Reading and traveling are two passions that I share with my seven-year-old daughter. Books, pamphlets, maps, magazines, newspapers, menus. Traveling a half-hour to the museum or across the ocean with our backpacks. My work as an elementary school Reading Specialist has naturally evolved into how I travel and read as a parent. Book recommendations will be given. Dialogue about learning to read and how to encourage the habits of lifelong readers is welcome.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

"The George Washington Power Wolf Club:" A Search for Authenticity and Weird Facts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Philly's Independence Mall

During recess, some of the kids in Sylvia’s class form clubs and run around and chase each other with loose narratives and roles that seem to play themselves out pretty quickly. The GWPW club started last year and fed a curiousity about the first president when we drove down south en route to picking up our puppy in North Carolina. GW seems to have slept here, there, and everywhere – and we found many a cabin, statue, and postcard to support that old saying.

Recently, GW has emerged again as a figure of interest, and when Sylvia was perusing the Metropolitan Museum's website and discovered that "George Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlie Leutze hung on the museum walls in the American Wing, it became a must see destination. Here's a wonderful interactive feature about the composition of the painting on the Metropolitan's website for kids. Of course, sitting in the room with the painting, its sheer size is especially powerful, and even with apparent historical inaccuracies, feeds a sense of the grandeur of the mission.

Recommended Reading On GW

  • "George Washington's Breakfast" by Jean Fritz, follows a boy's quest for the everyday fact that no one seems to have written about. (Ages 5-8)
  • "Cartoon History of the United States" by Larry Gonick (All Ages)

Entry on Philadelphia to follow.

For Young American Revolutionaries:

  • “Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin,” hardcover book for younger kids, by Gene Barretta

For Ages 5-9:

All of the books in this series seem to be by Bobbie Kalman and various illustrators:

Historic Communities:

  • Tools and Gadgets
  • Colonial Homes
  • The Woodworkers
  • Schoolyard Games


  • "Who Was Ben Franklin?" by Denise Brindell Frader, ill. John O’Brien
  • "If You Lived At the Time of the American Revolution" by Kay Moore, Illustrated, Daniel O’Leary
  • "If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution" by Elizabeth Levy, ill. Joan Holme

Jean Fritz:

  • "Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?"
  • "Shhh! We’re Writing the Constitution"
  • "Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?" with ill. by the one and only Tomie DePaola

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Reading Old Fashioned Musicals

I grew up in a house where the sound of music often meant Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." I had the lyrics down cold from hearing the album played over and over, and from banging out the tunes - scaled down to a beginner's level - on the piano. The first musical I saw on Broadway (and also the last for many years to follow) was "The Sound of Music." When I heard the children on stage singing "Do Re Mi," I took it as a cue that I, too, was to join in and proceeded to march down the balcony aisle, singing. So caught up was I, and so was I caught by an usher, who led me back to my seat.

So, as an homage to that kind of enthusiasm and deep connection, I was determined that Sylvia would get to experience this style of music - not once in her childhood - but at least as an annual treat on her birthday, and maybe some times in between. We
started at age five when she was completely smitten with "The Lion King." The year after, "Beauty and the Beast." And last summer, "Mary Poppins" in London. Over this past weekend, we got to see two musicals, off the Broadway track, that add texture to the musical viewing experience in very different ways.

"The Sound of Music," performed by the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the end of its US tour, made an appearance in New Jersey at NJPAC a couple of weeks ago before finishing up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We missed it in NJ, but were able to get tickets in New York.
Note: It is really worthwhile to get on the NJPAC mailing list - their family programming often includes first-class international touring companies en route to Manhattan. We have seen marvelous performances there including my all time favorite puppet theater - The Mermaid Puppet Theater of Nova Scotia. OK - favorite till now.

The Salzburg Marionette Theater has been around for close to 100 years. I had the feeling of being part of a truly extraordinary artistic moment when I watched "The Sound of Music." At times, I forgot I was viewing puppets, at times, I was acutely aware that only puppets could perform so magically and convey the deeper meanings of the story. Thrilling. Since I've seen not only the original Broadway production, but the movie when it first came out - possibly at Radio City Music Hall, if I'm remembering correctly - and the video countless times, it was an utterly pleasant surprise that I could get more meaning out of this old shoe. From the opening moments of the show, when Maria rises up on the stage in a full-skirted iridescent green mountain, to the sound of wooden feet on the stage, to the giant Mother Superior, actually a real person, to the absolute wonder at the end of the show, when the curtain above the stage pulls aside to reveal the shoulder-to-shoulder puppeteers - breathtaking. During intermission we read over the program and see a long list of names 'playing' the characters, and also wonder at how they keep track of the hundreds of puppets and get them in place in time - because we realize - unlike in a regular show - there are no costume changes... Amazing.

Sunday, we met up with our friends Joyce, Jim, and their young daughter Anna at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, to see, "Meet Me In St. Louis." I had purchased the tickets beforehand - the cheapest seats - and so I was not surprised as we climbed up the stairs to the top of the balcony. In fact, the only empty row was the last. But our tickets were in the row in front of that one. And there were people sitting in our seats. Odd. Did they issue the same tickets twice? The usher called the house manager, who looked at our stubs and said, "these were for yesterday." Uh oh. Deja vu. When I was in high school, I managed to secure a ticket to the original production of "Hair" on Broadway. The ticket cost $7.50, not a lot, but not a little to me. The only problem was going to be that I had to cut school to go. Which I did. However, when I got to the box office and presented my ticket, I found out it was for the previous week. I missed the show. Was this going to be the story of my life?

Fast forward to grown-up life and the Paper Mill Playhouse, a very nice, respectable theater, if on shaky ground financially - and a sympathetic house manager, who let us occupy the last row. The girls sit together, sharing a pair of binoculars. The adults dig on the fancy sets and costumes, the lilting voices carrying songs such as, "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The heat rises in the theater and the story of youthful romance on a slightly bumpy path at the turn of the last century provides a soft pillow. The girls both liked "The Banjo Song," probably the most inventively choreographed. It's a play for 'entertainment' - and later, as we hear them riding wild animals in Sylvia's room, one that doesn't disrupt the flow.

Recommended Reading For Broadway Babies:
  • "Getting to Know You!: Rodgers and Hammerstein Favorites," illustrated by Rosemary Wells. You are probably familiar with her illustration style from over 50 books she has written and illustrated, including those that feature the bunny Max. I jumped to order to order this one when it came out a few years ago - it includes the music so you can play along, but just the combination of the lyrics and her illustrations are music on the page. I've never seen another book like it.
  • "Pamela's First Musical" by Wendy Wasserstein (Author), and Andrew Jackness (Illustrator)
  • "How Does the Show Go On: An Introduction to the Theatre" by Thomas Schumacher and Jeff Kurtti

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Science & History Field Trips with Book Back-up

Last year, we passed through the Museum of Natural History on the Harvard campus, and besides being blown away by the exhibit of some 3,000 glass flowers, replete with their labeled parts (created by Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolph beginning in the 1880's), I was struck with the child friendly space and the listings of weekend kids' programs, grouped by grade level. So, in conjunction with a visit to my old friend DD and a visit to the Paul Revere house, Sylvia was registered in a workshop on marine invertebrates. The workshop consisted of a scavenger hunt through the museum collections to find such specimens as a fossil trilobite and a slipper lobster as well as handling live marine animals, including a star fish, which Sylvia then said, is really called a sea star. Afterward, we selected several related books in the fantastic gift shop.

Recommended Reading For Budding Marine Biologists:

  • "Swimming with Hammerhead Sharks" (Scientists in the Field series)by Kenneth Mallory (Ages 6-10)
  • "Flotsam" (Caldecott award winner)by David Weisner (All ages)
  • "Come to the Ocean's Edge: A Natural Life Cycle Book" by Laurence P. Pringle anbd Micheal Chesworth (Ages 6-11)

The buzz-word, 'hands-on', can mean very different things in practice. Our local science museum, The Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City, just reopened after a 22 month renovation. Sylvia celebrated her birthday there, with a group of her science hungry friends. The museum has the latest technology throughout, with joy sticks, simulations, of course, computer screens - everywhere. The Harvard museum is hands-on in the old-fashioned way, which is a more literal hands on experience, quieter, no razzle dazzle. The Liberty Science Center is huge, with a metal detector at the entrance, massive glass enclosed entranceway, what defines state of the art, no doubt. But interestingly, you can't sign up for a weekend program. You have to be part of a group, a class, an organization. I would hope that in the future, when the newness settles down, it will be possible to explore the museum at a snail's pace, scale way back from the WOW.

On to the Paul Revere house. We could have used the following list on our scavenger hunt to lower Boston: one way signs, traffic shut off due to creating shopping malls, and lots of patience. Again, I favor the focus on a small bite instead of a whole town a la Williamsburg, VA. The simple wooden structure was built around 1680, and lived in by Revere from 1770-1800. There's no fancy restoration. No heat. The sound of creaking stairs. Reminded me of our climb up the tenement stairs on the Lower East Side. In a simple glass case sits a silver pitcher and a row of spoons made at Revere's foundry. Behind ropes we look at the best chamber, which served as the master bedroom and parlor, the kitchen("Mom, no applicances!"), and the 'hall', used as a dining room with an Oriental rug on the table, the fashion of the time. On display outside the house is a large church bell cast at Revere's foundry. On the other side of the ticket booth is a display of souveniers. We took home postcards, a colonial coin and banknote, and a book by one of my favorite historical non-fiction authors for this age group. (See below.)

One of the highlights of our trip was that Sylvia got to ring the church bell at the Second Parish Unitarian Church in Hingham, Mass., where our friend Paul Sprecher is the Minister. I watched, as an amazed look crossed Syvlia's face when she pulled that heavy thick braided rope, and heard the muted sound come from way above in the bellfry.

Recommended Reading For Young Historians:

Everything by Jean Fritz for the 7-9 year old crowd.
For this trip:
  • "And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?"
She is the master of the esoteric historical detail that stays in your mind forever.