Todd Bol’s library looked nothing like conventional libraries seen in towns and cities worldwide. His was much smaller, hand-built out of scrap wood, and modeled after a one-room school house. He added a sign above the school house doorway that read ‘Little Free Library’.
In 2009, Todd stocked the little school house with books, mounted it on a post in his front yard, and invited friends and neighbors to browse. It became a popular attraction, with visitors selecting books, dropping off others, and sharing in the joys of reading.
Todd Bol’s simple act spawned a world-wide movement. Today, there are over 50,000 registered Little Free Libraries (LFL) around the globe with new ones sprouting up on every continent except – so far at least – Antarctica. Most bear ‘take a book, leave a book’ signs, but that is more a suggestion than a rule. There are no enforcers, no guardians, only stewards keen on spreading the written word.
Winnipeg, my hometown, caught the wave in 2012 when Charlene Roziere erected the city’s first one at 273 Mandeville Street. Today there are dozens more, most in front yards, but others in school playgrounds, coffee shops or along lanes – wherever book lovers are likely to congregate.
Anyone can join the movement. The Little Free Library website provides Instructions on how to build and register a Little Free Library. Once registered, the new LFL is added to a website map that pinpoints the location of each registered Little Free Library. Click on the pin, and a box opens providing details and a photo or two.
The LFL website has downloadable blueprints and if you are so inclined, you can even order one pre-built. But for handy folks and those with a creative edge, here’s your chance to go shine. While there are some basic guidelines, your Little Free Library can be constructed out of almost any material and in just about any architectural style you desire.
To whet your creative appetite, here’s a small sample of LFLs, drawn from a variety of sources across the Internet.
It’s summer and the living is easy. With so many things for kids to do, reading sometimes takes a back seat. This can impact reading skills when school resumes in the fall. There’s even a term for the phenomenon: ‘summer slide’ – the loss of skills during the time students are away from school. Taken over several years, summer slide exacts heavy tolls as affected students fall progressively farther behind their classmates in reading achievement.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. An online publication by the Colorado State Library cites this hopeful statistic: Reading just 4 to 6 books over the summer has the potential to prevent a decline in reading.
Simple? Maybe. Getting some kids to read amid the distractions of summer can be a challenge. The same Colorado publication offers strategies parents can use to encourage reluctant readers: set aside family reading time; let kids make their own choices; visit the library together etc.
Here’s one I didn’t see there, though: Participate in a summer reading program or reading contest. There are a number out there, and even some online versions where kids chart the books they read and chat to other readers about them.
With the TD Summer Reading Club, for example, kids across Canada can take part through local public libraries as well as at home and online. .
Scholastic Canada, one of my publishers, offers a similar initiative with their Happy Camper Program.
Another of my publishers, Rebelight, is running Summer Reading Challenge. Admittedly, I have a vested interest in this one because my novel Missing in Paradise is on the selection list. But blatant self-promotion aside, this is a wonderful opportunity for readers to discover exciting new books while simultaneously combating the ills of summer slide.
The rules for the Summer Reading Challenge are simple. Kids read a young adult or middle grade novel published by Rebelight, then post a short review on social media. Each review yields a draw for great prizes. The more books read, the greater the draw possibilities. Full details are on Rebelight’s website, but hurry. The contest ends on August 31, 2017.
Suppose you are a teacher or teacher-librarian on the hunt for an engaging presenter. Or conversely, suppose you are a published author who wants to visit schools and classrooms. To borrow a line from the Ghostbusters theme, “Who you gonna call?”
If you live in Winnipeg or rural Manitoba, you might contact Prairie Bookings, an agency that connects teachers and teacher-librarians with local or visiting authors of children and teen material. Started a few months ago by two energetic Winnipeggers, Nancy Chappell-Pollack and Jen Franklin, Prairie Bookings is the only firm in Manitoba to provide such a service.
Chappell-Pollack is a sister to award-winning Winnipeg YA author, Colleen Nelson. When one of Colleen’s books was nominated for a White Pine Award for the Forest of Reading program in Ontario, Chappell-Pollack saw first-hand how an Ontario-based agency – Author’s Booking Service – expedited the process of connecting authors to schools. Believing there was a need for a similar service in Manitoba, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin founded Prairie Bookings.
“I strongly and distinctly remember author visits when I was going to school,” Chappell-Pollack, a mother of four, said in a phone interview. “I can tell you probably all of them and what they wrote or if it was a graphic novel or poetry. Those stick in my mind so I really feel strongly that it is important to have that in our school system.”
While Prairie Bookings might be the new kid on the block, it already has an up-and-running website (www.prairiebookings.ca) and a roster of willing and capable authors with more expected in the coming months. “We connect authors from Manitoba and beyond with interested educators and libraries for professional paid presentations,” Chappell-Pollack said.
Each author has a webpage on the Prairie Bookings site that features a biography as well as details about the author’s presentation, fee structure, and grade level suitability. To connect schools and authors, Prairie Bookings charges a 10% booking fee. This is deducted from the fees collected by the author. When necessary, Prairie Bookings will organize transportation for out-of-town authors. “We take care of the details,” Chappell-Pollack noted.
To communicate with schools, Prairie Bookings emails flyers and announcements to teachers and teacher-librarians on their mailing list. Currently, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin have 100 contacts in their database. They expect the number to grow rapidly as word spreads. While they are currently targeting Winnipeg schools and rural centers close to the city, they plan to extend their service to other areas of Manitoba eventually.
Prairie Bookings prides itself on offering quality classroom experiences. Chappell-Pollack noted that not every author might have the right mix of ingredients to be a successful presenter. “You could be a strong writer, but not a strong presenter or vice versa. It’s finding that right mix between an author who has a strong product and can also present it well and keep kids engaged that is the key to a successful experience. So far, we have been lucky to have reached out to authors, or had authors reach out to us, who are really strong candidates.”
Chappell-Pollack and Franklin are hoping to add other published authors to the roster, and those interested can contact them through their website. Teachers and teacher-librarians wanting to be added to Prairie Bookings mailing list can send an email request to email@example.com. Prairie Booking can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Not every story requires a wordy telling. Sometimes a well-positioned image or object can evoke stronger emotions and deeper meanings than words allow.
I am reminded of this simple fact whenever I look at this photo that Jo snapped when we visited Budapest, Hungary two years ago. On our second day in the city, we boarded a bus for a tour of Budapest. Bus tours are often the best ways to get an overview of a new place, and this one was especially interesting since our tour guide salted her presentation with a running commentary on Hungary’s history and politics.
When we passed the majestic Parliament Buildings with their red-tiled roofs, our guide pointed to a memorial along the banks of the Danube River. From the bus we really couldn’t see it, but later in the day we returned for a closer look.
Sixty pairs of rusted shoes cast out of iron lined the bank. Some were tiny, others 10 sizes larger. Spaced 30 or so centimeters apart, the shoes ranged from dress to informal: high heels and wing-tips to sneakers and children’s boots.
The impact was immediate. Viewed together, the shoes told of a brutal period. On March 19, 1944 German troops occupied Hungary. Hitler deposed Prime Minister Miklós Kállay and appointed as head of state, Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the Nyilaskereszt (Arrow Cross) fascist party.
From 1944-1945, Szálasi embarked on a reign of terror. Intent on following Hitler’s extermination plan, Szálasi and his Arrow Cross militiamen stripped Hungarian Jews and dissidents of their businesses and possessions, herded them into ghettos, and deported tens of thousands to Auschwitz. Still others were marched to the edge of the Danube. Once lined along the bank, men, women and children were forced to remove their shoes, strip naked, and face the river. A firing squad opened fire, shooting at close range. Like cut timber, the bodies fell into the river and drifted downstream. Thousands died in this fashion, so many that eyewitnesses reported that the Danube was stained red with blood.
Determined not to let the event fade from memory, film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial on the west side of the river, just in front of the Parliament Buildings. At three points behind the shoes are simple signs in Hungarian, English and Hebrew: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. Erected 16 April 2005.”
Looking at the photo Jo took, I feel much the same as I did when I first saw the shoe memorial. Locked in the image is a tragic story, one of rights trampled, brutality imposed and lives lost that is not easily forgotten.
Ever wonder what Robert Munsch did before he became an author, where Roald Dahl’s hatched his twisted plots, or if J.K. Rowling actually drew a floor plan of Hogwarts before she started writing Harry Potter? These interviews and articles explore the curious and fascinating lives and work habits of 6 popular kid-lit authors.
No Canadian storyteller is more celebrated than Robert Munsch. With over 50 published titles, the children’s author has been stealing our hearts for years with his memorable characters and hilarious stories. When Robert Munsch turned 70 in 2015, Isabelle Khoo shared these 11 little known facts about the famous author.
Felicity Dahl was married to the much-loved children’s writer, Roald Dahl. In this article from The Guardian, she recalls the great man’s charms, his impish generosity, and her special relationship with him.
Brian Selznick, the author of The Marvels, never intended to make books for kids. In this article from The Atlantic, Selznick reveals how Maurice Sendak altered his career path and showed him the power of picture books.
Caught in the Harry Potter craze, on February 2, 2000, kids went online to pepper J.K.Rowling with burning questions. From Was it hard to think of the monsters’ names? to How does it feel to know that millions of kids are reading your books?their questions reveal as much about the curiosity of children as it does about author and her characters.
When Beverley Cleary turned 100 in 2016, Nora Krug interviewed the prolific author of such classics as Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and Dear Mr. Henshaw. Turns out the feisty lady is still writing.
Little known fact: Theodore Geisel became “Dr Seuss” after he was caught drinking gin with nine others at his Ivy League university and lost his position as editor of the humour magazine. From then on, he contributed pseudonymously, using his mother’s maiden name which was also his middle one. In this article from The Economist, Robert Butler probes Geisel’s strengths, foibles, and the habits that led to his success.
A small advertisement in the newspaper caught my eye one day.
“Children who know 8 nursery rhymes by the age of 4 are usually among the best readers and spellers in the class by the age of 8.”
Tiny print along the bottom of the ad gave the name of a literacy agency and its website. Curious about the statement, I followed the trail, first to the agency’s website and then on to other literacy-based ones.
Questions about how we learn to read and write, and especially why some of us become proficient at these skills while others do not, have long interested me. Reading aloud to children at an early age is one key to literacy, and it was a practice I employed when our own children were young – a long time ago now. We spent many happy hours together sharing stories just before bedtime, first from picture books like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, thenas the kids edged towards adolescence, novels the likes ofJ.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Ken Oppel’s Sunwing, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.
Today, both our “kids” are avid readers and competent writers and I give credit to the read-aloud experience for a good part of that. Research backs me up, too. One study maintains that a child needs to have 1000 books read to them before they are ready to begin reading themselves.
But the newspaper ad claimed something slightly different – a benchmark connection to nursery rhymes, and in particular to memorizing poetry. Here are a few other facts about nursery rhymes-poetry that I gleaned from my research:
Children who don’t recognize that two words rhyme, like head and bed, have a hard time learning to read
Children who are able to rhyme can make more guesses about what a word might be when they are reading.
Rhymes are a great way to learn early phonic skills (the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate letter sounds)
Nursery rhymes are easy to repeat so they become some of a child’s first sentences
Rhymes contain sophisticated literary devices – alliteration, onomatopoeia and the like are imbedded in many of them
Rhyming poetry often tells a story that follows a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end – a precursor to understanding complex story structure
While there are classic nursery rhymes – the whole Mother Goose series, for one – there are modern takes, too. Anyone who has read Dr. Seuss aloud to a toddler can testify to its power. (“Hands, hands, fingers, thumb…” still resonates with my “kids”, and occasionally the patter resurfaces in my head, refusing to leave no matter how hard I try).
Nursery rhymes and poetry might be key components for literacy, but anyone who has tried writing them knows they’re not that simple. My own experience writing verse for G for Golden Boy and S is for Scientist involved lots of rewriting, clapping of hands/stomping of feet to check patterns, consulting a rhyming dictionary when desperate and, now and then, mumbling a curse word or two. Trying to align facts into a rigid structure was difficult, and getting rhythm, rhyme and explanation to play well with each other took some doing.
If nothing else, writing in rhyme can be a playful way to unleash your creative self. To quote, Theodore Geisel, more famously known as Dr. Seuss: “Write a verse a day, not to send to publishers, but to throw in wastebaskets. It will help your prose. It will give you swing. Shorten paragraphs and sentences, then shorten words…Use verbs. Let the kids fill in the adjectives…”
Geographically, I am a divided person. Although I’ve lived my whole life in Manitoba, I winter a month or more in Arizona. I can truthfully say that I love both places. With very little prompting, I will whip out photographs of my favourite spots in each location to prove my point.
But here’s the problem. Photographs are one dimensional. They portray visual elements of each place, but they leave out the rest. They don’t capture the smells, tastes, textures and sensory details that round out the experience. You don’t hear the crackle of lightning before the desert storm. You can’t feel the bitter cold of a prairie wind in January or smell the Mexican poppies that blossom in March.
To gain a full appreciation of these places, you should live there. Or…
Or you could read these two picture books. In the hands of master storytellers David Bouchard and Byrd Baylor, the prairie and desert come alive.
First, the prairie
If you’re not from the prairie,
You don’t know the wind,
You can’t know the wind.
Our cold winds of winter cut right to the core,
Hot summer wind devils can blow down the door.
As children, we know that when we play any game
The wind will be there, yet we play just the same.
If you’re not from the prairie
You don’t know the wind.
Using repetitive structure, David Bouchard take readers on a sensory journey across the prairies. We travel through deep winter drifts and into windswept fields of wheat. We experience the scorching sun of summer and the bitter cold of winter. We live through spring thaws, and we marvel at the vast blue skies and colorful sunsets that characterize the prairie. Full page acrylic illustrations by Henry Ripplinger enhance our sensory journey.
And now, the desert
Once I saw a triple rainbow that ended in a canyon where I’d been the day before. I was halfway up a hill standing in a drizzle of rain. It was almost dark but I wouldn’t go in ( because of the rainbows of course), and at the top of the hill a jackrabbit was standing up on his hind legs, perfectly still, looking straight at the rainbow. I may be the only person in the world who’s seen a rabbit standing in the mist quietly watching three rainbows. That’s worth a celebration any time.
When asked if she is lonely living in the desert, the Native American narrator in Byrd Baylor’s book says: How could I be lonely when I am the one in charge of celebrations?” To her, celebrations come in the form of small, noteworthy moments like The Time of the Falling Stars when she saw a streak of light shot through the darkness or Rainbow Celebration Day when she and a jackrabbit stood together watching a triple rainbow over a canyon. Other celebrations include Coyote Day, Green Cloud Day, Dust Devil Day.192.168.0.1
Through Byrd Baylor’s evocative text and David Parnell’s striking illustrations, we experience the beauty of the desert, its subtle seasonal changes, and the close relationship between humans and nature in this special place.
On a visit to an Ontario classroom a few years ago, a 10 year old boy hung back after my session was over. Clutching a copy of my book Survivors, he waited until the room emptied.
“Is this story really true?” he asked. ‘Did everyone get out alive?”
He was referring to a story in the book about a tornado that had scooped up a baby then deposited her safely a hundred metres away.
“Yes,” I told him. “Amazing story, isn’t it?”
I was surprised by his interest and even more surprised by the concern he showed for people he knew only through a story.
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stories have been a trusted commodity for millennia, so much so that they are almost part of our human DNA. Whether fictional or true, whether told orally, through the written word, or via film or television, stories hold our attention and engage us in unique ways.
Here are a few things we know from science and brain research:
Whole brain activity…
When we are told a story, read or see one, the whole brain goes to work. Contrast that to a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. With a straight-up factual delivery, the language processing portion of the brain is activated. Put the same information into story form, though, and other brain areas like the sensory cortex and motor cortex kick in as well. Told as a story, the message sticks.
In a Princeton study researchers discovered that the brains of subjects listening to the same story underwent similar changes. Their brain activity synched or aligned. The subjects felt similar emotions and thoughts. For the duration of the story, they were connected and part of a larger community.
Most stories have a pattern of cause and effect. Whenever we hear, see or read a story, we naturally want to relate it to our previous experiences. We associate joy, sadness, and other emotions in the story with previous experiences of joy, sadness, and these same emotions. In that way, the reader, listener, or viewer personalizes the story and turns it into their own.
Going back to the youngster I mentioned at the start, it’s little wonder he felt so strongly. He took the story I had written and essentially made it his own. He lived through the tornado, felt the same shock and surprise as the people in it, and then experienced the same relief at the end when all turned out okay.
Such is the power of story. More than any other mode of communication, stories engage our emotions, stoke our imaginations, transcend cultural differences, and connect us in deep and meaningful ways.
Is propaganda alive? Are we free to read, speak and think what we want? Should there be checks and balances, safeguards against alternative facts and twisted ideas?
Here is an example of quashed freedoms from the back pages of history. In May 1933, in most university towns across Germany, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades and threw pillaged books – many by Jewish writers – into bonfires. In Berlin, some 40,000 people participated. They were led by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, who addressed the crowd with a carefully crafted speech: “No to decadence and moral corruption. Yes to decency and morality in family and state….And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil.”
In that act and others by the Hitler’s Nazi, two arms of propaganda worked together. One, the manipulation of facts and images. The other, the stifling of free speech. The first advanced Hitler’s twisted ideas; the second ensured that those ideas went unchallenged.
Most democratic countries have laws that protect freedom of expression. Most, too, have laws that prohibit the purposeful skewing of facts, particularly when these denigrate groups and encourage hatred. Admittedly, it can be a slippery slope keeping a balance between the two.
In Canada, February 26 – March 4 is Freedom to Read Week. It’s a time to reflect on the power of words and the freedom of expression that we cherish. The Freedom to Read website lists activities being held around the country in libraries, schools, and public spaces. Also on the website is a list of ‘challenged’ books – books that have been questioned for their content and ideas. Each challenge sought to limit public access. Some challenges were upheld, others rejected. In any case, the list reminds us of the delicate dance between censorship and free expression.Xposed modules
Many children’s books are on the list and I recognized a number of titles. I was often surprised by the objections raised by adult readers and sometimes entire interest groups. Material I might have unquestioningly supported was offensive to others.
Here is a small sample of children’s books that have been challenged in the past decade or two. To fully appreciate the depth and swath of the list as well as the decisions reached by the review committee, I would invite you to visit the website yourself.
Who is Francis Rain? by Margaret Buffie
Novel about a 15 year old girl’s summer on an isolated island with many secrets. Challenged by a school for the use of the words “hell” and “bastard”. 1990
A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird
Novel about a 12-year-old Palestinian boy living in an Israeli-occupied area. Challenged by a Canadian bookseller as “a racist, inflammatory, and a totally one-sided piece of propaganda.” 2003
The Waiting Dog by Carolyn Beck and Andrea Beck
Children’s book about a dog anxiously waiting for the mail to be delivered to his home. Challenged by an Ontario parent who objected to depictions of violence and said the work was not age inappropriate. 2006
No Place for Me by Barthe DeClements
Young adult novel about a young girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. Challenged by a parent who said the book promoted the Wicca religion. 1995
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Popular children’s book series. Objection from a Newfoundland parent for its depiction of wizardry and magic. 2000
Asha’s Mumsby Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse
A children’s story book that depicts same-sex parents. Challenged by school trustees for its questionable family values. 1997
Maxine’s Treeby Diane Leger
Children’s book which tells the story of a girl who tries to protect a tree in B.C.’s rainforest. Challenged by an official of the woodworker’s trade union in B.C. for its anti-logging viewpoint. 1992
For many boys, reading is a chore. Ask any teacher, librarian or parent of boys and you’ll like get the same viewpoint – boys, more than girls, tend to be reluctant readers. Why? Better yet, what can we do to turn the tables around?
Let me offer myself as a case study. I don’t recall my parents or my siblings reading to me. We didn’t have many books in the house when I was growing up either. The books we did have were mostly practical ones – a set of encyclopedias, a dictionary or two, the occasional information manual, and an assortment of religious titles. Yet despite the lack of books and home-grown reading experiences, I became an avid reader.
Some of the credit goes one of the few books in our home, a thick, imposing volume called Lives of Saints. It contained dozens of short biographies about saints from every period of history – early Christianity to the present. From the age of 10 on, I spent hours reading and re-reading the book.
There were a number of reasons why the book became my favourite. The entries were just a few pages each, short enough to read in 10 -15 minutes. Although there were chapter headings, the stories could be read in any order. For a kid like me, this was a definite plus. No need to bookmark places or waste time catching up on the plot. Just dive in anywhere.
But the main reason I liked the book had more to do with the content than with the format. These were stories about heroes, people marked outstanding for their faithful deeds. While I enjoyed reading about saints with gentle natures like St. Francis of Assisi, it was the stories about martyrs from the early days of Christianity that I favoured. I cringed when I read about St. Sebastian who died gloriously in 286 A.D, his body riddled by a dozen arrows during a target practice ordered by Emperor Diocletian. I read faster when I encountered the story about St. Stephen – stoned in 36 A.D. – and re-read several times the entry about St. Perpetua – ultimately executed by a gladiator in 203 A.D. after being trampled and gored.
Looking back on my bloody fascination, I can see why I so loved those stories. I wasn’t a sadist in the making. I was just a typical boy, exhibiting the hallmarks typical of many boy-readers.
Action forward, life lived large …
For boys, action – not drama – moves the story forward. Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where over-sized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds. Even though my martyred saints died horrible deaths, they stood by their principles. They might have been footnote figures in history, but they lived life on the edge.
Feelings via action…
Perhaps it was a consequence of the dry tone of the writing, but in almost every story, feelings and emotion took a back seat to action. Saints stoically faced death. They didn’t flinch or wimp out. Research shows that boys are turned off by explicit expressions of emotion. They have an easier time accepting feelings if they are a result of action unfolding on the page.
That I gobbled up the book and revisited it many times demonstrates another typical boy-reader feature. Once hooked on a type of story, genre, or series, boys are likely to read more of the same rather than pick up something different. They’ll go full out on a theme, particular author, or style of writing, and perhaps even binge read before switching to something else.
In this day of video games and cell phone distractions, getting boys to read anything can be a challenge. If there is anything to glean from my early reading experience, perhaps it is this. To cultivate boy readers, let them satisfy their thirst for action and adventure. Allow them to wallow in lives lived large and extreme. Let them tackle quick reads before moving on to heavier, denser material. Let them binge on comic books or manga or books about dinosaurs and superheroes, or even martyred saints and the sinners who did them in, if that’s what it takes.
Allow boys choices and give them time. When it comes to reading, one size does not fit all.