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Teacher Says: Summer Reading

Evelyn Vuko
Washington Post Education Columnist
Monday, June 23, 2003; 2:00 PM

The release of the long-awaited J.K. Rowling's children's novel, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix," has meant long lines of eager readers, both young and old, at area and international bookstores. The fifth book of the Potter series is the longest book with 38 chapters of over 255,000 words. The book guarantees to keep your kids busy reading for the summer as they figure out the world of wizards, the latest trial of Lord Voldemort's return and the new school year for Harry and his friends. Barnes & Noble is predicting that the new "Harry Potter" will be its best-selling book of all time.

Let's chat about finding books that match your kids' interests and abilities. Learn from a children's book expert about the latest trends in children's literature as well as secrets for keeping kids reading over the summer.

Evelyn Vuko (The Washington Post)

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Join Post Teacher Says columnist Evelyn Vuko and her guest, Joe Ann Stenstrom, Montgomery College adjunct professor of Children's Literature and head of Children's Services and the Children's Resource Collection at the Rockville Montgomery County Library on Monday, June 23 at 2 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Evelyn Vuko: All hail Harry Potter for getting kids to read really big fat books! When the words on the page become kite strings to the imagination, even the most reluctant reader will fall in love with a book. My guest, Joe Ann Stenstrom, librarian and children's literature instructor and I are anxious to get your kids' imagination flying with books today. Welcome!


Fair Oaks, Va.: I would greatly appreciate some suggestions for my 7th grade son, who seldom reads on his own. He is dreading his required summer reading (which includes "Diary of Anne Frank" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"). He hated Harry Potter, loved Tolkien, says he likes Tom Clancy but finds it hard.
Rather than seek out the latest trend, I was thinking of looking back: Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds", for example, which is short and creepy. Any other ideas?

Joe Ann Stenstrom: He might want to try some of Susan Cooper's books like "The Dark is Rising" series or Lloyd Alexander's books which are fantasy and real page turners. For something different, He may want to read Avi's two volume set "Beyond the Western Sea", story of Irish immigrants to America. If he likes Tolkien, he might like to try some of George MacDonald's works for both children and adults.


Reston, Va.: Why is it that Harry Potter is so apealing to all ages?

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Part of the appeal is the imagination involved, the idea of a story that children and adults can enjoy together, and certainly for children, the peer pressure idea. The books are imaginative and somewhat fast-paced; the words are inventive and fun to play with.


Vienna, Va.: As a mother of five (ages 15,14,12,11, & 8), I found myself struggling for a way to spend some one-on-one time with each of them without spending a fortune. I came up with the idea of "special nights." Each child was assigned a night of the week. On that night he or she is allowed to stay up 30 minutes past their normal bedtime. During this time, that child would pick a book and we would
read together. When the children were young, I read to them. As they got older they had the choice of me reading to them or they could read to me (we sometimes would alternate pages, they would read one then I would read one). As they have gotten older, I have just adjusted their bedtimes to include 30 minutes of reading time. All my children are very avid readers and I credit it to their "special night" with Mom and dad. Hope this is helpful to other moms.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: What a wonderful idea! This not only gets them into reading, but it is a bonding time for family members. The fun of sharing and talking about books stretches everyone's imagination. Good work!


North Potomac, Md.: My child is entering the 3rd grade. With the help of a tutor, my child reached grade level at the end of last year in reading. What type of books would you recommend I find for summer reading? Nate the Great seemed to match my child's reading level, The Magic Treehouse series is well loved but my child can't read this series independently. I struggle trying to find the right books to keep the reading interest alive.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: There are several enjoyable beginning reader series. Commander Toad, and always Amelia Bedelia who capatures the children's love of the absurd. The Little Bear series is still popular. Two of my favorites are by Cynthia Rylant - the Mr. Potter series and Poppleton series.


Somewhere, USA - the HP crowd: As a mid-20's adult, I started the HP series after I saw the first movie and guessed that it left out some important pieces of info. The books did nothing for me though. I found the world to be very flat and not fully conceived. I had many questions about "why" something was that were never answered.

When I was about Junior High age, I started reading the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey. I know they can be considered quite controversial, but they do offer a vibrant world at least equal to HP and in my mind, much more satisfying. I would also recommend the Darkover series by Marion Bradley to those who are looking for well thought Fantasy (though also controversial).

Joe Ann Stenstrom: For those who want fantasy that is perhaps more fully developed, try the George MacDonald works for both children and adults. Lloyd Alexander's trilogy with the Black Cauldron and companion books is also a good substitute for Harry Potter, as is Susan Cooper in her Dark is Rising series.


Rockville, Md.: How do you persuade children to read a book that they've seen as a movie/cartoon? Most of the classics are movies, even though some have the endings modified and such, but the kids don't want to read the book (The Littel Mermaid, Treasure Island, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.)

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Try reading the books with them and looking for similarities and differences in plot, character, events. Discuss what makes the movie more appealing to them and what might be more appealing in book form.


Silver Spring, Md.: Evelyn and Joe Ann, I never see my nephew and nieces reading, except for school assignments, on weekends. Most of the time they are busy playing video games and when they do read, they read the video game magazines. How can I encourage them to keep reading? I know they are fans of Harry Potter and they can finish a book in less than a week. But after Potter, then what? Is there a Harry Potter reading club that I can sign them up for -- that recommends other books similar to HP?

Joe Ann Stenstrom: The staff of Montgomery County Public Libraries has developed an "If you liked Harry Potter, you might like..." list. Included are authors such as Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Eva Ibbotson, Jane Yolan. Most of these books are not as long as the Potter books, but very good reads. Many of them keep the reader turning pages as fast as they can. I wish I could tell you about a Potter reading club, but don't know of one; however, that is a great idea. Maybe I should work on that!


Herndon, Va.: I dont like to read but there are some books that look good so how do I know if and when there going to make a book into a movie so I can check it out?


Joe Ann Stenstrom: Good question. I don't know how to determine when or if a book is going to be made into a movie. I do know that once the movie contract is signed, that does not necessarily mean that the movie will be made immediately. I know one local author who agreed with Hollywood to make a movie of her first book and has two others out since then and has no idea when, or if, it will come to fruition.


Washington, DC: I love to read ..I am a book DEVOURER...and I am so excited that my 5 1/2 year old has shown an avid interest in books. I'm even more excited that she is reading on her own and without a lot of help from me....but how can i get her to want to read more on her own? Right now, she prefers for me to read to her all the time. I've tried asking her to read to me but she gets bored/frustrated.

Evelyn Vuko: Why don't you have a regular, silent family reading time? Everyone gets to choose a book but must read silently for 20-30 minutes. Then break for a five-minute book chat. Then, resume reading. Extend the reading session if she's reading contentedly.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Evelyn has a great idea. If she sees everyone else reading then it is an incentive for her to do likewise. Have her chose some of her favorite books to share with you, even if you hear them over and over again. Don't give up on reading to her though; this is an important bonding time for you. Have some of her favorite books around the house in a number of places. She will probably pick them up on her own.


Fairfax, Va.: I have a nine-year-old son who is reading at level, but doesn't like to read. We have tried books about all sorts of things that he likes, but he doesn't want to read. And, unfortunately, it becomes a struggle to get him to read. He thinks he is too old for us to read to him, so he doesn't want to do that anymore either.

He does like comic books, though. Is it ok in the summer to let him read age-appropriate comic books instead of other more traditional books? When he is in school, he reads what he has to for assignments without too much fuss -- it is the "extra" or "fun" reading that is the issue for us.

Thanks and I welcome any other suggestions.

Evelyn Vuko: He should read comic books, cereal boxes, road signs, maps, directions for installing a new CD on his computer, emails, advertisements, recipes, anything in print that's fit for the eyes of a nine-year-old. The object is to get him to practice reading as often as possible. Buy or rent books on tape, too. Kids who don't like to read are often intrigued by a book read aloud by a famous person. Make it a literary experience by talking about plot, character, setting, dialogue, author's intent and style. Instead of replaying the tape, buy the book and have reread his favorite parts to you.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: I absolutely agree with everything Evelyn said. Reading is reading, whether the cereal box or the comic book. There are some graphic novels out that might interest him. The library has some of these.


Somewhere, USA: I have a granddaughter who has just completed the 6th grade but cannot read.
The school system has just passed her on, her Mom doesn't help, she depends
on the school to teach her to read.

I have purchased various educational computers (leap pad, phonics, etc.) but
the Mom really doesn't utilize them with the child. What more can I do as a

Evelyn Vuko: Tell her you love reading and want to help her learn to love it, too. If you live nearby, invite your granddaughter to your house on a regular basis and do reading activities together. If you live far away, find out what books she has to read over the summer and buy them or get them from your neighborhood library, then read them yourself. Read parts of them to her on the phone and discuss them by email. When you visit, take her to book signings, author readings, bookstores and book fairs. If she comes to associate someone she loves with reading, it might make her like it more.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: I agree with Evelyn. Also, you might find out if she is dyslexic. There is help for these children. Patricia Polacco, a well-known children's author had a similar problem which a teacher recognized and helped her learn to read despite her problem. See "Thank You, Mr. Falker" for her story.


Fairfax, Va.: Summer time meaning summer break for a lot of kids. I was wondering if there are area book clubs that would be appealing for my kids to join? I think that if there are book clubs for moms, why not have book clubs for kids and moms to enjoy together? Do you know any in the northern Virginia area. I'd even be willing to drive down once a week to Rockville as well!

Joe Ann Stenstrom: I do not know or organized book clubs but the libraries have a reading program designed to help children maintain their reading skills over the summeer and read books of their chosing. Why not get some of the neighborhood children together for a book club in the backyard, have everyone bring a book read during the summer that could be recommended for other children to read. Make it a "booknic" with picnic lunch.


Great Falls, Va.: Considering that there's a huge appeal for the Harry Potter book series, can you tell me if there's much literary value in them? Also, what do you think is the main captivating factor about them?

Evelyn Vuko: Rowling's characters have the personality, peculiarities, idosyncracies and depth that I first encountered in Charles Dickens back when I was a kid. (No comments about age here, please.) Her characters jump from the page like Oliver Twist. She also paints vivid pictures with words, writes plots with many layers, complications and unsuspected solutions. I think she's a creative writer. I think the most captivating element is Harry. He's flawed but respected, even loved and admired. Kids can relate to that.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: When you look at the literary elements in the Potter books, there is great character development in Harry and the other characters (his friends, the school faculty, etc.), the plot moves quickly with excellent descriptions of events and places so you can see it in your mind's eye. The plot builds from one book the other so the literary connection is there like a thread. The use of inventive words and worlds builds imagination and love of words in readers. So to answer your question simply, yes, there is literary merit in the series. The captivating feature is probably the imaginative world, the situations Harry finds himself in and whether, and how, they are resolved, plus the fast pace of the stories.


Effects of Harry Potter: I am an unabashed grown-up fan of the Harry Potter books. I didn't read them to my son, because when the earlier ones were published, he was too young; and I so loved reading them, I wanted him to have the fun, too!

My nefarious plot has worked! Now 9, He saw me totally enthralled this weekend reading The Order of the Phoenix. He asked if he could to take a look. I suggested he begin with the first one, which he then finished by Sunday, and is starting the second.

Evelyn Vuko: You sneaky little thing, you! Teachers call this technique "modeling," and as you can see, it's a powerful teaching tool. Keep it up.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Amen!


Rockville, Md.: What do you think about the Liminey Snicket series? Although the titles are pretty grimm... my 8 yr old niece loves reading them!;

Joe Ann Stenstrom: They are grim, but funny. The child does not see the grimness in the same way an adult does. There are many Snicket devotees who wait expectantly for the next book. It has drawn in some reluctant readers because of the humorous, yet awful, situations in which the children in the book involved.


College Park, Md.: My son is beginning Kindergarten in the fall (he's 5 and a half) and I would love for him to have a head start on reading! Any suggestions on books, or websites that list beginning reading books? Thanks a lot!

Evelyn Vuko: Scholastic Books has an excellent website for parents and teachers, filled with excerpts from all the books, videos and cassettes they sell. Many are for preschoolers. They offer classic books made into films and narrated by famous people like Sarah Jessica Parker and author Dav Pilkey. Find them at www.scholastic.com

Joe Ann Stenstrom: The Montgomery County Public Libraries has several good lists of suggested reading for the beginning reader and some very good series for the "very beginning reader". Ask the children's librarian at any one of the libraries for copies of these lists.


Washington, D.C.: I'm looking for some reading lists of classics that an adult can read this summer, just to feel like a student again. Are there place on the internet?

Evelyn Vuko: Many high schools post their summer reading lists on the Internet. Check the home pages of public and private schools in your area, and outside your area, too. You might also pick an author like F. Scott Fitzgerald and read all his books this summer. You are always a student no matter your age and for your good intentions in reading, you get an "A" today.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Also, try the reading lists published by the high schools in the area. Each Montgomery County Public Library has copies of the lists from the high schools in the area served by that library. These are normally classics and. in come cases, are quite advance. Most of these titles are found on the "Reading List and/or Classics" shelves.


Springfield, Va.: How much influence should a teacher have when choosing books for their students to read? The reason I ask is that my son and his friend who both like skateboarding and sports were given an assignment to pick a book from a prepared list and then do a written and oral presentation about the book. My problem is that the book they chose was "Pride and Prejudice". Neither boy had a clue as to what the book was about and it was a tremendous struggle for them to do the project. I think the teacher should have interceded and suggested a more appropriate book for two 14 year old boys.

Evelyn Vuko: Unfortunately, many school districts have rigorous requirements in place for how books get on summer reading lists. Individual teachers often have little say as to titles. My advice would be to rent the videos first. (I can hear some reading teachers screaming from here) The first edition I can recall is one that stars Greer Garson and Lawrence Oliver (1941?) and it's stylized but wonderful. Another version was recently done by PBS. Have the boys compare the video productions then look at the book to see which was most faithful to the original story.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: You might also want to have them listen the the book on tape. Somehow is it easier to assimilate the story in a genre you don't particularly like by movie or listening to some read it to you. I like Evelyn's suggestion of comparing the movie with the book which one could do with the tape and the movie, as well.


Joe Ann Stenstrom: The suggested reading lists for our summer reading program in the Montgomery County Public Libraries are compiled as a joint project between the libraries and the public schools. We take a number of things into consideration when compiling the lists, one of which is having enough copies of each book because the list goes out to all elementary school children in the public schools and is available for distribution at each branch. Obviously, reading levels are considered in building a grade level list with some below reading level, some right on level and some above to challenge readers. Our lists are merely suggestions, not requirements. Some children read from the lists below their own grade and some above.


Arlington, Va.: How do I know when my child is ready to start reading on his or her own?

Evelyn Vuko: Ask, "Do you want me to read this to you or will you read it on your own?" This plants an idea and demonstrates that the child has a choice. If your child decides to do go it alone, hover nearby but don't hunker down and breath down his or her neck. Show by you question and your action that reading can and should be an independent thing.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Additionally, children often surprise you by reading a sign, a word on a cereal box, etc. They begin asking "What does this say?"


Virginia: I think the Harry Potter books have so much appeal because there's something for everyone in them... they aren't just for fantasy lovers. Besides being fantasy books, they're also mysteries, teen-angst books, and books about friendship. People who normally don't enjoy fantasy can still find lots to enjoy in Harry Potter, because they are more than just fantasy books. Also, Rowling does a good job of creating plot-driven novels with wonderful, 3-dimensional characters, which is rather uncommon.

Evelyn Vuko: You made some very good points!

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Excellent points. Also, people who thought they did not like fantasy, find it is enjoyable when coupled with a fast moving plot and well-developed characters.


Somewhere, USA - We love reading lists: My kids love to pick out books that are from reading lists, either school or library. As my daughter puts it about the books on a list: "at least someone thought it was good."

Evelyn Vuko: I hope everyone viewing or participating in this chat today repeats that line to their kids.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: I agree. At the Rockville Library we have "Kid's Pick" - children recommend books for other children to read, telling why thay liked the book. These are displayed with the children's comments in the book. It encourages other children because peers liked it, not just adults.


Maryland: My child has a short attention span and I was wondering how I can get a 7 year old boy interested in sitting down and reading? Taking him to the library or going to the bookstore doesn't work.

Evelyn Vuko: Why does he have to sit? I hate to be literal about this but it could be the sitting and not the reading that he doesn't like. Ask him if he would like to read as he wanders around (I had college professors who did this all the time.) Or have him sit on a large bouncy ball so he gets the sensory input he needs to help him focus and read.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Or- have him listen to a book on tape while he is in-line skating or in the car. It might caputure his imagination enough to get him to pick up the book. Seven-year-olds still need to move around a lot - their large muscles are still developing so it is not unusual for them to not like to sit for long periods.


Fairfax, Va.: Wanted to second my daughter's (private) school recommendation for 3rd graders, Randall Jarrell's Newbery Honor "The Animal Family" - it's pretty non-PC (a mermaid lives with a hunter, with no sign of matrimony!) but my daughter is having a hard time keeping reading to me every night she's laughing so hard! Tough vocabulary but delightful.

Evelyn Vuko: There's nothing like laughing to keep a kid hooked on a book. Don't let big words break her concentration. Tell her the word and keep going. Talk about the words she didn't know after she's finished reading, or the next day. Keep a list and review them with her periodically. Look for any repeated phonetic patterns in the words and focus on them with her this summer.

Joe Ann Stenstrom: If she is involved in the humor of the book, as Evelyn says, don't let the vocabulary be a stumbling block. It is great to have a child so involved in the story and its humor that she keeps on reading, no matter what.


Arlington, Va.: Today is the last day of school. As per our tradition, I will pick up my daughter and we will go to the library and sign up for the summer reading program. I LOVE summer reading time!

Evelyn Vuko: If you love summer reading, you are providing the best environment for your kids to love it, too. Happy last day of school!

Joe Ann Stenstrom: Music to a librarian's and a teacher's ears! Keep it up!


Evelyn Vuko: Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Harry and books and summer reading and how to make kids love it. Joe Ann Stenstrom and I had great fun answering questions and sharing your thoughts with other viewers. Teacher Says chats are going on summer vacation, too. See you back here in late August. Have fun reading this summer!


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