phd mama

from diapers to deconstruction

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Here Be Dragons

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Both of my children adore stories about mythical creatures; it’s part of their inheritance, right along with their dimples. Few such beasts are as impressive and breathtaking as dragons, and the list here showcases those creatures’ cunning as well as their sillier sides. These stories cross cultures to show different perspectives on dragons, who don’t always breathe fire and sometimes intertwine with saints’ tales. I will note that, despite my four-year-old’s love of dragons, I put few films on this list because of the intense images that so many of those movies contain. We stuck mostly to text, instead, where we relied on our imaginations, aided by timeless tales and exquisite illustrations, to bring these beasts to life.

  1. Day of the Dragon King by Mary Pope Osborne and Sal Murdocca
  2. Dragon of the Red Dawn by Mary Pope Osborne and Sal Murdocca
  3. The Dragons Are Singing Tonight by Jack Prelutsky and Peter Sis
  4. Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri
  5. The Dragon Snatcher by M. P. Robertson
  6. The Egg by M. P. Robertson
  7. Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light
  8. How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head by Bill Peet
  9. Watch How to Train Your Dragon
  10. Hush, Little Dragon by Boni Ashburn and Kelly Murphy
  11. Jin Jin the Dragon by Grace Chang and Chong Chang
  12. King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bentley and Helen Oxenbury
  13. The Knight and the Dragon by Tomie dePaola
  14. Me and My Dragon by David Biedrzycki
  15. Merlin and the Dragons by Jane Yolen and Li Ming
  16. No Dragons for Tea: Fire Safety for Kids (and Dragons) by Jean Pendziwol and Martine Gourbault
  17. Not Your Typical Dragon by Dan Bar-el and Tim Bowers
  18. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko
  19. The Popcorn Dragon by Jane Thayer and Lisa McGue
  20. Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman
  21. The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash and Lynn Munsinger
  22. There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon by Jack Kent
  23. Waking Dragons by Jane Yolen and Derek Anderson
  24. Where’s the Dragon? by Richard Hook and Jason Hook

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Early Reading Instruction

I decided that my older daughter was ready for more formal reading instruction when she started picking out common words in our stories and asking more questions about the texts themselves. She seemed to be initiating a move toward more independent reading, and I wanted to support and encourage her efforts appropriately. The resources I provide here represent what I found useful in helping my elder child start reading independently. I can imagine a different list of resources for a different child, but this post covers a lot of basic principles that early readers need to master in order to achieve independent literacy.

We started by building on PHONEMIC AWARENESS, the ability to isolate individual sounds within a word. Here’s what we used: Meet the Phonics! (Letter Sounds, Blends, and Digraphs) from the Preschool Prep Company. They can be played in full or broken in to lessons, and they helped my daughter connect her visual understanding of letters to the many sounds they can make, alone and in combinations. The animation is helpful and the sounds are instructive as well as cute.

From there, we moved to Meet the Sight Words! (also from the Preschool Prep Company). This series covered words commonly appearing in children’s picture books. Many of the words are not phonetic, so memorizing them as SIGHT WORDS (words that a reader recognizes instantly, by sight) is useful. The sheer volume of sight words also gave my daughter confidence that she could look at a page in her picture book and already know many of the words.

Once my daughter had a large repertoire of sight words, we worked on RHYMES. We made lists starting with a common sight word (like “at”) and added letters (“cat, bat, mat,” etc.). We practiced this with written lists and letter magnets, and I saw the way it built my daughter’s confidence to branch out from the sight words. It also gave us the chance to talk about words that contain sight words but change the sound (like “one, bone, gone”). Getting accustomed to those shifts takes awareness of the context and lots of repetition, just like so many other skills. For books that highlight rhymes and building on sight words, we turned to a lot of Dr. Seuss books, and the series of Bright and Early Books and Beginner Books.

Knowledge of sight words also helps with a skill I call CHUNKING, where my daughter can break up a longer, more daunting word into its parts. This works well for compound words (like “daytime”) and longer ones like “bringing” where she can sound out the digraph and the double “ing.” Strong readers always have multiple strategies for approaching a text, and phonemic awareness, sight words, chunking, and things like visual cues that children use even as pre-readers can work together to strengthen literacy skills. We used these skills at first with simple board books and books with only a few words (like Jez Alborough’s Hug, Tall, and Yes or Peggy Rathman’s classic Goodnight Gorilla). The idea of reading entire books on her own gave my daughter a sense of pride and accomplishment.

As she has advanced, we’ve worked with the I Can Read! Series that provides books at different levels depending on a reader’s ability, and my elder child especially likes the silliness of the Elephant and Piggie series, another great option for early readers. I also returned to a lot of board books that we haven’t read in years to balance books that push my daughter’s abilities and books that build her confidence. I encouraged her to sit down with copies of Little Bear and Frog and Toad, which we own in print and audio format; her task was to keep up with the audio version while following the printed text. Since she already has many of these stories memorized, the process reinforced the connection between phonemes and graphemes (the sound of the word and the written word); it also encourages FLUENCY, because she had to keep up with an expressive, experienced reader. We also love Barefoot Books story and CD combinations for the same emphasis on great stories with great storytelling for fluent, expressive reading. We also co-read with her and read aloud to her ourselves to demonstrate expression and fluency, not to mention our familial love of stories. We still regularly read aloud from books well beyond her own reading level (like chapter books) because, for most people, auditory comprehension is strongest and she can enjoy many levels of stories this way.

To further enhance the link between auditory language that she’s been learning since the womb and the world of print, we watched familiar movies with captions on. We also enjoyed Scholastic’s Storybook Treasures series that features a read along option, and lots of sing-alongs from Disney that show the word-by-word connections in some of their favorite songs. We have also co-written a lot of stories together, where my daughter dictates and I type, or she writes and draws. Using her own language and “publishing” her own books strengthens the relationship between her own reading, writing, and awareness of print.

For more information about the academic research behind a lot of these concepts, see Dr. Bonnie Armbruster’s “Research-Based Instruction in Reading.” As I write about this process, everything seems quite orderly and sequential, but I want to stress that learning to read is not always (or even often) linear and regularly involves doubling back. My daughter started to read long before we began working on phonemic awareness or even learning the alphabet, and her journey will continue long past sounding out words. My greatest desire is to instill in her a love of learning, to foster her creativity and curiosity, and to facilitate her entrance into worlds of wonder as she opens each book; this most recent adventure is one step along that path.

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A (Wolf)Pack of Stories


Recently, my younger child requested stories “where wolves wear clothes.” It’s one of the things I love about our wolf unit study—the way that fairy tales and folk tales intermingle with scientific accounts about these amazing creatures who, sometimes, wear clothes. We saw a wolf exhibit on a trip to the zoo, and both of my children loved climbing and exploring the nearby wolf den play area; wolves have always fascinated my girls, and we stand in a long tradition of awe for these creatures too often misunderstood and mistreated. In this list, the fairy tales, folk tales, and legends show different cultural perspectives on wolves, and the scientific reads illustrate the wolves’ own lives and habitats. Together, they form a fuller picture of a pack of animals who occupies our land, our history, and our imaginations.

  1. Beware of the Storybook Wolves by Lauren Child
  2. Big Wolf and Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme and Olivier Talec
  3. Dream Wolf by Paul Goble
  4. The Great Fairy Tale Disaster by David Conway and Melanie Williamson
  5. Little Red Riding Hood by Paul Galdone
  6. Nutik, the Wolf Pup by Jean Craighead George and Ted Rand
  7. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Peter and the Wolf
  8. Tell the Truth, B. B. Wolf by Judy Sierra and Otto Siebold
  9. There’s a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales by Zoë B. Alley and R.W. Alley
  10. The Three Little Pigs by Paul Galdone
  11. We Are Wolves by Molly Grooms and Lucia Guarnotta
  12. Wild, Wild Wolves by Joyce Milton and Larry Schwinger
  13. Wolf and the Seven Little Kids by Ann Blades
  14. Wolf Tales: Native American Children’s Stories edited by Mary Powell
  15. The Wolves Are Back by Jean Craighead George and Wendell Minor
  16. The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
  17. Wolves by Gail Gibbons
  18. Wolves by Emily Gravett
  19. Wolves by Laura Marsh
  20. Wolves by Seymour Simon

* For more fairy tale revision wolf stories, see my Reading Empathy post.

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So Many Cinderellas


My elder daughter has been going through something of a Cinderella phase, originating with a viewing of the 1950 Disney film (of course, right?). Her grandparents gave her a book derived from the movie, and then she chose another, nearly identical book version as a prize for the library’s summer reading program. Before we knew it, my husband and I were reading multiple versions of the same story every night at bedtime, so I decided to see how deeply we could immerse ourselves in Cinderella tales. The following list comprises the results of this experiment, divided into three categories: Cinderella-type stories from countries and cultures around the world to show its universal themes and particular variations; adaptations of the Perrault version that originated in 17th-century France and inspires the most popular retellings in this country (including Disney’s); and spoofs or spinoffs that change and challenge the perspective of the story or reinterpret its key characters and plot points. I think I could keep building this list ad infinitum, and while we still enjoy Disney’s Cinderella, these books have expanded and enhanced our understanding of a timeless tale that enchants us in all of its manifestations.


Cinderella around the World

Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story by Tomie de Paola

Angkat: The Cambodian Cinderella by Jewell Reinhart Coburn and Eddie Flotte

Ashpet: An Appalachian Tale by Joanne Compton and Kenn Compton

Anklet for a Princess: A Cinderella Story from India by Lila Mehta, Meredith Brucker, and Youshan Tang

Cendrillon: A Cajun Cinderella by Sheila Hébert Collins and Patrick Soper

Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella by Robert D. San Souci and Brian Pinkey

Fair, Brown & Trembling: An Irish Cinderella Story by Jude Daly

The Golden Sandal: A Middle-Eastern Cinderella by Rebecca Hickox and Will Hillenbrand

The Irish Cinderella by Shirley Climo and Loretta Krupinski

The Korean Cinderella by Shirley Climo and Ruth Heller

Little Gold Star: A Spanish-American Cinderella by Robert San Souci and Sergio Martinez

The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece by Anthony Manna, Christodoula Mitakidou, and Giselle Potter

The Persian Cinderella by Shirley Climo and Robert Florczak

The Rough-Faced Girl by Rafe Martin and David Shannon

The Salmon Princess: An Alaska Cinderella Story by Mindy Dwyer

Sootface: An Ojibwa Cinderella Story by Robert D. San Souci and Daniel San Souci

Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella by Alan Schroeder and Brad Sneed

The Way Meat Loves Salt: A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish Tradition by Nina Jaffe and Louise August

Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China by Ai-Ling Louis and Ed Young


Perrault Revisions

Cinderella by Marcia Brown

Cinderella by K. Y. Craft

Cinderella by Max Eilenberg and Niamh Sharkey

Cinderella by Paul Galdone

Cinderella by Barbara McClintock

Hilary Knight’s Cinderella by Hilary Knight

James Marshall’s Cinderella by Barbara Karlin and James Marshall


Cinderella Spoofs and Spinoffs

Belinda and the Glass Slipper by Amy Young

Bigfoot Cinderrrrrella by Tony Johnston and James Warhola

Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson and Kevin O’Malley

Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story by Lynn Roberts

Cinderella’s Rat by Susan Meddaugh

Cinderella Skeleton by Robert D. San Souci and David Catrow

Cindy Ellen: A Wild Western Cinderella by Susan Lowell and Jane Manning

Dear Cinderella by Marian Moore, Mary Jane Kensington, and Julie Olsen

Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz-Age Cinderella by Shirley Hughes

Penguin Cinderella, or The Little Glass Flipper by Janet Perlman

Prince Cinders by Babette Cole

Seriously, Cinderella is SO ANNOYING by Trisha Speed Shaskan and Gerlad Guerlais

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In Defense of Libraries

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(This image courtesy of Carolina Weick’s Walk With Me Photography)

Last week in The Guardian, author Terry Deary made the controversial claim that libraries foster “this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.” Citing the ideas behind libraries as “no longer relevant,” Deary has been roundly chastised (most notably by fellow best-selling author Neil Gaiman) for his position. While I understand Deary’s concerns about artistic integrity and making a living off of his creative work, I find his position on libraries fundamentally flawed (not least because tax dollars go to libraries as well as to schools). Here’s why:

  1. Collections don’t build themselves.

Working with a budget as well as an area of expertise and extensive reading, librarians don’t just buy books. They build collections. They read and research widely to keep apace with the publishing industry and to find the best and most relevant books for their patrons. In doing so, librarians foster quality, breadth, and depth in the reading lives of their communities.

  1. It goes beyond books.

Deary compares his work to film, arguing that audiences will pay for movie tickets but not for books. That’s simply untrue. Libraries circulate books, audio-books, movies, music, e-readers, magazines, language-learning software, video games, etc.; libraries provide newspapers to peruse on site. One library even circulates a notoriously popular (and pricey) American Girl doll to children who could never afford to purchase it. If we read only what we can afford to purchase, all of us will be reading less.

  1. Perusal precedes purchase.

Deary also assumes that people who borrow library books would purchase said books if libraries did not exist. One needs only to look at the music industry and the Napster controversy to see that audiences will access a lot of things for free that we would never be willing to pay for. Oftentimes libraries provide a point of first contact, where patrons learn about (and, yes, borrow) books to find out if we like them enough to buy them.

  1. Behold, the digital divide.

Compulsory schooling may provide exposure to literature, but the years of mandatory public education are limited. Before, during, and beyond those years, libraries give access to books, other media, and technology. For many users, public library computers offer internet and computer access that is only becoming more essential in the 21st century.

  1. Digital natives get lost.

Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson reports that while younger generations may feel most comfortable using technology, their skills are basic and limited; where information abounds, they lack the ability to find credible information. Librarians help train patrons in fundamental computer skills as well as more advanced research strategies. Freely available information is useless without the proficiency to find it, analyze it, and put it in context. That’s just one way librarians help.

  1. Community matters.

My local library offers preschool story hours, after-school craft programs, children’s play spaces, crafting groups, book clubs, art classes, art exhibits, exercise classes, public speakers, movie nights, book sales, craft fairs, and more. These are the official programs, beyond the friends and neighbors who meet up to enjoy and appreciate the library as a community center—for the books and so much more. Libraries are inter-generational, cultural, educational hubs.

  1. Diversity counts.

I have spent much of my life in public libraries, as a student, a teacher, a tutor, a mother, and, above all, a reader. I’ve used libraries as tutoring spaces for learners with developmental disabilities, adults learning to read long after their schooling years, and children struggling in the classroom. Libraries give all of those groups, and everyone in between, safe spaces to explore books and learn at their own pace. Libraries honor all reading levels and supply materials like large-print books, multi-lingual texts, and audiobooks so everyone can be included.

Libraries go beyond books, and I say that as someone whose love affair with books is nearly boundless. I even like the way old books smell. Libraries are about books, yes, and also technology, research, equality, accessibility, and community. Libraries are about librarians and patrons and communities in relationship. In a time when more individuals are struggling financially, it makes sense not to condemn libraries but to support them as lifelines for entire communities—a way to pool our resources for the collective good: educationally, culturally, socially, technologically, and relationally. And despite what Terry Deary might say, those relationships are priceless.

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Reading Empathy

There are many reasons to read; typically, literacy education emphasizes young children learning to read so that later in their scholastic careers they can read to learn. Information retrieval is a significant feat, and one, it turns out, that most students aren’t that good at. I think reading for pleasure—or, more to the point—joy, is at least as important as reading for fact-finding.

It turns out that reading fiction in particular can also develop audiences’ empathy. Dr. Keith Oatley finds that the more readers are moved by fictional characters, the more those same readers are likely to help others in the real world. I’m not surprised by his results, since fiction helps transport us to other cultures and often, through narrative choices, gives us the perspective of characters we’d otherwise never encounter.

In response to Oatley’s study, I’ve devised some interesting reading experiments for my preschooler. We start with a fairytale or folktale in an “authoritative” edition (though by no means does that mean that the story is without history or history of revisions) and then read multiple revisions of the same story. So, one trajectory looks something like this:

  1. Read Paul Galdone’s The Three Little Pigs, in which a mother pig sends her offspring out into the world and only the clever piglet survives the wily wolf.
  2. Read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith. Here, a genteel wolf explains that the classic folktale is really a colossal misunderstanding. In his defense, it all started with granny’s birthday cake.
  3. Read The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury. The title makes the role reversal clear here, but the ending provides less trickery, less conspiracy theorizing, and more compassion. These wolves are serious about security, and they’re imaginative builders too.
  4. Read Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls for a loosely-inspired (if that) but excellent story about a girl and a pig puppet who outsmart a houseful of wolves.
  5. Watch Silly Symphony’s “The Three Little Pigs” for a distinctly historicized glimpse of Walt Disney cartoons from the 1930’s. Using music to propel the narrative and provide characterization, this story provides a less fatal but perhaps more cruel rendition of the classic tale.
  6. Listen to Lucienne Vernay’s song “Le Grand Méchant Loup,” which provides a French version of the little pigs’ story. Her music is charming, vibrant, and memorable—and it illustrates how this story, like so many, changes in each retelling.

These stories can inspire empathy, evoke joy, and change us in each retelling, too. By highlighting narrative shifts in perspective, this experiment allows readers to see each character in multiple ways. It reminds us that there’s more than one side to every story, that stories and their characters are complex, and that sometimes, perspective is everything.

Follow me! @ErinWyble