Monday, February 28, 2011

The New York Times Book Project

I love the idea of starting at the beginning of a list of something and working your way through it, a la Julie/Julia.  Thanks to The New York Times Parents Guide to the Best Books for Children I finally have my own obsessive, list-based project.

The Guide came to me as a gift from Dr. Yap when Bean was but a wee thing, because, being the good partner that she is, Dr. Yap knew how much I loved books and knew they would be a big part of my parenting life.  Before I was even pregnant - before we even tried to get pregnant - I started collecting my childhood favorites, beginning with Blueberries for Sal, The Story of Ping, and the entire Beatrix Potter collection.  When Bean came into the world, she already had entire bookcase full of books.

For some reason, though, I resisted the Guide and it was shuffled from bookshelf to desk and back again many times.  I would occasionally crack it open- guiltily - see a few favorites, look at the publication date (2000 for the 3rd Edition Revised & Updated), try to start at the beginning with the Wordless Books, then put it down again. Without thinking through how timeless children's literature is (two of the books I listed above were published before my mother was born; most of Beatrix Potter's books came out before my grandmothers were born) I declared the book out of date and therefore possibly inferior.

The Wordless Books section also thwarted me.  We only had two of these tomes, The Snowman and Goodnight, Gorilla (which is listed in the Guide's Picture Book section, but which I definitely consider wordless), both were gifts and I did my best to ignore them and would have given them away if I had been capable of parting with books.  I am a reader and a writer and I wanted words, darnit, and did not want to narrate the story of my own accord in my sleep-deprived state.  Bean never seemed to notice and never had more than a passing interest.  Boo noticed them, loved them, and insisted that I "read" them, completely ignoring my pleas that these were books he could actually read himself.

Of course, one could just circumnavigate this section. But I couldn't.  It would have taunted me. And how could I have gone through all the other sections and bypass that one.  Better to give the whole thing a pass. Back on the shelf went the book.

Then came homeschooling and weekly trips to the library.  It was great fun exploring all the "Youth Library" had to offer and making discoveries, but after a while I felt like I needed a little structure.  So I took out the Guide and invented a project. An obsessive-compulsive project involving a list and books.  Really, the only thing better would be if it also involved chocolate.  (Note to self: look for a list of world's best chocolate and start saving airline miles.  I'm sure I can make a homeschooling project out of this.)

Here are my rules:

  • We will work our way through all of the sections in order: Wordless Books, Picture Books, Story Books, Early Reading Books, Middle Reading Books, and Young Adult Books. I readily concede that Bean (7) is not ready for the likes of Tiger Eyes, Forever (Judy Blume books about the death of a parent and first sexual experiences, respectively), or most of the other books in the Young Adult section, but it will be a long time before we get there - the first five sections have a combined 933 selections (and many of these are series with extra volumes demanding to be read).  If I get there before she's ready, I will read the ones I haven't already to myself.  
  • I will get as many books as I can from our library.  When I come across used books that are on the list, I may purchase them, especially if they are unavailable at the library.  
  • No Amazon. Except for the 10-volume A History of Us, which I would rather have here than keep borrowing from our homeschool program.
  • I will save holiday books for the appropriate time.
  • With a very few exceptions, we will at least look at every book we can find.  Here are the exceptions:
          *Books whose main theme is divorce, unless Bean or Boo asks (and I don't think the two-year-old will) or a friend of theirs is going through this.  I just think this will worry them unnecessarily.  Death, I feel, is a fact of life.  Divorce is not, necessarily.  As we move along the list to the Middle Reading Books, there may be characters whose parents are divorced, but this won't necessarily be the overriding theme.  Those books will stay in.
          * Books to which I know Bean will fundamentally object.  This includes most ghost stories (though I have read the book descriptions to Bean and one or two sounded interesting to her, ghosts or no ghosts), and books whose point is to make fun of someone or something in a possibly mean-spirited way.  That includes The Stupids series by Henry Allard (I looked at a used copy at the kids' consignment shop just to be sure), and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (we had a gift copy when Bean was younger and it's one of the few books I have ever given away without a second thought).  No judgement here if others like these books (they've been vetted by the Times after all); they are just not our thing and will not help with the cause of building lifelong readers and learners.

Originally, I thought we wouldn't read books that were about any specific religion, unless they seemed liked a good introduction to another culture.  I quickly realized this meant that I was saying yes most books about Judaism and all the books about Islam and Buddhism, and no to all the books about Christianity.  I decided that I had to say yes to all the books about religion.  After all, there weren't many and this really is a secular list.  These are good books that happen to relate a story rooted in one religion or another.

We actually started this project in January, so we're mostly finished with the Wordless Books and very close to finished with the Picture Books.  I will give a review of our favorite and not-so favorite Wordless Books soon.

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