As a blogger/reviewer/librarian, I get my share of form e-mails sent by publicists trying to sound personal. Earlier this week I got one from a "local teacher" who thought I should order this great poetry book that all the teachers in her school loved. Here's the thing - while I don't know every teacher in the district, I do know a lot of them, and I know how to Google. No teachers in this district by that name...BUT, the same publishing company has a book they are promoting whose main character has that exact name...and someone with that name has been writing glowing reviews of that publisher's books.
So, no, I won't be buying that particular paperback poetry collection.
On the other hand, a few weeks ago I received an e-mail that started like this:
"Are you the Ami that does, "A Mom's Spare Time?" I wasn't able to find an e-mail address for you on your website, but a quick search for a librarian in New Mexico with the name "Ami" turned you up! "
Huh...I don't think this was a form letter.
It was, in fact, a very nice e-mail from a very nice lady named Becky, who happens to be the Executive Assistant to Eric Litwin - yes, the author of the four original Pete the Cat books - that Eric Litwin!
She wanted to let me know about the new series he has out, The Nut Family, and wondered if I might be interested in interviewing him.
Well, let me just think about that for approximately .2 seconds.
Teachers and librarians have loved Pete the Cat since he was first self-published by Litwin and illustrator James Dean.
The call-and-response, easy sing-along lines, and humor make the first four books great read-alouds - and adults get a kick out of lines like, "No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song...because its all good."
The critics? The big name reviewers? Hated it. From School Library Journal: "there's not much here to get excited about." From Kirkus: "awfully hard to relate to."
Fortunately, children don't read Kirkus or SLJ. Neither do many bloggers, myself included. The Pete the Cat books authored by Litwin have received an impressive 18 awards for literacy between them, and - this part makes me giggle - not long after that terrible review from SLJ, I Love My White Shoes was named #20 on SLJ's Top 100 Picture Books.
I was sad when the authorship changed, and remember reading something about Litwin being a musician - I assumed he had gone off to pursue a career in music instead. This brings us back to that e-mail from the nice lady named Becky, and why it took me only .2 seconds to type back a resounding "YES!!!"
In the first book of his new series, Bedtime at the Nut House, we meet Mama, Wally and Hazel Nut.
Mama says it's time for bed, but Wally and Hazel would rather play, jumping on their trampraline (yes, the puns are everywhere), or going down the slide from their window to a giant ball pit. (Note to self: install slide and ball pit soon, because that looks like loads of fun.) Bedtime struggles are pretty universal - my kids are masters at the art of stalling - so I don't think anyone will be able to say these are hard to relate to.
Much like the original Pete the Cat books, we have repeating lines (Then Big Mama Nut in her Mama voice said, "all little nuts need to go off to bed!") that will have kids in a story time automatically 'reading' along. My kids love books like this at home as well, because they increase their confidence in their own reading skills - and that is exactly what Litwin is going for.
"Everything I do is done with an intention," he told me. As a teacher, Litwin was dismayed to see students react to a new book, or to learning to read, with very little enthusiasm. They were frustrated, and many already felt like reading was something they just couldn't do.
He sees an over-reliance on limited methods as part of the problem. "For many years, our toolbox has had two tools in it: sight word recognition and phonetic awareness." Those are good tools, he says, but compares it to thinking we can fix everything with just a hammer and a screwdriver. Children also learn to read through prediction, rhyme, rhythm. He incorporates all of those things into his books, and while he says getting good reviews and selling a lot of books is nice, it is more important to him that they become a staple in the classrooms.
I have to admit, I was excited to hear him say all this. In our college education classes (and Litwin has a Masters degree in education), we learn that all of these things are important to reading development. Google "Pre Reading Skills", and it's right there. Children's books need to be more than just putting some silly words with brightly colored pictures, and story time is more than just sitting in front of a group of kids, reading a book out loud. Teachers know it, librarians know it, parents know it. Publishers...well, we're going to say that someone at both Scholastic and Little, Brown knows it, because they were smart enough to snap Litwin up!
If you look at the covers of Litwin's books, you'll see that they all have a note such as "link to downloadable song". He says, "I found that my students learned to read more effectively when my content/books had music and was engaging. So I set out to create books where music and literacy come together."
That makes sense. I still know my different types of dinosaurs thanks to the songs I learned in Barb Smith's 4th grade class...um...several years ago. Songs are catchy. Songs are fun. Songs have rhythm and rhyme, which help with both reading AND math skills. Why don't we use music more than we do? Okay, why don't "I" use music more than I do? Is it because I can't sing? (I really can't). Kids don't care! Any of Litwin's books can be read straight through, but they are so much more fun sung. You can make up your own tunes, or hear any of them on his web site. I have a two word warning for you, though:
These songs are so catchy and rhythmic and fun, they will stay in your head all. day. long. Ohmigosh, what an idea - teaching kids in a way that sticks with them! We read I Love My White Shoes in story time last week, and all weekend I caught myself putting everything to the same tune. "I love my chocolate...I love my chocolate..." Awesome, I'm practicing reading skills myself! Then I listened to the first Nut Family book on line, and was dancing the 1-year-old around, singing, "You're nuts! You're nuts! You're nuts! You're nuts!" Those pale in comparison, however, to Litwin's latest...
The book isn't even out yet, and my kids already know the song. It's fun, it's catchy, and it is never going to leave my head.
I did get a preview of the text yesterday (okay, you know it's going to be a good day when an author is reading his newest, unreleased book to you over the phone). It's a great simple story, just as universal in theme as the bedtime struggle. And look at the cover. There's a disco ball. And a downloadable disco dance. Do I really need to go on?
Of course I do, because there's also a contest!
Hazel Nut wants to sing and dance, but everyone is too busy to join her. Super-hip, disco dancing Grandma Nut to the rescue! Soon everyone can't help but join in...and you can, too!
Litwin and his team are inviting anyone, young or old, alone or in a crowd of a thousand, to submit a video of themselves doing the Polka Dot Pants Dance. Full contest information can be found here. You can also find the (super easy) movements to the dance at that web site, or Litwin says you can make up your own. Personally, I think the disco point is a must, though!
If you are local, I have even better news for you: a gentleman with a bit more technological know-how than I have has agreed to help us put together a video here at the library! Just check out the moves online, then show up here at 10:00 AM Saturday, September 26. Wear polka-dots or bright colors, and be ready to get your groove on!
Possible prizes include:
If you would like to pre-order the second book (or order the first), check out this link. In the meantime, check back here on Tuesday, September 22 for more from my interview with Litwin, more on what he has coming up, and another contest you can enter!