Saturday, May 19

Summer Reading, Part Two: Non-fiction

Previously I made my case for a summer full of reading that had little-to-no direct educational merit. That is, I'm all against handing out lists at the beginning of the summer with a required title (or titles) with a la carte suggestions for additional reading. I still hold to the belief that play as important as work and that if we expect to have well-rounded, culturally alert, hyper-literate children then we need to honor and encourage the notion that reading for fun and pleasure has a place. Now I'm going to turn around and suggest that there are ways to encourage non-fiction as a summer reading activity that doesn't feel like a learning experience and still be fun.

As a caveat, I don't suggest doing all of these things (save some for future summers!) and would in fact caution against too much non-fiction as kids are pretty quick to figure out when a "lesson" is coming. Just take all this in and when the moment presents itself casually introduce one of these topics into the slipstream of their summer reading.

Joke and Riddle books

I have a larger thesis (much larger than can be presented here) about using jokes as a way of teaching kids how storytelling works. Basically, the idea is this: Jokes are some of our shortest stories and once you understand how they work you can apply that knowledge to telling a story. A joke has a setting, characters, dialog, and usually a twist ending. I find it amusing when I hear adults say they cannot tell a joke who then turn around a relate a personal narrative with the same elements. Set the story, introduce the characters, keep the pertinent details, timing is pacing, aim for the climax/punchline and when you hit it the story ends.

Riddles, on the other hand, have the actual advantage of developing lateral thinking. Where a joke's aim is a punchline, often surreal or just plain silly, a riddle demands a closer examination of language and context. Also, where jokes tend to run in fads and cycles (when was the last time someone told you an elephant joke?) there are riddles from hundreds of years ago that can still stump the sharpest young minds today.

Jokes and riddles are always great ways to pass the time, especially if siblings have their own books to pull on each other. If a child responds to joke and riddle books do your best to put up with the corniest of jokes, then encourage them to seek out more. This, by the way, was how I learned about the Dewey decimal system and discovered many great riddles and lateral thinking puzzle books in the adult section of my libraries. I remember once looking like a Master of All Knowledge with my girls when I was looking for a particular book and walked over to the 800's, bypassing the online card catalog. "Do you know where all the books in the library are?" my youngest asked. "No, but I know the numbers for the books I like." If they learn to do it themselves it won't look like you're forcing them to learn anything.

Martin Gardner, the great polymath of all things logical and illogical, had a book that I must have checked out more than any other kid at my library: Perplexing Puzzlers and Tantalizing Teasers. From this one book I learned puns, anagrams, palindromes and the kind of logic puzzles (classic matchstick puzzles) that can bend minds if not keep them limber. Just following Gardner around the library led me to his annotated versions of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, into examinations of logic and philosophy Aha! Gotcha and Aha! Insight and finally into Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing. It might not be an exaggeration that Martin Gardner was my first dip into library spelunking. It also makes for a nice segue into

Code and Cipher books

Why do kids love codes? Maybe it has something to do with the deliciousness of secrets, the ability to create something that has a certain power. Codes and ciphers scrape along the surface of our desire to create symbols of meaning, communicating with a select group, a way of reclaiming the mystery and power of language. The history of codes is full of political intrigue and human struggle. The armies of the ancient Greeks and Romans employed codes, just as 20th century railroad hobos did to communicate among themselves. Ciphers have been used by spies for hundreds of years and they vary in sophistication and style in a way that make them appealing to all ages.

Gardner's book makes for an excellent introduction for kids, as does Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko. Older kids who might want a bit more history with their cryptography will probably want to check out The Code Book by Simon Singh (note, there are two books by Singh with the same title, the teen friendly one has the subtitle How to Make It, Break It, Hack It, Crack It and covers everything from Mary Queen of Scots and ends with Internet security encryption).

If you end up buying a code book I'd suggest getting two copies and keeping one for yourself. Once they have done a little reading you can write them a coded message (perhaps the secret location of a special treat) and send it to them in the mail. This isn't the first time I've suggested mailing things to kids in the summer and I can't promise it won't be the last. I have yet to see a kid act blase about an unexpected piece of mail, and once you send the first coded message you might be surprised at just how much and how quickly they'll want you to send another. I like to find unusual postcards for this and so far Homeland Security hasn't hauled me in for questioning. Maybe I've stumped them.

Activity books... and game instructions?

Get them out of the house! No one said all this summer reading meant staying indoors and there are ways to combine reading and activities. I'd also like to suggest that learning how to follow directions, instructions and rules surrounding various activities -- a lot of the same things we expect kids to get out of sports activities -- get reinforced this way.

Last fall a book came out that I would have drooled over when I was a boy: Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book. Over a dozen years of research and development went into this book and it shows. Page after page of ideas for all kinds of project, both indoor and out of doors. Building an igloo with cubes of jello? Why not? How about using graham crackers as bricks and canned frosting as mortar for building edible structures? Sure! Bird feeder space station platform from drinking straws and disposable drinking cups? Check. Rich in explanation about how structures work and the different kinds of structural elements featured there's bound to be something that sparks an interest. Don't be surprised to see some projects consuming the better part of a day. Or week.

How about a quick course in Pioneering, the art of binding ropes and poles to create impromptu fire towers and bridges across small rivers? Or a solid study in the art of Orienteering, the use of map and compass? Small boat sailing? Cinematography? Basketry? Auto Mechanics? Five words: Boy Scout Merit Badge Pamphlets. Despite the dated, sometimes hokey post-war earnestness each of the pamphlets available for various merit badges provides a solid foundation in each of its subjects. No kid is going to naturally be attracted to a pamphlet on first aid or lifesaving (unless they want to work toward becoming a lifeguard) but many of the booklets deal with outdoor activities, crafts or hobbies. I still haven't managed to build the junk wood punt from The American Boy's Handy Book but when it's done you can be assured that before I let the girls set foot in it they'll read all the merit badge pamphlets on boating.

Similar but a little less rigid are a series of books called the Brown Paper School series published by Little Brown back in the late 1980's. The Backyard History Book presents the idea of local history as a series of discoveries. Delving into the origins of street names, mapping neighborhoods and collecting oral histories gives the curious and the extrovert a channel for those energies. The Book of Where focuses more on geography, starting from diagramming your own home and building to mapping the world. I wish I'd had their Making Cents: Every kid's guide to money, how to make it, what to do with it back when I could have used it: about ten years before I went off to college. These and other books in the series (Math for Smarty Pants is fun but probably not as much for summer) are still out there among the remainder bins and, naturally, in finer select libraries.

On the occasional rainy day, or for a lazy afternoon, an indoor board game can be fun. Why not suggest playing a familiar game by new rules? The part of this exercise that requires reading is New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmiteberger, former editor of Games magazine. Popular board games like Monopoly, Scrabble and Risk get new instructions, as do variants of Chess, Checkers and Go. Part of the fun in playing these games sometimes is the newness, the foreignness of their strategies. It hardly seems like legitimate reading, and that's my point. Reading, interpreting, understanding and following rules and instructions can be more of an intellectual workout that a flaccid textbook and some ditto sheets.

Other great possibilities for games, if you know kids who aren't afraid of the word brains: The Big Book of Brain Games, The Brainiest, Insaniest Ultimate Puzzle Book, The Games Magazine Junior Big Book of Games (there are two volumes out there), and for a really nice coffee table style book that covers the history, origins, rules and even instructions for making games you really can't go wrong with Games of the World.

Magic tricks, slight of hand and illusion

This requires a bit of work on the part of an adult initially but the payoff can be great.

Hit the library or bookstore and find a book of magic well suited for the children in your charge. Flip through and find a trick or illusion that looks good, and by good I mean has good presentation that doesn't lend itself to being easily figured out. Now, learn the trick and practice it until you can do it comfortably and without hesitation. Got it? Good. Showtime.

Find a casual, low key moment and say "Hey, want to see what I learned recently? Watch." Then perform the illusion. If the child/ren in question are suitably impressed they will ask you to do it again, and then beg you to show them how it is done. The rule of a good magician is that you never repeat a trick for the same audience (unless you can do it with a twist of equal awe) and to never give away the secret. "But," you can explain "I can tell you the name of the book where I learned the trick."

Yes, it is tricking them into reading, but I doubt they'll mind if they really want to learn the trick. Let them try the one you performed, being ready to help understand the steps if they get confused. After that they'll usually pick up a couple more tricks easy and will surprise you with their showmanship, dexterity and focus.

In sorting through books on magic you'll want to focus on those that deal with simple playing card -- sometimes called self-working illusions because the trick takes place in the manipulation of the cards. These tend to be variations of the "pick a card" fortune telling variety and are both simple to perform and impressive. Some books may include other tricks and illusions that include simple household items and these are fine as well, what you want to avoid is starting out with magic that requires the making (or purchasing) of special apparatuses.

I still have a handful of card tricks I learned as a boy that I remember. My girls have since learned all my tricks -- and taught me a few. My guess is they will one day pass along some magic to their own kids.

Reference material

I've mentioned the paperback spinner rack at my library, the place where I could find the Mad paperbacks and other collected comic strip books. But there was a second spinner nearby that contained mass market fiction for adults that held a secret gem: The Guinness Book of World Records, now know as the Guinness World Records Book. Back then it was an inch thick with tiny type and filled with some of the most fascinating stuff, including pictures of the unimaginable. Perfect for casual (ahem, bathroom) reading, car trips and just looking for info to impress friends with. Updated annually by the Brother McWhirter back in my day it's now a brand owned by some entertainment company more interested in selling it's pages off for product placement. Avoid it at all costs.

No, instead hunt down many of the fine books of randomly collected facts out there that have popped up to fill the quality void left when Guinness went south. Dorling Kindersly, DK in the trade, has two very visual offerings: Pick Me Up which covers a lot of useful (and useless) information on a variety of subjects, and Cool Stuff and How It Works which traffics in technology and uses the x-ray-like color illustrations and cut-aways to show the various layers involved. Seeing the inside of an iPod wasn't anywhere near as interesting as seeing what is in the souls of athletic shoes that makes them so springy.

Another pair of books that fills the random information bug is Children's Miscellany and Children's Miscellany II put out by Chronicle Books. Filled with the usual lists, facts and odd little bits of instruction (how to milk a cow?) these digest-sized books are almost perfect -- putting them out in paperback and lowering their price would move them up to perfect status. There are easily a dozen other book-of-facts and almanac-type paperback available waiting to be left around the house where they will be picked up, read randomly, and left somewhere else. And, again, none of it feels like reading, yet kids will read these books for hours on end.

Single topic books

This is my catch-all section for all the possibilities out there. Many kids know about the sumptuously produced Ology books out there (Piratology, Egyptology, &c.) nut many of these and other topics are better explored (and better organized) in more traditional books that aren't looking to use their flash to hide their thinness in content.

For the study of pirates, Lost Treasures of the Pirates of the Caribbean lays out maps and legends surrounding the actual pirating that once went on and where its believed they left their booty. For older readers who can't get enough of the Disney movie franchise the Dover book Pirates and Piracy gives a nice overview of the factual elements blown way out of proportion in popular culture while the recently re-released The Barbary Pirates by C.S. Forester makes for a cracking good read as well.

On the Egyptian front, smaller in size and crammed full of goodness is the DK Backpack Book 1001 Facts About Ancient Egypt. I'm a fan of these 4 by 4 inch square paperbacks on many subjects because they merge the very visual photos and illustrations that DK is known for with tons (or is it tonnes?) of facts. Sharks, space, the human body, dinosaurs... the Backpack Books never seemed to take off but can still be found and are worth the effort.

I don't want to ignore the arts but I could take days making suggestions. First, let me suggest origami. I realize that the instructions are almost 100% visual but it is a form of reading and thinking and worthy of some reinforcement. Similarly, Ed Emberly's drawing books should be required reading for younger grades. Using basic shapes and easy, wordless step-by-step instructions kids can learn how to draw anything from monsters to rocket ships. I think even adults who claim they can't draw would benefit from a course in Emberly's books.

Finally, a story about the summer I decided I was going to learn something new. I decided in June that I would spend the summer learning how to juggle. I imagined it taking quite a bit of time to master the hand-eye coordination necessary to keep three things in the air at once. So on the first day of summer vacation with my Juggling for the Complete Klutz in hand (the book that built an empire, or at least a publishing house) I set out to learn the fine art of keeping things in the air.

Twenty minutes later I had accomplished what I thought would taken me days if not weeks. The disappointment at learning how easy it really was made me feel foolish and I didn't spend the rest of the summer practicing or learning harder tricks. I went back to my usual summer of reading the Guinness Book and other omnibuses of facts and ephemera. Mine is a cautionary tale; it takes more than one activity, or one book for that matter, to fill a summer.

* * * * *

This week's entry took a lot longer to coordinate than I envisioned, and I left off a lot of books and ideas I had jotted down. More for next year, I guess. The point is that there's a lot out there that's non-fiction in book form. In fact, if you go to a book store or library and scan the store with an eye toward separating the fiction from non-fiction you might be surprised to see just how much there is out there.

Next week I'm either donning Shorts or taking out the Trash. We'll see where the whim strikes first.

Last Week: Low Humor
Next Week: Shorts... or Trash?
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