a character “was supposed to have been killed as a baby because she was not perfect.” I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but the book was probably a dystopian science fiction book. However, this is not a fictitious issue, is it? When the reader confronts this situation in real life, she will have already had this experience. She already knows someone who was a valuable person, even though a more powerful entity thought that she should have been destroyed before she had a chance to defend herself. Thinking through important questions calmly and at a distance is an excellent preparation for more turbulent times when clear thinking seems impossible.

These are just some of the reasons that I think reading kids are so amazing to be around. They’re not afraid to talk to adults because they’ve known so many of them through the pages of books– and they have a lot to talk about. Recommending a book to a child or teen and seeing them light up with anticipation is one of the big reasons that I do what I do. When that reader comes back and tells you how much they enjoyed that book, it’s like getting a gift! These kids will never be bored, and they’ll have the tools they need to learn whatever they want in life. If you have children in your life, be sure to model a love of reading and create an environment full of great books. Start young— and never stop!

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October 22, 2012 · 9:59 pm

Boom & Bang

David and I are Big Bang Theory fans. Ha! David and I are fanatical devotees of The Big Bang Theory, and have watched each season in order on Netflix. Now that Time Warner has given us an insanely great deal, we’ve been recording the current season on DVR and are completely caught up to date! Now I am in mourning that I don’t have anything else to watch. Michael will not watch it, saying that it hits way too close to home. However, he has been able to explain the more gaming-related episodes, although it makes him depressed that he can do that. David and I get all of the other jokes, as we are located somewhere on the periphery of the geek/nerd spectrum.

A couple of weeks ago, I brought home the new teen nonfiction book Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin, not because I am tremendously interested in nuclear weapons, but because it is getting lots of Newbery buzz, and I feel a moral obligation to read everything that is a contender for the Newbery. I put it on the coffee table in the living room, which is my sneaky way of getting my husband and son to read things they wouldn’t see otherwise. (I guess that jig’s up now.) David read it first and loved it, so I had to give it a go. He was upstairs when I started it, and when I got to page 11, I yelled up the stairs, “Sheldon is Robert Oppenheimer!” I could not believe it. Yes, I know that Sheldon and Leonard are physicists on the show, but I did not realize that they were based on actual people. I’m still not sure of Leonard, but Robert Oppenheimer was a tall, skinny, arrogant young physicist when he was chosen to head up the Manhattan Project. He was the type of guy who would audit other professors’ classes and call out things like, “Oh, please! Don’t insult our intelligence!” In other words, Sheldon Cooper.

Last week, Bomb was nominated for the National Book Award for Young People. I have finally finished it, and I agreeBook Cover that it is an excellent work of nonfiction. I learned so much!—although that may not be very impressive, since I must admit that the middle-school boys in the Newbery Club that I visited yesterday were way ahead of me in terms of scientific knowledge of things that go “boom.” The book begins with the discovery of fission in Germany and continues in detail through the Manhattan Project and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very last chapters relate the development of the hydrogen fusion bomb and the last years of the major characters in this brilliant and horrifying passage in our history.

Another book that just came out in the past couple of months is Shadow on the Mountain, by Margi Preus. When I read the reviews, I thought, “the Norwegian resistance?” This must be a much larger topic than I realized, however, since Bomb devotes several chapters to the Norwegian resistance to the Nazis, and what a thrilling adventure it was! There are so many little-known people who give everything for the cause of freedom every day. We should be so thankful for them!

On the other hand, I was shocked and saddened to realize how little it takes for some people to become traitors to their country. Right from the beginning, the government worried about the physicists’ loyalty, since many of them had come from Germany and Russia. In some cases, their worries were unfounded, but very often, they were right to keep a close eye on these guys. The most crushing, to me, was Ted Hall, who graduated from college in physics at age 18 and was recruited for the Manhattan Project at age 19. Once he started working at Los Alamos, the other scientists thought he was just a quiet loner, but he was really spending a great deal of time deep in thought. He was considering whether it was appropriate for only one nation to have this enormous secret about how to build an atomic bomb. He decided that, since Russia was not our enemy, but was also fighting Germany, they should also have a nuclear weapon. So he found a convenient KGB agent and passed on the information. Everything. He knew everything, and he told them everything. And that is how Stalin tested a nuclear bomb very shortly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman was stunned. If you don’t know much about Stalin, please allow me to highly recommend last year’s Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, a story based on the author’s grandparents. I was amazed to find out that there has been a human being even more evil than Hitler.

You might be able to tell by now that I really appreciated this book. At about 250 pages (depending on how much of the resource notes section you want to read), it is appropriate for teens and adults. There is some mild bad language in the quotes from the physicists, but they were scientists, not sailors, so you may be able to overlook it.

Now I have to go back to the Big Bang episode where Sheldon gets depressed and buys all those cats that he names after famous physicists. I may recognize some of the names this time!

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October 20, 2012 · 7:08 pm