Posts tagged " children’s books "

Take Two: Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent

September 12th, 2018 Posted by Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations 9 comments

When I wrote about Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent by Bill Peet, I thought that I had pretty much covered what I wanted to say. Then, one of my daughters made a point that I thought was worth sharing. Shortly after that, I read the synopsis of the book on Amazon and realized that I had another point to make as well. If this keeps up, my commentary on the book will be longer than the book itself.

My daughter noted that, like many older books, Cyrus uses language that is not familiar to most young children. While books like those of Dr. Seuss are easy for beginning readers as well as fun, their vocabulary is limited. The Cat in the Hat was certainly an improvement over scintillating school texts that used sentences like, “See Dick run,” but it doesn’t exactly utilize the richness of the English language.   

There is value in books that do just that. When that same daughter was three-years-old, I took her, along with her younger sisters, to visit my parents. Since our family was living on the other side of the country from where I grew up, many local aunts, uncles, cousins and friends came to see us. At one point my three-year-old walked into a living room filled with people and conversation and exclaimed in a clear and piercing voice, “What a pandemonium!” Not surprisingly, the pandemonium only grew.

Despite the fact that educational and linguistic experts would probably not put pandemonium on a word list for her age group, she had heard me read it over and over in a Mr. Happy book, understood it and used it in its correct context. While I only read a few of Roger Hargreaves’ “Mr.” and “Little Miss” books, they were popular with my children as well as expanding their vocabulary.

My own addition to the Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent conversation, stemmed from the following description of the book on Amazon: “A shark accuses Cyrus of cowardice because he won’t sink any ships. The kindly sea serpent almost succumbs to peer pressure, but learns at last to be himself.”

No! No! No! That is not what my summary would say nor is it a good moral message to draw from the book. It is true that Cyrus learns that he doesn’t want to be nasty despite being goaded to do so by the shark. But the lesson that follows is not, “To thine own self be true.” The message is that being kind and helpful is the right thing to do and that it can be as exciting and challenging as being cruel. As should happen in books for little children, the bad guys get punished and the good guys thrive. Without moralizing and being pedantic, I hope that the message that comes across to children is that helping others is fun and rewarding, not that if you are basically nasty, you should keep being nasty and if you are basically nice you should keep being nice. After all, the shark is also being himself.

I’m not trying to push Cyrus on anyone and I wouldn’t put it on a “must read” list, though it turned out to be a hit this summer. But I definitely would push the idea that putting a great deal of thought into what types of influences surround the children we love and what messages we are sending is one of the primary jobs of any parent or teacher.

Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent

August 27th, 2018 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations No Comment yet

I read Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent by Bill Peet half a dozen times over the past week. It is a favorite of a seven-year-old granddaughter and she recommended it to her similarly aged cousin. To my surprise, his two-and-a-half-year-old sister enjoys listening to it as well though I wouldn’t have chosen it just for her.   

Cyrus is one of the many books still on our shelves from our children’s early years. It is what I think of as a transition book; it is more complicated and wordy than early readers like The Cat in the Hat, but still short enough to be read aloud in one sitting. It appeals to children who can read and ideally after listening to it and understanding the tale, they soon want to pick it up and read it themselves.

As I read it over and over, I started asking myself why I like it. The book has danger, threats and violence. I don’t normally gravitate to those features. My seven-year-olds are enraptured by it.

My husband I do have a soft spot for any books that take place on boats. We think that words like bow and stern, mizzen, mast and galley should be early vocabulary acquisitions. One of my educational aha moments took place when our four-year-old was looking at a page that asked her to circle the sound that a pictured word began with. Under a picture of a rowboat appeared three choices; an M, R and T. Despite knowing all her letters, she was perplexed. Eventually, she told me that none of the choices were right as there wasn’t a D for dinghy. While homeschooling had yet to enter my consciousness, I realized then that had this been a kindergarten worksheet, a teacher would naturally assume that she needed help with the alphabet rather than that her vocabulary had a nautical bent.

So, I have to admit that if I heard my grandchildren threatening to slit each other’s gullets or calling each other landlubbers, language found in the book I read to them,  I would laugh. The fact is that they aren’t going to do so other than in play. Cyrus is so removed from their daily lives that they can enjoy the peril of being blasted by pirates’ cannons or being stuck in the doldrums in safety and security. The bottom line message of the book is a positive one, illustrating how important it is to help other people and how much more satisfying it is to be nice rather than to be mean.

Each of us has our own soft spots for certain types of books. While I wouldn’t pick up Cyrus as entertainment for myself, I often do just that with books for older children. I was rather obsessive about staying on top of what my own children read and I am still on the lookout for good books for my grandchildren.  I suggest that every parent, when they are alone in a bookstore or library, takes time to browse the shelves. Not only is there poor literature in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but there are extremely damaging books being marketed to children, pre-teens, young teens and teens.  I don’t for a minute agree with the idea that, “I don’t care what they read just as long as they’re reading.” I try to protect them when they’re very young and help them develop moral compasses as they grow older so that they will choose wisely when I am no longer the gatekeeper for what they read.

In light of all the above, I was recently delighted to find that Alexander McCall Smith, author of a number of series for adults that I love, started writing a delightful series for children that takes place on a ship. There are two books so far, School Ship Tobermory and The Sands of Shark Island. They feature both boy and girl protagonists making it attractive to both sexes. My eight-year-old and up children enjoyed them as did I and I’m please to have a venue where I can suggest that you take a look at them and see if they appeal to you.

(If you do like what you see and purchase using the links in this post, we will receive a small commission on the purchase.)

Watery Reminders

July 26th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 14 comments

Our basement, like so many others in the Atlantic region, flooded during this week’s torrential rains. We are fortunate. Our damage was largely luggage, clothing, tools and other replaceable items. We stored very few pictures downstairs and after running the washing machine non-stop for a few days, clothing has been retrieved. Since—surprise, surprise—the flooding is not covered by our insurance, the flooding is going to be expensive in terms of replacement cost and the time it will take to clean up, but we are grateful it was not worse. The biggest loss has been books.

We are enormous fans of used bookstore. We don’t seek the latest best-seller at a discount. Instead, we search out old books, those that you can’t find anymore. Books that beam out wholesomeness and innocence. Books about healthy families and friendships with a noticeable absence of perversion and profanity. One sad victim of our flooding was a box labelled, “Teenage girl books,” that was waiting for our granddaughters to get a bit older.

After a tiring day of clean-up, I curled up in bed needing even more distraction than reading provided. A few weeks ago in a Musing I mentioned the 1960s TV show Family Affair and a search of Amazon Prime showed that it was available for viewing with a click of the mouse. I clicked. (more…)

Should my children read Harry Potter?

February 13th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi, Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations 32 comments

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

I’m an orthodox Jewish homeschool mom of five and I love your show! Our homeschool curriculum focuses heavily on reading good literature and my kids have just reached the age where Edward Eager’s tales of magic, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as many others in the fantasy genre are on many recommended reading lists.

I’m unsure of how to approach the element of magic in children’s stories. The Torah forbids witchcraft, so should stories that feature magic be anathema to my Torah-observant kids?

Thanks for the great materials you produce. I consider them part of my continuing education. 🙂

Jessie W.

Dear Jessie,

We’re delighted that you watch our show and that you are homeschooling. As you may know, we homeschooled for many years and a number of our grandchildren are now being homeschooled as well.

Some of our children were the intended audience age when the first Harry Potter book came out.  This book became a major topic of discussion among both the Jewish and Christian homeschoolers we knew. More than any other topic we can think of, the families we knew (and respected) were all over the map on this one.

Approaches ranged from an absolute ban on reading any sort of fantasy to those who couldn’t see any problem whatsoever with the genre. Our view was somewhere in the middle. We made a judgment call and will share some of our considerations, but we would like to emphasize that each child and his surroundings need to be taken into account. Unlike certain questions, such as whether a child should call a parent by his first name where the answer is clear cut (absolutely not!), this question has a lot of room for knowing an individual child, the specific book, subjectivity and praying for Godly wisdom.


George and Martha, Frog and Toad

June 29th, 2017 Posted by Susan's Musings 30 comments

As a young child, one of our daughters had an exceedingly difficult time controlling her temper and her tongue. When I had my act together, I would spin thinly veiled bedtime stories for her about a mice family dealing with the same issues as she and her siblings faced. Listening to those tales allowed her to glimpse storms and mistakes in her own world in a safe and gentle way.


Growing with Nancy

January 18th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

Superman comic books may not generally be considered advanced literary material, but the childhood hours I spent reading them did help me do well on my SATs.  While I didn’t read the comics for vocabulary lessons, years later the spurious documents that one criminal used served me admirably when I needed to pick the correct multiple choice synonym for that word.

This recently came to mind when I was shown an original Nancy Drew volume and one of the newer Nancy Drew: Girl Detective books. The “titian-haired girl” had transformed into a “strawberry blond,” she no longer “chafed at delays” and the sentence structure and plot were watered down.  Even worse, her personality, character and intelligence had reverted to the median. Instead of Nancy Drew, role model, she had turned into Nancy Drew, one of today’s crowd.

How unfortunate. A story is told about one of the great 20th century rabbis and one of my husband’s teachers, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, whose portrait hangs in the entrance hallway to our home.  He was visiting a pre-school and noticed that there were mezuzot (scrolls with specific Biblical verses written on them) on the doorposts, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:9. However, they were placed lower than mandated. When he asked why, the teachers responded that they were low so that they would be accessible from the children’s heights. The rabbi commented, “What we must do is put a stepstool in order for the children to reach higher — to the proper level of the mezuzah (singular)! Raise the child at an early age to reach the height of the mitzvah (commandment), instead of lowering the mitzvah to the child!”

I am certainly not comparing Nancy Drew to the mitzvah of affixing a mezuzah to one’s doorposts. But I do believe in parents strongly supervising what their children read. Rather than thinking, “Well, at least they’re reading,” my husband and I were acutely aware that what our children were reading would help form their characters, attitudes and intelligence. While we didn’t always manage to apply the supervision we knew was needed (our children were voracious readers), our goal was for everything they read to make them greater, not lesser people. That didn’t mean filling our home with uninteresting, pious tracts. It did mean hands-on library visits, occasionally not allowing a popular book or series into our home, and a great deal of children’s literature on our own bedside tables. It frequently meant using the books the children were reading, or that we read aloud as a family, as a launching pad for discussion. 

I discovered the changes in the Nancy Drew series because one of my daughters showed me her ‘rejection’ pile after her children’s visit to the library. Her family’s shelves are filled with many of the books that she and her siblings loved as well as more recently written ones that she has discovered. There is little that can fill a grandmother’s heart with as much joy as knowing that her children are making sure that their own children reject the spurious values and prevalent trends surrounding them, for a greater goal than SAT scores.



Not the Charlotte’s Web I Recall

January 23rd, 2007 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments

What do you think of when you remember Charlotte’s Web? Maybe pigs and spiders, or perhaps you are surrounded by memories of cuddling under a blanket and reading, possibly the first stirrings of recognition that there was a relationship between the food on your plate and animals. (As a Jew who kept kosher, the book might have been an easier read for me) Whatever your memories are, they probably didn’t include high school students having affairs with their teachers or participating in a host of other immoral and un-childlike behaviors.

Which is why it was incredibly disturbing to me when I approached a copy of Charlotte’s Web prominently displayed in a bookstore on a shelf advertising “Recommended Reading for Children”, and found that the book featured next to it included the above depravities.

What is the manager of that bookstore thinking? And how sad is it that parents can’t allow their children the liberating pleasure of freely browsing through the children’s section of a bookstore or the library without having to worry about what they will find. With all the (necessary) warnings about children being accidentally exposed to pornography and other evils on the web, how about a little concern for what they will find in what we think of as safe locations?

Using judgment and taking the responsibility for what children see should be an obligation every children’s librarian and bookstore owner accepts. The fact that the government shouldn’t censor reading material is unrelated to whether adults in positions of trust should. In the years that passed between when my eldest and youngest daughters each became voracious readers and devoted bookshelf browsers I saw a scary change in the offerings on those shelves. I’m not talking age appropriate realism – I’m talking age inappropriate depictions and the presentation of deviation as the norm. What a sad reality it is when any caring parent today has to know that the sheltered harbors of their childhood, the libraries and bookstores, are no longer protected environments

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