Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stuck for a Good Story?

We're very excited to welcome children's author Dan Elish to the Hooked on Phonics blog. In addition to writing the Broadway show 13, Dan has written for children's television and is the author of several young adult novels, including The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks and Confessions of an 8th Grade Basket Case.

Like most kids, my children like being read to before bed. But that never seems to be enough. After the book is finished and teeth are brushed comes the inevitable demand for a genuine, out-of-my-head, made-up story. What choice does a parent have but to agree?

As a writer, I admit to a certain pride in some of the tales I’ve come up with over the years. Most involve a rotating cast of characters. There’s Hoo-Ha Fiddly Dee (a two-headed, eight-armed dentist from Neptune) and Woo-Woo Wanda McGee (who rides a giant pink-and-purple tractor). The list goes on. And for a time, I was on a roll, whipping off nightly tales of adventure and suspense that spanned the universe.

But one night, my well runneth dry. No new planets to conquer. No new weirdly named characters. One of the joys of parenthood suddenly became a chore. To my chagrin, I found myself begging off at story time: “Not tonight. Daddy has a headache."

What to do?

It turned out there was someone who could help in my very own apartment. My spouse! “Hey!” I said the following morning, my voice quavering with excitement. “We can tell a story together!”

The next night, we put my grand plan into effect. I took the beginning, then Andrea (the aforementioned spouse) took over — and to my delight, she spun the tale in a direction I never would have imagined. The clouds lifted. I relaxed. Switching back and forth, Andrea and I supplied each other with ideas, and story time became fun again.

It gets better. The other night, my two children asked to join the storytelling circle. I started a tale of a monster invading a ballet school, my wife added a bit, and then — lo and behold — out popped the inner ham of my six-year-old daughter, Cassie. She took the ball and finished the entire thing! All Andrea and I had to do was lean back in our respective seats and listen. It was a brilliant role reversal. By the time Cassie had finished, we had both dozed off. Try it sometime.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Let the Games Begin!

Board games are a great way to explore and reinforce reading skills. And while Scrabble and Boggle are fantastic, beloved word games for ages 8 and up, Scrabble Junior and Boggle Junior are less than stellar.

Here’s a mini-round up of some lesser-known board games that bring out the wordplay for beginning and early readers:

What’s Gnu? is a game where players flip up letter tiles and race to create 3-letter words. This is great for kids that are just gaining confidence at reading.

Toot and Otto is another interesting beginner game. It’s a four-in-a-row game where one kid tries to spell TOOT while the other tries to make the same letters spell OTTO. It’s more of a strategy game than a word game, but still good for getting kids to think about letters and how they can be arranged to form words.

Cariboo is a game that includes matching up letters and sounds. Note that it is one of those rare games for really young kids (age 3 and up) that doesn’t just involve moving a piece from start to finish over and over again.

A big favorite in my house for several years running is A to Z Junior. Players pick categories such as “flavors of ice cream” and try to come up with answers starting with as many different letters as they can.

Rubberneckers Jr. is a scavenger hunt card game to be played while riding in the car. It’s solid entertainment for long car rides. And searching for words, like “bump” and “stop” on road signs, is a GREAT reading exercise. In fact, I know a lot of people who tell me that "stop" was the very first word their child learned to read.

Finally, for more advanced readers, consider Bananagrams. It’s a fast-paced challenge where two or more players arrange a great big collection of letters into a crossword. Some word game fans will recognize this as the traditional game sometimes called ‘Speed Scrabble.’ But…hey! This version comes packaged inside a banana!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Battling the Summer Slump

As I write this, a mountain of unread books and magazines taunts me. I want nothing more than to be reading them, but I haven’t had the time. I look forward to my summer vacations to catch up on my reading. Wouldn’t it be great if our kids felt that way, too?

The thing about my reading mountain is that it’s all stuff that I’m interested in – action, adventure, and comedy. Help steer your children toward books they will enjoy. Two of my favorite book series – Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey, and Babymouse, by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm – are proof positive that reading can be hilarious and fun.

If you don’t already know the
comic mastery of Captain Underpants, you should. In the first book, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, fourth graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins buy a 3-D Hypno-Ring, which they use to turn Principal Krupp into an undergarment-sporting superhero. Together George, Harold, and Captain Underpants thwart the evil plots of Dr. Diaper, Professor Poopypants, the Bionic Booger Boy, and more.

Babymouse is a fantastic heroine created by a brother and sister team, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. The first book in the series, Babymouse: Queen of the World, starts off with a basic schoolgirl premise: Babymouse wants to be invited to the party of popular Felicia Furrypaws. From there, the story takes fantastic twists and turns as Babymouse pictures herself battling a giant squid, commanding a spacecraft, and riding through the Old West. It’s anything but what you’d expect, and a total delight to read.

Stayed tuned for more summer reading picks in the weeks ahead!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summertime Strategies, Part One

On Wednesday we hosted our second Virtual Coffee, a casual conference call with some of our favorite bloggers who focus on education, parenting and creativity.
Our topic of conversation was ways to keep children interested in reading during the summer months—in the house, in the car, or out on the town.

Amy Mascott of
Teach Mama gave us this gem:
Custom Shopping Lists for Trips to the Grocery Store!
Make a list of words to read and find on a shopping trip. Each kid gets a crayon and his/her own list with words spelled out in large letters and a picture beside it.

It was thrilling to hear so many varied ideas for games, activities and launching points for learning-moments. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing many of the great ideas you can use to keep your kids reading during the summer . We are lucky to have a very creative and involved group of parents including:

Nirasha Jaganath –
Mommy Niri
Allie McDonald –
No Time for Flash Cards
Brian Frank –
Book dads
Hillary Morris –
Mrs. Mo’s New Jersey

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sneaking in Reading: Menus

Just because your kids are away from school for the summer doesn’t mean that they should give up reading practice. When we were developing the new Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read, we thought a lot about sneaking in reading in unexpected places.

Say you’re out at a restaurant with your family. You can use that time to read the menu with your child. What words does she already know how to read? Can she order for herself? What words can she find that begin with the letter R? Rigatoni? Rice? Rutabaga? With reading games like these, you may find yourself wishing for slower service.

Oh, and don’t forget the fortune cookies!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

More Letters, Letters, Everywhere!

We’ve talked a bit about finding letters outside the home, but how about inside the home? I was thinking about this the other day when I bought my preschooler her first box of Alpha-Bits cereal. I thought she’d have fun eating letters for breakfast (now with whole grain!). I’m sure many of you already have some form of alphabet refrigerator magnets. In fact, I have some stuck to my desk at the moment. But there are many other products now to work letter practice seamlessly into your child’s day.

Alphabet ice-cube trays are a great way to cool your beverage, and they’re also a perfect craft project for hot summer days. Put food coloring in the water and watch the letters melt together in the hot sun. Or make alphabet juice Popsicles or JELL-O snacks.

Alphabet cookie cutters are also good food-and-craft tools to have at your disposal. Bake alphabet cookies, or settle in for some alpha-Play-Doh fun.

For the backyard, drop a set of alphabet sand molds in the sandbox and dig up the entire alphabet.

In my house, we’re big fans of bath crayons and foam bath letters. We pull letters out of the water and talk about what words begin with each letter. We use the crayons to scribble letters and words all over the tub.

Got any letters in your house? We’d love to hear about them!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rat Cat Hat!

Readers have commented that our story "Hat" is preposterous, a hallucinatory work of fiction.

Call us dreamers, but even our most fanciful workbook stories have their roots in the real world.

I submit to you:

Friday, June 5, 2009

This Blog Is Broken

I’m happy to introduce guest blogger Jonathan Maier, author of two Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read: Second Grade books, My Giant Bunny and the incredible This Book Is Broken. Thinking too much about This Book Is Broken is a bit like thinking too much about time travel — do it for too long and it gets very confusing.

When the fine folks at Hooked on Phonics asked me to write a book for their new program, I pitched them four or five ideas. Of course they chose the one I was the most worried about writing, but also the one I secretly wanted to write the most. Sometimes the cost of a great idea is the burden of not messing it up. The book became This Book is Broken. Ironically, it’s really messed up.

I’ve always loved books and shows that are aware of their own existence. Sort of like a lucid dream — a dream where the dreamer knows she’s dreaming. Or an example I used in my pitch: “Duck Amok,” the GREATEST CARTOON EVER MADE. In this animation short, Daffy Duck is mercilessly tormented by his own animator, who turns out in the end to be Bugs Bunny. (Oh — spoiler alert. Um, too late. Sorry.) Or if your refined sensibilities demand a more literary example, consider the play Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello’s deconstruction of theatrical artifice. (No, I don’t know what that last part means, but then I didn’t claim to be the one with the “refined sensibilities.”)

From such inspiration was This Book Is Broken born. It’s the story of a princess who finds herself in a book that’s hopelessly dam
aged when it falls from the shelf. Despite switched words, scattered pages, and misplaced illustrations, the feisty princess is determined to see the story through, even if no one recognizes her without her crown.

Putting the story together was more like working on a puzzle than writing a book. Below is my first scribbling of ideas. It’s really just a brainstorm of the shtick I could use based on the broken-book conceit. Gotta have a completely blank page... oooh, and an upside-down page... and what would happen if page numbers were lost? Stuff like that.

So I had all these gimmicks and a specific page count I had to hit and a grade-appropriate word list. Oh yeah, and I had to write the “original” story that existed before the book was broken, and the final story on top of it.

That’s when the uncontrollable crying started.

I even tore the flocked Pirandello poster from my bedroom wall and deconstructed it into a million tiny pieces.

I recovered, though, buoyed by a
steadfast belief in the power of imagination (and a cowering respect for an iron-fisted deadline). The brain can’t help itself: It has to make meaning from mess. Sure enough, the book eventually “fell” together. And then it was the artist, editors, and production staff’s turn to cry. How are we going to make this book work?! Waaaa!

While this broken book is helping kids learn to read, I hope it’s also helping them break some of their conceptions about what a book has to be and how a story must be told. I hope it opens the door a little wider to that mischievous playground of imagination, where there are no rules, and e ve n a blo g can be br o

Monday, June 1, 2009

Great Books to Read Aloud

Looking for some good books to read aloud to your child? Here are a few to get you started.

Miss Spider’s Tea Party, by David Kirk. Whenever my daughter lets me choose bedtime books, I reach for this lovely book. The art is gorgeous, and the verse flows off the tongue with rhymes like:
Her friends were glad to watch her feast
Upon the floral centerpiece.

It was a great relief to see

ate just flowers and drank just tea.

Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss. Unlike the quiet poetry of Miss Spider’s Tea Party, Fox in Socks is a fun read-aloud because of its many tongue twisters. Dr. Seuss’s silly rhymes demand to be read aloud for maximum enjoyment.

Barnyard Dance!, by Sandra Boynton. Honestly, all Sandra Boynton books belong on this list for their hilarious rhymes and adorable illustrations. Boynton’s books are guaranteed to be a hit with the toddler set.

Go Away, Big Green Monster!, by Ed Emberley. This book empowers little listeners to make the title monster disappear. The first half of the book is filled with die-cuts that make a monster face appear piece by piece. In the second half of the book, kids can shout “Go away!” as they turn the pages to remove the monster’s features one by one until the entire monster is gone.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, by Mo Willems. Much like Go Away, Big Green Monster!, this book lets kids take control. The pigeon remains persistent in his goal of driving the bus, while kids get to tell him, “No!”

The Louds Move In, by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Regan Dunnick. All is quiet on Earmuffle Avenue until the Loud family moves in. This is a great book for reading aloud simply because of the loud voices you can make while reading it.
AAH!” Baby Loud cried.

Pumpkin Soup, by Helen Cooper. This one is a favorite in our house. Cat, Duck, and Squirrel live together in a cabin in the woods. Duck tries to shake them out of their usual soup-making routine, and ends up running off. This tale of friendship and teamwork is paired with gorgeous illustrations that can be discussed endlessly as you read.

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd. When I first read this book to my infant daughter, I didn’t see what the big deal was. Then I read it to her the next night, and the night after that, and pretty soon it became part of our nightly bedtime ritual. Saying good-night to everything in the little bunny’s room is the perfect end to the day.