Conquer Summer Slide: Keep Reading Alive

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.

PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

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.

The Secret Lives of Two Trees

A photograph in a recent National Geographic article caught my attention. It showed an immense, gnarled apple tree with limbs spreading high above a country home at Woolsthorpe Manor, England.

Trees, especially old and gnarled ones like this, have long fascinated me.  What events did they stand witness to?  What stories might they tell if only they could speak?

In the case of the National Geographic apple tree, what was noteworthy was not the tree’s size or location, nor the fact that it was centuries old.  What made it noteworthy was what happened under the tree.

Newton’s Apple Tree – Woolsthorpe Manor, England

In 1666, Isaac Newton sat under the tree. In a contemplative mood, he observed a falling apple. Why does an apple always drop perpendicularly to the ground? he wondered. He reasoned that some type of force made the apples fall as they did, and from that Newton went on to the derive laws of physics that stand to this day.

Another Tree
Irena in her nurse’s uniform

Seeing the photograph reminded me of a lesser known apple tree I researched while writing At the Edge. This one stands in a garden in Warsaw, Poland, and it too played a pivotal role in history.

During Poland’s occupation in World War II, the Nazi rounded up Warsaw’s 450,000 Jews, and herded them into a 16-square block section of the city. Disguised as a nurse, Irena Sendler – an administrator with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department – infiltrated the heavily secured Warsaw ghetto. She visited families, administering medicine where needed to avoid suspicion, but intent on something far riskier – smuggling Jews, especially children, out of the ghetto.

Often, Irena escaped with children hidden in sacks, boxes, body bags or coffins inside an ambulance. Other times, Irena led them to freedom through sewers or holes in the ghetto wall.

Once outside the ghetto, the children were given new names and false family histories. A network of fellow conspirators placed the children in homes, orphanages and convents around the country. To track the location of the rescued children so they could be returned to their proper families at the end of the war,  Irena then made a trip to a neighbour’s garden.  In the dirt below an apple tree, she hid glass jars stuffed with tissue paper containing the original names and new identities of the children.

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For 16 months, Irena continued her dangerous mission, rescuing over 2500 children from the ghetto. On October 20, 1943, she was arrested. Interrogated, tortured, and sentenced to death by firing squad.  With the help of of other conspirators, Irena escaped and went into hiding for the remainder of the war.

After the war, Irena recovered the glass jars. Equipped with lists of names, she spent years tracking down rescued children.  When possible, she reconnected them with parents or grandparents.

In 1999, four Kansas teenagers working on a school project about the Holocaust uncovered Irena Sendler’s largely forgotten story. They tracked her down and wrote a short play about her deeds called Life in a Jar. With her story now public, Irena received awards and commendations.  In 2007, at the age of 97, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Visitors to Irena Sendler’s applie tree
Remarkable Indeed

So there you have it.  Two apple trees, unremarkable in appearance, but remarkable for the secrets they harbor from history.


Three Men in a Canoe – A Fossil Legacy

Over the phone, Don Bell is matter-of-fact and modest, as if just about anyone could have accomplished what he, Henry Isaak, and David Lumgair did. But others didn’t – at least not initially, nor to the same degree – and you don’t have to look far to find proof of their legacy. It’s a floor below the indoor hockey rink in Morden, Manitoba, in a sprawling space called the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (CFDC).

During my research for ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life (Turnstone Press), Don Bell’s name came up often. “He knows more than almost anyone,” someone at CFDC told me. “You should call him.”

So I did. “Can you tell me how this all started?” I asked.

“We were on a canoe trip,” Don said.

(L to R) David Lumgair, Henry Isaak, Don Bell taken on the day they heard about the fossil find (Photo courtesy of Don Bell)

In quick steps, Don covered the story of a 1972 canoe trip involving a group of paddlers. Don, Henry and Dave were in one canoe, keeping leisurely pace with the others. At a stop for lunch, discussion ensued about a recent discovery of dinosaur bones in the Morden area.

“Hank and I were interested,” Don said.

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Bitten by curiosity, Don and Henry, both teachers, struck out at 6 a.m. on a later weekend to search for the fossil. A mile west of Morden’s Stanley Park, they turned south and drove another 300 metres. Lying exposed in a field, they discovered a large fossil skull. Immediately, they realized that it was not a dinosaur, but a long-extinct – and very large – marine reptile.

“We knew it was important,” Don added.

Ill-equipped to bring the skull home, Don and Henry drove back to town to regroup. By the time they returned, two young fellows were there, hammering the fossil to pieces.

The Manitoba Escarpment near Morden, Manitoba.

The Morden region lies at the edge of the Manitoba Escarpment. Eighty million years ago, at the time of the dinosaurs, the Western Interior Seaway sliced across North American dividing it in half. The escarpment is a by-product of Manitoba’s watery past and a rich source of marine fossils from that period.

At the time, the Pembina Mountain Clays Company had been mining the area for bentonite, a type of volcanic clay used in detergents and other products. Fossils turned up frequently, often crunched to bits by heavy equipment.

Realizing the scale of destruction, Don and Henry embarked on a mission to save as many as possible. The two got to know the miners and struck up a deal. When fossils surfaced, miners placed a call to the pair. In the evening, after the miners shut down for the day, Don and Henry salvaged what they could before operations resumed in the morning. Sometimes they worked through the night, excavating and jacketing fossils by the glow of headlights. They carted their prizes home and stored them in Henry’s garage and Don’s basement.

Knowing the demands of teaching, I couldn’t imagine a life of all-nighters. “What kept you going?” I asked Don.

“To me it was exciting, discovering something that hadn’t been discovered before,” he said.

A plesiosaur on display, one of many collected  by Don and Henry.

What started as a small-scale operation mushroomed. Interest spread. Volunteers joined the effort. Henry tapped into government grants and hired university students to help. The pair consulted paleontologists and made weekend field trips to Kansas City, Drumheller, and the University of Calgary, places with Late Cretaceous fossils and people with the necessary know-how.

Early on, David Lumgair – the third man in the canoe – got involved, too. He lived on a farm near Thornhill, a few kilometres from Morden. Fossils often surfaced on his land, and Dave had an open-door policy when it came to the growing brood of fossil hunters. He welcomed them and let them set up shop on his property.

In just two years, the ambitious team unearthed 30 mosasaurs, 20 plesiosaurs, and hundreds of other fossils from the region around Morden. In 1974, David’s farm yielded a spectacular prize – an immense mosasaur. Nicknamed Bruce, it took several seasons to unearth and jacket the entire creature.

Bruce, the world’s largest mosasaur, on exhibit at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre.

Eventually, the collection of fossils outgrew Don’s basement and Henry’s garage. It was moved to the Morden and District Museum, and then in 1976 to its present quarters in the lower level of Morden’s Community Centre.

Two university students with Victoria Markstrom (R), Field Collection Manager
for the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre at a dig site along the escarpment

Today, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is a world-class institution. It houses Canada’s largest collection of Late Cretaceous marine vertebrate fossils. The undisputed star of the Centre is Bruce. The sprawling 13-metre-long mosasaur is the world’s largest exhibited mosasaur and a Guinness record-holder..

The Morden area continues to yield fossil treasures, and new finds are constantly being added to CFDC’s holdings. The place is a buzzing hive of research and educational programs, and a fitting reminder of what three people hooked by passion and persistence can achieve.

This post was previously published on the Sci/Why blogsite where “Canadian children’s writers discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?”

Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre   
Turnstone Press  

Crayola’s Accidental Blue and the Brains Behind It

For a while now, Crayola has been teasing crayon lovers worldwide.  Months ago, the company announced the removal of Dandelion from its palette of yellows and oranges.  In March, Crayola issued a news release saying that Dandelion’s replacement would be in the blue family.  Then, days ago, the crayon giant added another tidbit of information.  The replacement would be a newly invented, never seen before, hue of blue with a backstory as unique as its name, “YInMn Blue”.

YinMin Blue was discovered by accident.  In 2009, Mas Subramanian, an Oregon State University (OSU) chemist, discovered the color with his grad student, Andrew Smith.  The two were heating batches of manganese to 1200 °C (~2000 °F) hoping to produce a high-efficiency electronic material. After one attempt, Smith pulled a striking, brilliant-blue compound out of the furnace.  Subramanian knew right off it was a research breakthrough. Unwittingly, they had created a shade of blue unlike any other from a combination of yttrium, indium, manganese and oxygen.

Recognizing opportunity, Subramanian and his team shifted gears. They expanded their research.  To date, they have created a range of new pigments, everything from bright oranges to vibrant hues of purple, turquoise and green.

Serendipitous discoveries of this sort are not uncommon, and history is ripe with examples.  X-rays, penicillin, Kevlar, and the nicotine patch are but a few products that owe their existence to a happy accident.  But it takes something more than a serendipitous event to yield a useful product.  It takes a mind like Subramanian’s to recognize opportunity, a mind that can connect the dots, shift gears, and capitalize on unexpected circumstances.

ElisaRiva / Pixabay

What goes on in such a mind?  Brain research provides clues.  The corpus callosum, a thick band of more than 200 million nerve fibres, connects the left and right hemisphere.  Think of it as a busy freeway where impulses fire back and forth, facilitating communication between the two sides of the brain.

In brain studies, neuroscientists discovered that the corpus callosum of creative individuals was thicker than normal.  In such brains, there appears to be more communication between the two hemispheres and greater potential of connecting seeming disconnected ideas.

Not every brain hardwired with a thick callosum connects the dots and capitalizes on unexpected circumstances, however.  And it doesn’t mean that a brain with a thin callosum cannot be a member of the discovery club either. There’s more at play to taking advantage of serendipitous events than simple brain mechanics.

Over a century ago, Louis Pasteur made a major discovery after his lab assistants neglected a batch of petri dishes. Wondering how this would affect his results, Pasteur opted to carry on the experiment.  His decision led to a major breakthrough in the development of vaccines.

Luck played a role in the discovery.  The lab assistants messed up, providing Pasteur with opportunity.  But Pasteur recognized that more than luck was involved, too.  Knowledge and experience combined with curiosity seem to be part of the formula.  Or, to quote Pasteur’s famous line, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’.

There you go, crayon lovers.  Colour on with Crayola’s new blue knowing that you are holding chance between your fingers.


For more about Louis Pasteur and 80 other chance and circumstance discoveries check out Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite.


Arranging an Author Visit – ‘Who You Gonna Call?’

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 ( 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.”

Prairie Bookings offers a diverse list of presenters, from authors specializing in dystopian fiction (Melinda Friesen) and historical fiction (Gabriele Goldstone, Marsha Skrypuch) to others who write non-fiction (Larry Verstraete) or  realistic fiction (Maureen Fergus, Anita Daher, Colleen Nelson). That said, it is difficult to pigeon-hole the offerings since many authors write in more than one genre and present to a variety of age levels.

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 Prairie Booking can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Image Tells a Powerful Story

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.

Journeys by Journal

Jo’s Journal – ITALY 2011

My wife, Jo, journals every day while we travel. She’s been doing this for almost 15 years, faithfully reflecting on the previous day’s activities over morning coffee. Each major trip deserves a new journal, and by now Jo has amassed quite a collection.

According to research studies, journaling offers many mental and physical benefits to those who habitually record their thoughts and feelings. Journaling…

  • Strengthens immune cells called T-lymphocytes
  • Decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ups the I.Q. by increasing vocabulary
  • Boosts memory
  • Improves comprehension
  • Untangles emotional knots, allowing the writer to solve problems and move forward rather than dwell on the past
  • Lowers stress and anxiety
  • Improves communication skills
  • Furthers creativity: Writing, especially writing quickly, occupies the analytical, rational left side of the brain, thus freeing the creative, intuitive right side.

And the list of benefits goes on. But for Jo and many others who journal daily, the motivation to write goes beyond this harvest of benefits.  When I asked Jo why she journals, she cited other reasons…to chronicle life… to process the everyday … to reference later.  I’ll add another – to leave a legacy.

Recently, on our way back from Arizona where we had wintered for 3 months, we repurposed one of Jo’s journals. The drive home took days and the route we followed cut across miles of nothingness.  There wasn’t much new to see along the way – just an endless ribbon of grey highway.  This was nodding off material of the first degree.

On one particularly long stretch, Jo pulled out a journal from our time in Italy a few years ago. While I manned the wheel, she read to me. What a difference that made!  As Jo recounted each day of our 5 weeks in the land of amore, the miles flashed by. Together we relived moments that we’d mostly forgotten.  We laughed about the times we got lost on roundabouts, sighed over descriptions of luscious meals we’d enjoyed, and marvelled at the enduring construction methods of the ancient Romans.  In short, we journeyed together anew.

Jo ends each of her journals with a summary.  She polls me with questions like “What did you like?”…”What would you not want to do again?…”What was your favourite day?” …   She writes several pages reflecting on the entire experience from both of our perspectives.

After she finished reading to me, Jo closed the book. “Would you go again?”she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

But then, somehow I felt as if I just had.

What You Might Not Know About These 6 Kid-Lit Authors

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.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Robert Munsch
The Huffington Post Canada

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.



My years with Roald, by the ‘love of his life’
The Guardian

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.





The Magic of Where the Wild Things Are
The Atlantic

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.


Interview with J.K.Rowling

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.




Beverly Cleary on turning 100: Kids today ‘don’t have the freedom’ I had
The Washington Post

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.



Dr Seuss
The Economist

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.




Bookmans, A Very Different Independent Bookstore

Wherever I travel, I like to check out independent bookstores in the area.  Chains like Barnes & Noble or Chapters-Indigo offer much the same fare across the nation.  Each Independent bookstore, though, is unique, and I’d count Bookmans Entertainment Exchange in Arizona as one of the most original.

Started 38 years ago, Bookmans now operates six stores in Tucson, Mesa, Phoenix and Flagstaff.  Based on the concept of “buy, sell, trade”, Bookmans relies on customers for their eclectic inventory and an assortment of in-store-events that range from art exhibits to yoga classes.

When I visited one Saturday morning recently, the place was a busy hive.  Young and old roamed the aisles, looking for just the right articles to purchase.  Others came in carrying boxes of items they wished to sell – books, CDs, albums, comics, musical instruments, electronics, video games, knickknacks and whatnots.  Maps at the door showed the locations of various items. If that wasn’t help enough, friendly, knowledgeable staff guided treasure seekers to the proper destination. 

I asked one employee how the Bookmans’ system worked.  “Each item is appraised,” he said, unpacking a box of DVDs. “We check Amazon, Craig’s List, Barnes & Noble and other outlets to determine a fair price, and we check our inventory to see if we need more of the item.  Once we fix a price, the seller has two options.  Take the cash.  Or take a store credit.  Store credits are often higher than the cash option so many people opt for that one.”

Bookmans is far more than just an independent bookstore. It is philosophy passionately churned into action.  An advertisement in a local community resource guide put it this way: “Stepping into a Bookmans alters your view of what buying used is and should be, and our philosophy of DIY creativity, integrity and community involvement has helped make us one of Arizona’s most beloved local businesses.”

I left Bookmans empty-handed.  It wasn’t because I couldn’t find things I would love to own.  I’m on a mission to declutter, not accumulate more.  Given the store’s mandate to ‘sell what you don’t use, buy what you need’, I think Bookmans is fine with that.

Rhymers are Readers – Maybe Writers, Too

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.

imagesM7JZAIOUQuestions 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, then as the kids edged towards adolescence, novels the likes of J.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

Dr. SeussWhile 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…”

This post was adapted from an earlier one written for The Anita Factor



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