Archive for Literacy

Book People Unite

Reading Is Fundamental: Book People UniteThis is fun.  Reading Is Fundamental‘s new promotional video features a song by the Roots; vocals by  Jack Black, Chris Martin (Coldplay), John Legend, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Jason Schwartzman, Nate Ruess (vocalist for fun.), Melanie Fiona, Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag), Regina Spektor and Consequence; appearances from Pinocchio, Madeline, Greg (the Wimpy Kid), the Three Blind Mice, Humpty Dumpty, Curious George, Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, and even Captain Ahab on waterskis!  Plus many many more! (Find them all!)

Reading Is Fundamental has more information about the song (and its aims) at  If you take the pledge, you can even download an mp3 of the song!

Hat tip to NPR’s Linda Holmes.

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Senseless Violence: The NYPD Destroys Library. UPDATE #3

Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)
Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)

“I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 10 June 1815

“Knowledge is power.”

Thomas Jefferson to to Joseph Cabell, 22 January 1820

“Let me conclude by thanking the NYPD, FDNY, and the Department of Sanitation for their professionalism earlier this morning. Thank you.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 15 November 2011, after the NYPD and the NY Sanitation Department evicted Occupy Wall Street, destroying 5000 books.

“Apparently the NYPD have destroyed the donated library at #ows – I don’t think you need a metaphor, but crushing 5000 books might be one.”

— Simon HB (@norock on Twitter), 15 November 2011

 UPDATE as of 5:30 pm Central Time.  All of the Library has not been destroyed.  It’s being “held captive” by the City.  Here is a photo, courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg’s Twitter account (and The Observer).

Occupy Wall Street Library: "Property from #Zuccotti, incl #OWS library, safely stored @ 57th St Sanit Garage; can be picked up Weds"

UPDATE as of 11:30 pm Central Time: Occupy Wall Street Library asks, “And where is the rest of it?”: “We’re glad to see some books are OK. Now, where are the rest of the books and our shelter and our boxes? Nice try guys, but we won’t be convinced until we actually have all our undamaged property returned to us.”

UPDATE as of 12:30 pm Central Time, 16 Nov. 2011: Occupy Wall Street Library reports “that their claim that the library was ‘safely stored’ was a lie.”  About half of the books are missing; many others are damaged or destroyed.  Initial reports that books were thrown into dumpsters seem, in fact, to be accurate.  And this blog’s initial claim that the NYPD destroyed the library is also accurate.

Books from Occupy Wall Street Library.  They were damaged during the NYPD raid.

Image sources: “Michael Bloomberg Destroys a Library to Shut Down Dissent in New York City” (Irregular Times, 15 Nov. 2011); “URGENT: Raid in Progress” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 15 Nov. 2011); OWS Library Safe and Sound; Held Captive By City” (New York Observer, 15 Nov. 2011); “UPDATE: State of Seized Library” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 16 Nov. 2011).

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Winnie-the-Pooh and Baby Monkeys, Too!

What does this 4-minute video tell you about this child’s experience of children’s books?  She offers an inventive retelling of A. A. Milne‘s The House at Pooh Corner, starring Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger, and… baby monkeys.  I posed this question to all three of my classes as the first electronic message board post of the term.  Here’s my answer.

The petite fille is an enthusiastic and inventive narrator, launching the tale with Pooh and Tigger discovering the baby monkeys’ absence.  As in a fairy tale, her narrative’s emphasis is on plot.  Lots of things happen, usually with little regard for setting or the psychology of the characters involved.  There’s a breathless “And then…” quality to her storytelling.  Lost in the trees, the baby monkeys see bats, crocodiles, hippopotami, giraffes.  They (the monkeys, presumably) “had taken a very long trip. They did not even take the train.”  They meet “frightening trees,” “monsters,” and “ghosts.”  Later on, the story introduces a witch, the rare clawed mammoth, and even a journey to heaven.  She does her best to keep the tale full of incident.

The tale’s elements of social realism certainly recall the fairy tale more than Milne’s work.  They encounter “boxes with animals who are poor” and “without anything to eat.”  These boxed animals are not only hungry and lost, but fleeing a social order that would like to see them “put in jail.”  The narrative here evinces an awareness of the indifference with which an allegedly civilized society treats its most vulnerable citizens. Belying the stereotype that children are unsuited for “grown-up” themes, this child shares her concern not only for the poor but for a suicidal hippo — who, belatedly, regrets his death wish.

E.H. Shepherd's original drawing of Winnie-the-PoohOften, Pooh and Tigger find themselves relegated to secondary characters instead of the starring role they are used to.  In the second minute of the story, Tigger jumps into the trees, and recovers the lost monkeys.  Then, he and Pooh head off “into the woods to find some strawberries,” but a witch intervenes — sending the narrative back towards fairy tales once more.  The witch claims ownership of the strawberries, resulting in a fight.  A helmet-clad king lion — bearing both sword and shield — rescues them, and Pooh and Tigger again slide back into the role of supporting players.

Our young narrator’s sense of audience is key.  She not only responds to the woman’s (her mother’s?) prompting, but even brings her into the story: “There was a lady who had a ring like yours but different,” she reports.  (The difference? It’s orange.)  Enabling a happy ending, this orange ring is also magic, able to kill witches and set the people free.

Incidentally, I deliberately framed the question as “this child” rather than as “children”: I don’t want to suggest that this child speaks for all children.  Though people are fond of making such statements (“children will love this!” etc.), they’re impossible to support — unless you survey a large group of children, of course, but the sort of person given to such proclamations rarely does.  Rather, I find this video interesting for what it tells us about one child’s experience of story.  She’s focused on narrative, audience, and discusses subjects that might give some grown-ups pause.  The entire performance resembles a fairy tale as told by Edward Lear.  Sure, we’re missing the Quangle Wangle.  But that’s OK.  We’ve got nonsense, magic, and baby monkeys!

Source of Pooh image: Original Winnie The Pooh illustrations on auction at Sotheby’s

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Stephen Fry vs. Language Pedants

If you’ve not already seen Matt Rogers‘ brilliant kinetic typography video of Stephen Fry‘s critique of linguistic pedantry, then you’ll want to watch it.  And if you have already seen it, then you’ll want to watch it again.

Before my fellow teachers raise an objection to Stephen Fry’s injunction that writers be less constrained by rules, I think it important to note that Fry does acknowledge that there are times when greater formality is appropriate, even necessary.  As he puts it, “You slip into a suit for an interview, and you dress your language up, too.  You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances.”  The reason for doing so, as he says, is that “wildly original and excessively heterodox language” might, to an employer or an examiner, convey “the implication of not caring.”

Left implicit here is the related point that a writer needs to know the rules in order to break them.  Fry’s mastery of the rules is part of what makes his own bursts of heterodoxy and originality so effective.  The need to know the rules underwrites my own tendency — as a teacher — to enforce them, and sometimes to do so with perhaps greater strictness than Mr. Fry would recommend.  When I encounter a student who does know the rules well enough to break them, I do let the artful informality stand.  Indeed, one of the exams I graded last night had some rhetorical flourishes that conveyed the writer’s superior command of the rules.  Alas, many others conveyed confusion over such basics as the uses of an apostrophe.  But, in an exam situation, I’m less stringent than I am when grading a formal paper.  Time constraints prevent adequate proofreading.  So, while I may mark such an error, I’m highly unlikely to deduct points on an exam.  On a formal paper, however, these errors would certainly affect the student’s grade.

But I do love Fry’s argument for “verbal freshness,” in no small part because it embodies the principles that it advocates.  In his critique of the usage police, he asks of them, “Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?  Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to?  Do they?  I doubt it.”  But Fry does, and more power to him.  Here’s to vibrant heterodoxy!

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Green Eggs and Ham: A 50-Word Book Turns 50

Green Eggs and HamDr. Seuss‘s Green Eggs and Ham is one of the reasons I do this blog, write books, and am an English professor.  Nearly forty years ago, Green Eggs and Ham — which turns 50 this month — taught me to read.  It also taught me that reading is fun, helping to make me a life-long reader.

The book didn’t teach me literacy all by itself, of course.  My parents read to me.  And I watched both Sesame Street and The Electric Company on PBS. But Green Eggs and Ham helped me put what I learned into practice.  The poetry and the limited vocabulary were key.

Seuss used a restricted vocabulary for his Beginner Books: since these were designed to teach reading, the idea was not to overwhelm a child with too many different words. The Cat in the Hat (1957) had 236 different words. He found the requirement of writing within word limits very challenging. He’d agreed to write a book that would teach children to read, but felt stymied. His favorite story about writing The Cat in the Hat is that, when about to give up in frustration after having written a story about a queen zebra (only to find neither word on the word list), he looked at the list of 348 different words provided by the publisher, and decided that he would find two words that rhyme: he found “cat” and “hat” and decided to make The Cat in the Hat the title of his book.  As is the case with many of Seuss’s stories, that’s not strictly true. When talking to the press, he was often more interested in telling a good story than in telling an accurate one.  In truth, images came easier to him than words did.  And the earliest story he told about the creation of The Cat in the Hat is likely the accurate one: in that version, he came across a sketch of a cat wearing a hat, found both words on the list, and made that the book’s title.

When, a few years later, his publisher bet him that he couldn’t write a book using 50 or fewer different words, Seuss’s response was Green Eggs and Ham.  For a beginning reader (such as I was), this is ideal because you encounter the same word many times.  The first time you see the word — house, mouse, fox, box — you have to sound it out, and Seuss’s end rhymes give you clues to pronunciation.  Subsequent times, seeing the word offers a sense of mastery.  I remember myself at three years old, experiencing such joy as the difficult words quickly became much easier.  When I finished reading Green Eggs and Ham — the first time I had read a book all by myself — I was so happy that I flipped the book back over to the front cover, and began to read again.

I’ve been talking a bit to people about Green Eggs and Ham lately — The Arena on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1 in July, and Breakfast with Red Symons on 774 ABC Melbourne (Australia) last week.  Tomorrow (Tuesday evening in Kansas, Wednesday morning in Australia), I’m on 720 ABC Perth’s Breakfast with Eoin Cameron. It’s been fun talking about the book, and about Seuss. But those do not seem the venues in which to share what the book means to me, personally. So, I’m writing about it here.  In teaching me not only how to read but why, Green Eggs and Ham helped make me a reader, which in turn led me to become an English major, and finally an English Ph.D… who happens to specialize in Children’s Literature.

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