Thursday, June 10, 2010

Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

So, I have a new job. I may have mentioned this a couple of times before, I can't quite remember. But yes -- I have transferred from my old position (which I loved) to a new position in which I am responsible for all programming, except 3-5 year olds, at a different branch. I am starting to love this job, too, but I have occasionally felt a little overwhelmed.

One of the things I'm doing now, as mentioned previously, is leading book clubs. Not just an adult book club, but a child-parent book club. The adult book club I think I can probably handle (I have managed so far with only one major foot-in-mouth moment) but a child-parent book club? I feel completely unprepared for this task. The parents are going to expect me to know stuff. It has to be differently structured from an adult book club, if I want answers to questions more eloquent than "I liked Ralph! Can I have another cookie?"

Enter Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading. This book was brought to my attention by a co-worker; she started these programs up and her research included this book. So the first thing I did when starting here was find a copy and read it, and wow, am I glad I did. Indeed, this is perfect for anyone thinking of starting or facilitating a child-parent book club, but it's better for more than that, and I'll tell you why.

At it's heart, Deconstructing Penguins is about talking books with kids, no matter if you are leading a book club, a teacher, a parent, or a librarian. It's critical literary analysis structured in a way that makes sense to both adults and kids, and in a way that gives discussions about books a form that is easily facilitated and easily understood by everyone involved. The structure is that of a mystery: each child (and parent) is a detective. The author has hidden clues in their book to point the reader to the story's meaning, and as a book detective, each participant is charged with figuring out what those clues say. Then the participants get to defend or critique the author's choices; in essence: is this a good book?

The Goldstones have come up with a way that makes literary analysis and critique completely accessible to kids. Along the way, reading and participating in discussions like those reported in the book, kids pick up critical thinking skills, too. And frankly, it's useful from an adult perspective too. The Goldstones make the point that often children's literature is more straightforward than literature written for adults, which is why their book detective method of analysis works so well. They never suggest that children's literature is simplistic, however, and they also do works written for adults (such as Animal Farm) with their groups as well.

The breakdown throughout this short book is simple: one chapter for studying character, one for setting, one for conflict and climax, one for point of view, one for critiquing, and a few others on either side. The stories they tell within each chapter are illustrative and interesting, and there are a couple of books that I'll look at differently now, and a few more that I'd like to read.

It's not all roses; there are a couple times when I wince a little at the way the authors lean slightly towards book snobbery at some points, and the one section where they completely devalue video games and television hurt their authority, in my mind. I didn't think it was a necessary attack as it only came up once and had nothing to do with the rest of the book. I think that television and video games have their place in the literacy pantheon, when watched/played wisely. Yes, reading is important, and reading good literature is important, but one gets the impression that if the Goldstones had their way, no one would even publish easy and fluffy reads for kids. I agree, reading only that is kind of like a white-bread diet, but at the same time, I wouldn't restrict my reading to only critically acclaimed literature and I'm not about to tell kids to do that either. A mixture of both is fine, beneficial even: if kids can think critically about what they're reading and say why they like something and what it is that makes The Black Stallion a better book than #800,000,000 in the Thoroughbred series, even if they enjoy both, then rock on.

I think their point was more that there is a tendency (I have this myself) to say "well, as long as they're reading something!" and not try to challenge children to read things that make them think. I agree that this is dangerous and, to take that further, insulting to the kids. Children are nearly always far more sophisticated thinkers than we give them credit for. What they need is a place and an opportunity to hone those skills. I would really like my book club to be one of those places.

This is an extremely approachable book, and I think it's going to be invaluable for me. So much so that I have ordered a copy to buy to have of my own. I think anyone who reads would benefit from reading this, but especially those who have anything to do with reading with children between the ages of six and thirteen. Absolutely recommended.


Diane said...

Thanks for the recommendation. This looks like a book I want to read.

Unknown said...

It is well worth it -- an easy read, and a very interesting one that has clarified some of the things I think about books and kids.