First Books

A Change of Place

by Kathie Johnson

As I write this (at the end of August 2013), I am winding up a summer reading game in my children's library. Many public libraries have summer reading programs. As I understand it, they are based on how many books or how many pages a child reads. I have chosen to do something a bit different, and it occurs to me that reading families might enjoy my approach.

I ask children to read selected books that are set in a particular geographical area. I started in 2009 with the Far West of the United States, and in the following years moved across the Great Plains, through the Midwest, and up to New England. This year, the kids read books just from New York, along with books about city life and living in an apartment. It has been a delight to see them reading books they would not ordinarily select and liking them.

I can see reading families benefiting from a similar approach. You could use it when you feel your kids are getting bogged down in one type of book. Challenge them to read a few books set in an area you want to introduce to them. You could also use this approach as a way of "taking a trip" as a family to a part of the country (or world) that you wouldn't otherwise have the money or time to visit. To "take a trip," you might want to have handy a map of the area to which you will "travel." You could also incorporate such activities as collecting state quarters or stamps with the states, making state flags, learning state flowers and birds, and so on, as part of your "trip."

In my program, children are welcome to read at any level of difficulty they wish, which has freed good readers to gallop through some wonderful easier books that are often packed with a sense of place and ambiance. However, I do give each book a score—ranging from 1 to 4—for length and difficulty, so harder and longer books earn more points.

A New York Reading Trip

For some reason, this year was my most successful summer reading game. Some children have read over 100 books, and seemed eager for more every time they came in. I don't know if that's because word spread that the award party is fun—and the awards real—or because of the subject matter. As I planned for this year's game, I pondered why so many books are set in New York, especially New York City. Many writers live there, so that's one answer. The arts are especially important, so a number of books about music and dance are set there.

 But I believe the main reason is that New York has always been a city of immigrants. There is great richness in the stories of people who have left their homelands hoping to find something better. There are stories of love and loss, hardship and adjustment, letting go and finding something worthwhile.

For example, in The Memory Coat, by Elvira Woodruff, Jewish cousins in Russia flee from the Cossacks and come to America. At Ellis Island, they face a challenge that involves a coat that is especially dear to them because it was made by a mother who died. Amy Hest's When Jessie Came Across the Sea is a beautifully illustrated book, telling of a young Jewish orphan girl who is chosen by the rabbi to go to America. Her special skill is sewing lace, and she soon attracts business, finally earning enough money to send for her beloved grandmother. A good general book about immigration is Coming to America, by Betsy Maestro.

Here are some other New York City books on other topics: Sky Dancers, by Connie Ann Kirk, is a Native American father-and-son story. The family lives on a reservation, but the father stays in a city apartment on weekdays, for his job working on skyscrapers. The son has a fear of heights, but he begins climbing trees to overcome his fear, so that he also can become a "sky dancer." Twenty-One Elephants—and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince, tells about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and how the people worried that it might not hold up to heavy traffic. The circus man P. T. Barnum helps allay their concerns in an unusual way.

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone, tells of a time in "Little Italy" before electric lights. A boy is desperate for a job because his father is ill. After searching many places, he is finally offered a job lighting street lamps. He begins working with a high heart, offering blessings to the people he loves with each lamp lit. But his father has wanted more for him and gradually takes away his joy, until one night he doesn't light the lamps. This is a touching story with wonderful illustrations, built around the lamplights.

The Artist's Model is a father-and-daughter story. The father is an illustrator, and for one picture, he feels his daughter can be included. They go to a photography studio in New York City, have a picture taken, and then the father works from the photo to paint the illustration. This book tells you a lot about the process of illustration.

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and its several sequels, by Bernard Waber, are stories of a crocodile who lives with a family in New York City. These books have been special favorites this summer. Night Markets, by Joshua Horwitz is a fascinating look at how food comes to the city, and is well-illustrated with photographs. The Baker's Dozen, by Heather Forest, is set in colonial New Amsterdam. A baker begins making St. Nicholas cookies, and they soon make him famous and wealthy. But then he becomes greedy and starts skimping on the good ingredients he had been using. Eventually he learns his lesson when things start going badly for him. The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, by Karla Kuskin, describes how members of the New York Philharmonic orchestra get ready for a performance. After reading this, you will want to see a performance of the orchestra on TV or video.

Three for Older Children

All the books mentioned here are picture books, and there are, of course, many more. But I will conclude by suggesting three New York books for older children that are much beloved. George Selden's A Cricket in Times Square is a delightful story whose main characters are Tucker Mouse, Harry Cat, and the very musical Chester Cricket. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L Konigsburg, is a great story of two children who live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art long enough to solve a mystery. Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family and its several sequels relate the adventures of a New York Jewish family of girls.

Try taking your own "family trip" with a variety of books based in one location. You'll find it enriching and thought-provoking. • 

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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