Best picture books of 2017

As it does every year before the holidays, The New York Times has announced its best illustrated books of the year.  This year the New York Public Library has joined with The New York Times to select these books.  The winners were chosen based only on the illustrations in the books.

And those ten winners are:

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, by Michael Mahin. Illustrated by Evan Turk.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, written by Monica Brown. Illustrated by John Parra.

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, written and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna.

Plume, written and illustrated by Isabelle Simler.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality, written by Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Stacy Innerst.

The Way Home in the Night, written and illustrated by Akiko Miyakoshi.

Town Is By the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz. Illustrated by Sydney Smith.

A River, written and illustrated by Marc Martin.

King of the Sky, Written by Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Laura Carlin.

Feather, Written and illustrated by Rémi Courgeon.

For more information on each book, go to


Kids need to know the facts

When I go to students’ homes to tutor them in reading and writing, I bring a pocket-sized  atlas.  That is because inevitably a geographical place is named in a reading passage, and when I ask the students if they know where “Scandinavia” or “New Zealand” is, they don’t know.

It’s not just knowledge of geography which students lack.   It’s when the American Revolution happened, or what news event happened in Egypt this past week or why it’s correct to say the sun is a relatively close star.

Kids just don’t know.

But this lack of knowledge has serious effects on their reading comprehension scores.  I was working on a reading passage with a middle schooler recently, and one of the questions was why Charles Darwin was mentioned but not identified in a passage about the Galapagos Islands.  The student shrugged.  “Who is Charles Darwin?” I asked.  The student shrugged again.  How could he answer the question if he didn’t know who Darwin is?

This problem becomes more acute when the student is from another country and from another first language (or if his parents are).  Years ago I taught two brothers, third and second graders, who were English language learners.  They were reading a passage about Halloween.  They had no idea what “Halloween” meant,  nor jack-o-lanterns nor trick-or-treating.  How could they answer the questions about Halloween in the reading passage?  I took them trick-or-treating on the next Halloween, but their parents were mystified why people would give their children candy.

Even if kids know the code of reading—the sounds of our language and how putting letters together forms words—they cannot score well on comprehension if they don’t know what the facts in the passage are, and what unstated facts are expected to be known as general background knowledge.

I was working with Georgia students using a passage from a New York State test.  The passage concerned winter, snow and sledding.  “I’ve never seen snow,” said my student.  I put the passage away.

If you have young children, read them not just fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but nonfiction—facts.  If you have middle schoolers or older, talk to them about current events, and if they don’t know where something is happening, point to the location on a map.  Use dinners or car rides to offer information.

Ignorance is no advantage in reading or in life.

How to get children to focus for a reading lesson

Is your child having trouble focusing during his or her reading lesson?  Here are some tips.

Establish a routine for the lessons, so the child knows what to expect. Be consistent with time and place.  Try working on the hardest thing first, such as reading lists of phonics words.  Try ending with a game—something fun but related to the work you are doing.  The younger the child, the more important it is to segment lessons into predictable parts.  If possible, identify all parts of the lesson before you begin so the child has an overview of what he will be working on.

If the child is distracted by sounds, while you work run a low, constant sound in the background—perhaps one of those baby sound machines of a heartbeat or of ocean waves.  Or run the dishwasher or a hair dryer.

If the child is distracted by sights, create a bland space to work in—soft colors, no patterned draperies, no posters. If there is a window, close the blinds or pull the shades to limit distractions.  Keep the surface of the child’s desk or table clear.

Consider whether the child will have trouble putting down electronic equipment. If so, save that part of the lesson to the end.Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

Model the behavior you want from your child. If he is to read a paragraph, then you read a paragraph.  If he is to read a column of words, you read a column of words.

Before your lesson, encourage the child to have physical exercise—to run outside, to take a walk with you, or to bicycle, for example. The exercise will bring oxygen to the child’s brain and it will get rid of the “willies.”

Allow the child time to consider an answer to a question. If she seems to be having trouble, ask her to think out loud.  Perhaps give her hints, but let her struggle a bit to find the answer.

Allow the child to have a say in the “rules” of your lessons. If he wants a five minute break every ten minutes, allow it so long as he pays attention during the lesson.  If he wants to stand on the chair or  twist like a pretzel while he is reading, allow it so long as he is doing the work.  Kids with sensory integration issues need this leeway to hang in there.  Compromise so that you can achieve what you need to during each lesson and so that he feels like he is being heard and respected.

Before one part of the lesson ends, tell the child what will happen next. Let the child mentally prepare for what comes next.  Let the only surprises be good surprises.

Let the child wear comfortable clothes and work on a comfortable chair.  Put a box or a pile of books in front of the chair so the child has a place to rest her feet.

When you talk to the child, wait until she is looking at you, until you have her complete attention. Use small, easy to follow sentences.  Put one idea in each sentence.  If directions are three steps, say one step, allow the student to follow it, and then say the second step.  For some children too much incoming information is distracting.

Try to find game-like ways to teach. Children will be more cooperative if they think they are playing a game.

Help! My daughter reads words backwards

My daughter was reading, “The cat saw catnip,” and she read, “The cat was catpin.”  She does this all the time, and she can’t tell the difference between “b” and “d” no matter how many times I teach her.  What’s going on?

Young child writing C-A-T.

There could be many causes.

Vision problems.  Some children have subtle vision problems not detected by distance charts.  You might have her vision tested by an eye doctor.

Directional confusion. This is a particular vision problem.  Can your child mimic your arm movements when she stands facing you?  Does she mix up down and up, and top and bottom?  Does she mirror write letters and numbers—writing a “b” for a “d”?Two fists with thumbs up and knuckles touching make letter "b" and "d" with a BeD visualized between the two thumbs.

Sequencing problems. Does she say “felt” when she reads “left” or “form” when she means “from”?  (I still do that when I am stressed.)

When a word ends with an “s,” does she say the word as if it begins with an “s,” such as saying “slow” when she reads “lows”?  Does she move words around in sentences, changing the word order?

Mixing up little words. Does she stick in articles (a, an, and the) where they don’t belong, or omit them entirely?  Does she substitute one small word for another, such as “and” for “a” or “for” for “from”?

Maturity.  How old is your daughter?  Every youngster I have taught reading to has had the problems you mention.  I gently correct the child when she makes a mistake, or I say “d” or “b” before she can read a word to help her.  Usually by the age of seven, these problems disappear.  If your child is four or five, these reversals are probably developmental.  However if your child is in first or second grade, you should ask to have your child tested for dyslexia.  Most public schools have reading experts who are trained to deal with these problems.

Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

To Kill a Mockingbird banned again and reinstated again

Biloxi, Mississippi, Public Schools  banned–and then a few days later–and unbanned To Kill a Mockingbird from being taught to eighth graders.  The reason given for the ban is that some of the language in the Pulizer Prize-winning novel makes people uncomfortable.

This novel, published more than 60 years ago, concerns racism and discrimination during the 1930’s in a fictional Alabama town.

Mockingbird has been banned many times in the past, and once again joined a list of children’s books banned at one time or another.  They include

–for language:  Huckleberry Finn, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus

–for poor grammar:  the Junie B. Jones series

–for religious insensitivity:  A Wrinkle in Time

–for magic:  the Harry Potter series

–for child nudity:  In the Night Kitchen

–for potty humor:  Captain Underpants

–for exploring puberty:  many Judy Blume books

Ironically, as soon as a book is banned, many children read it on their own without the guidance of teachers and without discussion of its controversial aspects, thus defeating the purpose of the ban.  Go figure.

The illogical logic of English confounds children

Suppose you were teaching a kindergartener his numbers.  You would  start by explaining that “1” means one of anything:  one shoe, one horse, one star.  The student would get it.

But what if later you explaine that sometimes “1” doesn’t mean one.  Sometimes “1” means “two.”  Huh?

And weeks later, you explain that sometimes “1” doesn’t mean on”1” or “2” but “3”!  What?

How is the poor kid expected to learn math?

Yet that is exactly what happens when we teach sounds associated with letters.  We teach that “a” represents the sound in “apple” and “cat.”

But later, we explain that sometimes “a” doesn’t represent the sound in “apple” and “cat.”  It represents the sound in “Abe” and “cake.”

And later, we explain that sometimes “a” doesn’t mean the sounds in “apple” and “Abe” but represents the sounds in “ball” and “awful.”

And weeks later, we explain that sometimes “a” also means the sound in “aha.”


In English, some consonant sounds have a one-on-one relationship with a letter.  The letter “b,” for example, always sounds the same.  Young children can easily learn a one-to-one relationship.

But some consonants have double sounds, such as “c” and “g,” whose sound depends on the letter that follows.  Now the child needs to learn not a one-to-one relationship, but a one-to-two relationship.  And some consonants, like the letter “t,” have a one-to-three relationship (“top,” “the,” thin”).

To little kids, a one-to-one logic makes sense.  “I’ll give you my lollipop if you give me your balloon.”  But one-to-two or one-to-three or one-to-seven logic confound children.

That is one of the reasons why learning to read in English is so hard.