Book Talk: Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder and What to Read When by Pam Allyn

Books that talk about books are so fun to read. As you go along, wonderful, highly personal little moments pop into view. Memories come flooding back at the mere mention (or sight) of a title.  You’re reading someone else’s words, but they are somehow becoming part of you, too. That’s how it is with Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder and What to Read When by Pam Allyn. Both Pam and Laurel jump right into their respective texts by talking about books.

books for adults about literacy In her Acknowledgments, Ms. Allen names the book she would give to each person who has helped her in writing her book. One by one, she “gifts” a book and explains why that is the selected choice for that person. That struck me as really cool.

middle grade novel about growing up, community, and family In Penny Dreadful, Penelope Grey wastes no time in sharing her taste in books (Anne of Green Gables series, A Little Princess, Magic or Not? in the first three pages!) Laurel tells us that after not knowing what to “do” when she finished reading the last book in the Green Gables series (and not liking her father’s poetry suggestion), Penelope came up with a system …

Each morning she stood in front of her bookshelf with her eyes squeezed tightly shut and ran a finger down the spines of the bindings, stopping whenever the mood struck her. Then she’d pull out that particular book, flip to a random page, and do whatever the people in that book happened to be doing.

That struck me as cool, too. How many times did I wish I could find the secrets behind the secret staircase? or help Lord Percy escape Chauvelin? or be brave and wear mis-matched tights like Pippi? Oh, the memories!

What makes these two titles come together for me is that they share the power of books. They do it in different ways, because the audiences and purposes are different. Nevertheless, the result is the same …

Reading a book changes your life.

It is humanity’s greatest gift to be able to see the power of storytelling to pin down experience, to capture it, and render it timeless … I am certain [that reading] has the capacity to be exhilarating for every child, and [my goal is that] one day every child will be able to read to the point of transcendence. ~ Pam Allyn

What to Read When is a book for adults who are reading (or who want to read) with kids. Pam Allyn is the director of LitLife, an internationally recognized nonprofit for literacy, as well as founder of LitWorld, formerly known as Books for Boys. The book is designed – much like our beloved Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease – to encourage reading aloud. It is part guide, part cheerleader.

The background and how-to cover the first 50-odd pages. Pam talks about her own experiences as a reader, the keys to helping kids, and what to do when you don’t like to read. The next two sections (250 pages) offer lists of books. The first one is a list for the  “chronological when,” with recommendations sorted according to a child’s age, the way they learn at that age, and the kinds of things they like (e.g., toddler = silly). What I particularly loved is that the suggestions go beyond traditional books and include magazines, cookbooks, how-to books, too. The other list (part 3) is thematic. It covers 50 topics that answer your kids most common questions, allow you to offer life lessons you want them to have, or just “fit” your interests or mood.

So how does that fit with a middle grade novel? Well, Penelope “Penny” Grey is our role model of what happens when you read and explore books.  When we meet Penelope Geraldine Grey, she is already an accomplished reader. She defines and compares her own life by what she’s read in books. Because she started life with servants to do everything, and a private tutor, life beyond the Big House came to her from books. You get the sense that someone read to her as a child, but it’s not clear who.

Now ten, Penelope relies on those stories to help her know what to do in the “real world” and who to “be” in her everyday life. She even changes her name because of a book! During introductions, Penelope’s new friend Luella  says that “Penelope” doesn’t really fit her well. Penelope secretly agrees. When she discovers some penny dreadfuls – old serialized comic books – in her Great-Great-Great Aunt Betty’s house, she knew she had a new name!

Penny and Luella were instantly inseparable. In one of my favorite chapters, Luella and Penny can’t find anyone to play with, so they decide to read on the porch and drink lemonade. Penny ran to get her copy of Return to Gone-Away and Luella brought a pile of nonfiction books. Penny had never seen books like this. She thought nonfiction was the same thing as a textbook.

[Penny] stopped to stare at the pictures. “I usually read books about people who seem magical or different from me.”

Luella, who had been taking a quick peek at Penny’s book, held it up in the air. “You mean like this one about a girl who moves one summer from the city to the country and ends up in a weird old house hanging out with some oddball characters?” There was a tiny smile at the corner of her mouth as she waved the book at Penny. “Magical or different?”

“Oh,” said Penny. “Hmmm. I hadn’t thought about it quite like that.”

“Yeah,” said Luella with a laugh. “You should try reading nonfiction sometime. It’s more interesting. Less like real life!”

Penny laughed back. “Okay, let’s swap.”

The emphasis is mine … I just LOVE that line. And I love the cast of characters; not only Luella, Penny and her parents, but the other residents of Thrush Junction and the Whippoorwills, too. It’s like Mayberry meets The Wonder Years. Each person is unique without being cliche. Penny’s parents Dirk and Delia (who could probably benefit from reading Pam’s book, because they don’t seem to have time to read with Penny!) are quirky, but not the dolts or caricatures you often see in children’s books.

books for adults about literacyI highly recommend both books. Fans of Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook and his Treasury of Read Alouds, will find this a complementary, equally valuable volume. In making her recommendations for the 50 themes, Pam does an incredible job summarizing not only the topic but the individual books’ themes as well. Parents-to-be, new parents, teachers, librarians – essentially anyone interested in enriching a child’s life through literature – will find this a treasure trove of ideas. [Mine is covered in tags and highlighting.]

middle grade novel about growing up, community, and familyWith Penny Dreadful, Laurel Snyder has (to paraphrase Pam Allyn) “captured experience and rendered it timeless.” She has wrapped universal themes in individual characters and lets them tell their stories. Your kids will be able to read this on their own, one day, but this is a book to share together first. Reading aloud. Then it can become their friend … like all the best books do.

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