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Can a book really help kids lose weight? October 7, 2008

I usually equate good books with the building of reading and writing skills, the value of rich, well-written stories and worthwhile, memorable characters, and cultural literacy. A noble, brave, kind character can be an important role model, and even influence behavior.

And “just like us” characters can keep us company, reassure us that we’re OK, and maybe even help us solve our problems. Think Judy Blume, perhaps especially the landmark Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

But a book that may help young readers lose weight through modeling behavior that is neatly hidden in storyline? This I’d never considered. I’ve never thought books that promoted any agenda, from room-cleaning directives from preachy Berenstain Bears, aka The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room (A First Time Book) (I know, I know — queue the e-mailed objections) to the raft of pre-election, partisan propaganda that’s popped up between deceptively bright-and-sunny children’s book covers, were generally worthwhile reading. But I now admit some might have useful angles.

According to a bumper crop of news stories on this subject in the past few days, a new study claims kids who read books that promote healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and good nutrition are more likely to lose extra weight.

Reports the L.A. Times, “A recent study found that after reading a book with underlying messages of getting healthy via physical activity and good nutrition, girls ages 9 to 13 showed a slight decrease in their body mass index.”

The book to which they’re referring, Lake Rescue (Beacon Street Girls, No. 6) by Annie Bryant, is part of the Beacon Street Girls series written for (ack-age guideline coming) preteen girls, and also addresses tough situations like cyber bullying and divorce. Describes the Times: “In this book, an overweight girl goes to an outdoor adventure camp with her class. Although worried about being picked on for being heavy, she finds a role model who teaches her about becoming healthier through eating right and trying new activities.”

So what’s the fact breakdown? Apparently the book’s author (in the most clever marketing ruse I’ve ever heard of) proposed the study, which featured 64 seriously overweight girls already enrolled in Duke University’s Healthy Lifestyles program. They were put into three groups and tracked. One group read no books, one read another Beacon Street Girls book that didn’t deal with health and weight loss issues, and one read “Lake Rescue.”

The Times reports the “Lake Rescue” group decreased its BMI scores 0.71%, the group that read another book decreased its BMI scores .33%, and the group that had no intervention increased its BMI scores .05%. Well, the progress may have been slight, but it’s noticeable.

And of course, nothing, including a book, is a panacea. Children need support, availability of healthy food and exercise opportunities, and other positive reinforcement to lose weight. After all, the girls in this study were already enrolled in a serious program. But given the onslaught of junk-food commercials and candy-popping peers facing them down every day, I’ll bet the weight loss proposition is harder on children, girls or boys, than it would be for just about anyone else.

If this book helps, this is wonderful. I’d even give my blessing to a Berenstain Bears book that tackled such a tough subject for a younger audience, if it got results for its young readers.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Kids’ book age guidelines Part II: Reading between the lines September 30, 2008

The trend in children’s book publishing — more specifically, marketing — is to label each title with an age or grade guideline for which the book is supposedly appropriate. And yesterday I described, with the help of likeminded sources, why it not only doesn’t help, but actually hinders, efforts to put a good book in the hands of the right child.

Drawing on the chapter of my book devoted to this topic, I gave my secret formula for finding the best books for children. Here it is again:

The most important question is not, “How old is my child?” but “What is my child’s reading ability?” Also factor in maturity and interest levels, and there you have it.

  • If your child is a superior reader, you’ll need to ask yourself, “Is the material presented in the book still appropriate?” You have to temper an advanced reader’s zeal for “big books” with a sense for her maturity level. (I’ll use a blog subject from last week as an example. An avid child reader who devours L. Frank Baum’s Oz books (see fantasy novel section) will not be ready for Wicked (Reader Picks) until she’s practically a grown-up, even if she can read the sophisticated language of Gregory Maguire’s highly imaginative parallel novel. Am I age labeling here? Well, given the explicit sexual situations and satirical nature of this very well written fantasy novel, I’m just saying Wicked is written for adults or quite mature older teens who can handle such subjects. 
  • Follow these questions by asking which books will allow your child to stretch his ability and enrich his thinking processes.
  • A quick scan of the first chapter or two of potential book choices gives the best indicator of the level on which the book is written — not the age guideline on the book jacket.
  • Gauge interest level above all, even over skill. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a child can read something well if she doesn’t relate to the book. Strong interest in and enjoyment of the material are the only ways to cultivate a dedicated reader.
  • A boy who loves cars will likely be interested in a well presented book about cars, even if it happens to be a level or two below that designated for his age. It’s the subject matter he seeks. What a shame for him to be reluctant or embarrassed to pick it up because of artificially imposed reading levels.

My younger son Thomas, now 9, has always been a very accomplished — and rather competitive — reader, tackling chapter books way back when he was still expected to still be in the picture book phase. As I also describe in The New Magic Bookshelf, I feel it’s a shame to rush past the treasures to be found in the picture book genre for the sake of earning Accelerated Reader, peer prestige, or other bonus points by moving on too quickly to middle grade novels and other more challenging reads.

I’ve been very happy to see Thomas lately revisiting the picture books that line our shelves, even when he’s capable of reading the children’s novels placed alongside. When his dad took him to a used book store recently, Thomas chose a picture book to bring home. Likewise, when my husband Josh took him along on an outing to Barnes and Noble, Thomas came home with the whimsical Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble (Skippyjon Jones).

I’m glad third-grader Thomas feels just as comfortable hanging out with Skippyjon as Harry Potter. Even if the Skippyjon Jones picture book series is supposedly aimed at “ages four-eight”.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Age guidelines for children’s reading: only numbers September 29, 2008

We consumers are so used to our prepackaged goods, whether they be bologna or books, that we’ve come to rely on numbering classification systems for labeling just about everything: this movie is suitable for children ages 12+; these eggs are best used before 10/11/08; this children’s book is aimed at ages 6-8.

I appreciate knowing when my sour cream may go bad, I really do. I realize juvenile titles are ostensibly processed and classified in such a way to make it easier for the consumer to sift through and find what they hope are appropriate books. But it’s a marketing tool for the easy sale of books. And it may not help your child.

I’ve never changed my thinking that the narrow age designations for books are not only trite but deceptive in their perceived “helpfulness.” In The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever, I’ve devoted nearly a  whole chapter to this issue. I’ll quote a snippet:

“But what about the eight-year-olds who read on an ‘ages ten to twelve’ level? Or the eleven-year-olds who struggle a little more, but are attracted to books on the ‘ages eight-ten’ level? Are all children of the same age, really the same? Of course not. That’s why it’s my belief this system can inadvertently work against them. Slower-reading children might become demoralized or ashamed of being designated ‘behind.’ This will likely deter them from reading books ‘below their level’ that could have been terrific reads. All because they, and their unsuspecting parents, believe they’re intended for younger children.”

And I might add, the publisher or book reviewer has labeled it so — age designation most often has nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s intended audience.

In a Sunday story for the Ottawa (Canada) Citizen, former librarian Barbara Julian reports an outcry among authors over just this practice, even calling age labeling “unnatural.”

A group of children’s authors in England has issued a formal statement condemning this juvenile publishing industry trend. Notoagebanding.org has reportedly amassed more than 3,300 interested people from authors to librarians to booksellers to sign the statement.

“Pinning reading ability to age level is an inexact science, as any teacher knows. An exceptional book won’t stay within an age-defined straitjacket, anyway,” Julian notes. “A clever, humorously illustrated picturebook gives as much pleasure to the parent reading it aloud as to the child listening and looking.”

I also love Julian’s quote of juvenile author Nikki Tate, who doubles as a publisher’s publicist: “A very young child with a strong interest in a topic may devour a book intended for adults, whereas even the simplest, most attractive book on the same subject won’t tempt someone with no interest in the content. A good book is a good book is a good book.”

Read the full article here.

OK, so how is a parent, educator, or other involved adult to make a decision as to whether a certain title is appropriate reading for a child? The key is not in thinking, “How old is my child?” but, “What is my child’s ability?” Add into consideration interest and maturity levels, and then you’ve got the recipe for finding a fantastic book.

In tomorrow’s blog I’m going to elaborate on these and other ways around the labeling gimmick, so stay tuned.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Politics hits the kids’ book market September 15, 2008

Until I read about Republican Presidential nominee John McCain’s daughter Meghan’s new book about her dad — an impressive-looking hardcover published by Simon & Schuster, issued this month — I was unaware of all the politicking going on in the children’s book market.

Well, a search for reviews of Meghan’s book, aptly titled My Dad, John McCain and beautifully illustrated by Dan Andreasenon Amazon turned up a whole collection of books on the major candidates seemingly created to train the minds of the kiddies.

Simon & Schuster is also behind the publication of the grandly titled Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes. One expects a naturally adoring tone from the work of a child about her own father.  But the reviews for Barack Obama echo my sentiment that the “worshipful” tone of this book would be more suited for someone like Martin Luther King Jr., a revered figure who’s more than earned his place in history, not a political hopeful.

But there’s more: for those little girls who need a female political role model, we have Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight by Kathleen Krull, another appealingly illustrated  hardcover that probably didn’t quite sell as well as Clinton supporters might have hoped earlier in the year.

Obviously these books are strategically released as campaign material. Most are quickly generated, over-fluffed political propaganda (at best — the Obama book has even been cited as an exercise in “Messianic creepiness”). But what’s their purpose? Certainly not to turn the minds of kiddie undecideds. Their cloying tone would indicate most of these titles are published so parents will snap them up for their children “to show them who Mommy and Daddy are voting for.”

I’m not saying that’s bad, I just wish there were better reads to give the kids, that juvenile books weren’t dragged into the slap-something-together election frenzy. But if I had to buy one, regardless of my political bent I’d say Meghan McCain’s book is the more genuinely informative and less icky.

If you want a new book with which to teach your kids something about politics, here’s a middle-ground choice among the kiddie election books released this year: check out If I Ran For President by Catherine Stier. At least it describes the process, instead of subjecting children to overblown praise of people whose hoped-for greatness has not been realized.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

Visit magicbookshelfonline.com