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Finding Literature for Young Adults

by Rebecca Ripperton

June 18, 2019

A number of you noted last week that you’d like to see us address the issue of finding high quality books for older children, particularly books for teens. So today we’re doing just that!

Being on the lookout for new books and authors requires constant vigilance. It’s a never-ending process, and one that requires a great deal of providence. You never know from what strange corner of the universe you’ll discover your next great read! I personally try to jot down the names of books or authors whenever someone I respect mentions them in passing so that I can look them up afterwards. Sometimes I read these books and sometimes I don’t, but either way it’s helpful to glean ideas from what others around me are reading.

Discovering good books for teens, however, seems to be a twofold issue. One part involves finding good books that you as a parent or teacher can provide to teens. The other part involves empowering teens to seek out good literature for themselves, and giving them the tools they’ll need to recognize and enjoy it. Adolescence is a time where you want to encourage readers to seek out new literature for themselves, and to begin assuming responsibility for their own reading habits if they haven’t done so already.

Encouraging independence

As much as possible, you want to encourage adolescents to find books for themselves, which may entail giving them more latitude in their reading habits. At this stage in development, I would ensure that good books (outside of academic reading) are always available, but otherwise refrain from giving too many directions.

This is something my mom did a great job of. For instance, she let me re-read books we had previously read aloud almost exclusively for about a year. She even let me not read much if at all independently for long stretches of time. But when I finally asked to go to our local bookstores so I could look for some books by Willa Cather, you’d better believe she was ready to go almost immediately!

Before that time, I would read books for school and I re-read a handful of the books we had read aloud earlier, but I didn’t really love to read. But, once I started picking out books for myself, I never stopped! Now I really appreciate that my mom let me take my time and didn’t rush me into reading. I think that the freedom she gave me to choose my own books when I was 12-13 really helped me gain independence in my reading habits.  

Anthologies

One type of resource that I would recommend to readers of all ages, but to adolescents in particular is literary anthologies. Anthologies are a great instrument to use when “spreading a broad feast” for teens, especially since they provide so much opportunity for exploration and discovery. Anthologies of short stories, plays, essays, and poems are widely available and good ones expose readers to a diverse collection of works. Readers can gain a great sense of an author’s style from a short story, and then actively pursue more works by the authors they liked best.

I also like this sort of book because it’s easier to pick up and set down than a novel. You can read a handful of stories, then take a break to read a full-length novel, then return without missing a beat. I often find that I’ll read a story, then go look for a book by that author and return to the anthology when I’m again in need of inspiration.

In short, anthologies can be deep wells to draw from and can provide good exposure to a wide range of literary styles, in addition to introducing readers to new authors.

Book Lists

Since I was drawn primarily to “classic literature” as a teen, I began using resources like Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels to mine ideas for future reading. Modern Library also has a similar list. Those lists gave me ideas of titles, as well as authors, to keep an eye out for at bookstores or even on our bookshelves at home. I never read all of those books, and honestly don’t intend to, but they were a great place to begin.

Now that I am older and have read more widely, I don’t refer to that sort of list anymore. I do, however, note what titles are on the bookshelves of close friends and I do sometimes look at the recommendations Goodreads gives me. Several months ago, I actually took photographs of a friend’s entire library because her shelves were so incredible. Now whenever I need ideas I can just look back at the images! I’ll also often look at the Goodreads accounts of friends whose taste I respect to see how they’ve rated books.

Award Winners

In addition to looking at book lists, you can also mine major book awards lists for new titles. We often recommend Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books here. In addition, you can look at winners of the Pulitzer prize, Nobel prize in literature, National Book Awards, and Costa Book Awards. The Booker Prize is hit or miss for me, but still absolutely worth looking at.

As a quick note: do also look at the short-lists and list of runners up for each award, as those are often wonderful, as well!

Reading Friendships

Our close friends can be one of our most helpful tools in discovering new literature. So many of my all-time favorite books came as recommendations or gifts from friends. Over time I have identified those friends who are good literary “matches” for me and I’ll often turn to them for recommendations or insight. I did this as a teen, as well, and it gave me a list of interesting new books to read, in addition to strengthening my relationships with friends.

Teens can, and absolutely should, rely on one another for recommendations. (It's important, though, to identify friends whose opinions and taste you respect and not to simply read a book just because an acquaintance has read it.) But once you've found a good book friend, hang on to them! It's possible that you've established a reading friendship for life.

Other questions to consider

  • Is this author someone whom I have heard of? Have I read or heard positive reviews of this author from people I respect?
  • Did someone whose opinion I trust recommend this book?
  • Did someone who generally shares my literary tastes recommend this book?
  • Would I want to talk about this book with people whom I respect, after finishing it?
  • What other types of books are being marketed along with this book? Do I know any of the other books, and can they give me a sense of what to expect from this book?

Share your experience

What about you all? Where do you find great books for teens? And what other resources have you found to be helpful besides the ones we listed here? Do you have experience working with a teenager to help them begin establishing greater ownership over their own reading? Let us know in the comments below!

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Every Word Counts

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 30, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I happened on a copy of Every Word Counts at the local Friends of the Library book sale. I was much taken with the story of the authors, Caroline J. Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez, who as elementary school reading specialists regularly encountered kindergarten and first grade students who had not been exposed to "enough words in their first years of life and thus lack the basic language building blocks necessary to learn how to read."  Once they learned of Risley and Hart's research showing that future academic success is contingent on the number of words heard per hour before the age of two, they set out to write the book Every Word Counts to persuade parents to bathe their children in words from their earliest days, and to present them with a well-laid out path for doing so. 

Parents, they say, have it in their power to give their baby the gift of words. And they can do that, not just by reading to him, but by engaging in conversation with him, hour after hour and day after day.

Wonder why you should read to your baby?

Here are ten benefits the authors list for reading aloud to your baby from day one:

  1. 1
    ​ Read-alouds promote listening skills.
  2. 2
     ​Read-alouds increase the number of vocabulary words babies hear.
  3. 3
     ​Read-alouds develop attention span and memory.
  4. 4
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn uncommon words.
  5. 5
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn to understand the meanings of words.
  6. 6
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn concepts about print.
  7. 7
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn how to get information from illustrations.
  8. 8
     ​Read-alouds promote bonding and calmness for both baby and parent.
  9. 9
     Read-alouds stimulate the imagination and all the senses.
  10. 10
     ​Read-alouds instill the love of books and learning.

​Still not sure that babies are ready for books?

For those who think children below the age of two are not interested in books, the authors demonstrate otherwise, both in pictures and in words. Throughout the book there are dozens of illustrations depicting fathers and mothers reading to their ​offspring with the children obviously engaged. Other illustrations show young children interacting with books on their own, deeply absorbed in the experience. In videotaping one read aloud session with a mother reading several books in succession, the authors noted afterward in reviewing the videotape that the 14-week-old baby was attentive for the entire 25 minutes, an attention span much longer than their kindergartners and first graders who had never been read to.

Setting the stage for reading aloud to an infant

​The authors make a number of helpful suggestions for getting started with reading aloud to an infant, including casting aside the notion that books must be read from start to finish, with no omissions and no interruptions!

  1. 1
    ​Newborns need a quiet reading environment.
  2. 2
    ​Newborns are comforted by the sound of your voice.
  3. 3
    ​Hold and cuddle your baby when you read.
  4. 4
    ​When choosing a book, allow your baby to be your guide.
  5. 5
    ​Start reading at any page.
  6. 6
    ​You don't have to read all the words in the book.
  7. 7
    ​Repeated readings are good for baby's language development.
  8. 8
    ​Use "parentese" when reading and talking to your baby.

What is "parentese," you might ask?

​Parentese is a time-honored way of speaking to infants​ that involves speaking more slowly, articulating clearly, using shorter sentences and longer pauses, often in a melodious tone with variation in loudness and pitch. It differs from baby talk in that in "parentese" all words are pronounced correctly.

​Introducing the stages of ​baby read-alouds

​The authors divide the ages from birth to twenty-four months into six stages based on developmental milestones. Each stage gets its own chapter, with all chapters following a similar pattern. As you might expect, each chapter includes the types of books appropriate for each stage and a list of recommended selections. Although the section on recommended books comes last in the individual chapters, I ​include two titles for each stage here by way of introducing the various stages.

​The Six Stages

​STAGE ONE: The Listener 
                       (Birth to Two Months)

​STAGE TWO: The ​Observer  
​                       (​Two to ​Four Months)

​STAGE THREE: The ​Cooer  
​                           (​Four to ​Eight Months)

​STAGE FOUR: The ​Babbler  
​                         (​Eight to Twelve Months)

​STAGE FIVE: The ​Word Maker  
​                       (​Twelve to ​Eighteen Months)

​STAGE ​SIX: The ​Phrase Maker
​                     (​Eighteen to Twenty-Four Months)

​Specific suggestions on how to proceed

What distinguishes Every Word Counts from other ​titles about books for young children is that for each of the ten or more books recommended for each stage, there are helpful tips for using the books, including what to talk about.

And for one of the recommended titles in each stage there is a transcription of an actual read aloud session. You can see in the sample Stage 3 session below all  the words the mother spoke. The ones she reads from the book are in italics, the language she improvises is in plain text. The reactions and gestures of both the child and the parent are included in parentheses.

On the top of the left-hand page you can read a bit about how the mother prepared for the read aloud experience. On the bottom of the right-hand page are four things to notice in this read-aloud demonstration. Believe it or not, the list of things to notice continues on the following page with 11 more items!

The six sample read aloud sessions, one for each stage, with points to notice immediately following, seem to me to be the most valuable part of Every Word Counts, modeling for parents, who may not be familiar with babies, exactly how to conduct a read aloud session.

Other information in each of the stage chapters

Each stage chapter begins with a lengthy descriptive snapshot of a child in that stage. Then follows a catalog of expected developmental milestones: their listening abilities, their ways of vocalizing, their visual capacities, as well as their ability to move in various ways.

Practical matters come next, with step by step instructions for getting baby ready for the read-aloud session, interacting with him during the reading, and handling the inevitable challenges that arise during the course of the reading. Since babies change so rapidly, the parent's role does too! But the step by step instructions for each stage will help to prepare you.

​Frequently asked questions

​A whole chapter is devoted to frequently asked questions. Discussion of challenges that arise while reading aloud continues. Some examples of reading aloud with special needs children are offered. But the greater part of the chapter is devoted to two topics: how to handle TV and other screen media, and what to do if more than one language is spoken in the home. With this last topic, all sorts of situations are considered: what to do when parents speak different languages, what to do when the language used at home is different from the language used at school, what to do when the caregiver speaks a different language than the one used in the home, and so on. The answers the authors provide are grounded in research, and seem both sensible and practical.

The Takeaway

Jim Trelease, author of the million-copy bestseller The Read-Aloud Handbook, says of Every Word Counts: "If I were in charge of American parents, my first law would be that all new parents had to read (or listen) to this book. It's not only soundly researched, but also filled with practical strategies that any parent can use."

I concur wholeheartedly. In fact, I am going to make it a practice to give it as a shower gift to all expectant parents in my neighborhood, along with a basket of read-alouds recommended for the early months.

​How about you?

​Will you join me in putting a copy of Every Word Counts into the hands of as many prospective parents as possible? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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