A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mrs. Dittmer's Summer Reading List

(Above: Mrs. Dittmer)

Of all the columns I write each year, none is anticipated so eagerly by my readers as the annual Mrs. Dittmer's Summer Reading List.
Mrs. Dittmer is Helen Dittmer, the librarian at Redwood Day School in Oakland.
For two decades, she has made a more profound difference in many people's lives than any other teacher they ever had, including high school, college and grad school.
Many of them still go back to her for help with their research assignments, long after they graduated from Redwood.
She tries to know each child personally, so she can recommend books they'll like. And, when necessary, she'll also recommend a book they need.
For instance, if your parents are getting divorced, she might recommend "Charlotte's Web," so you'll learn that people don't stop loving you just because you're separated from them.
If it's your first day of school and you're worried about making friends, she might suggest "Amos and Boris" by William Steig, about a mouse and a whale who become close friends despite their obvious differences.
When Mrs. Dittmer reads aloud to the kids you can hear a pin drop. They hang on every word - partly because she chooses great stories, but also because she acts out all the characters in their own voices.
Elise Gonzalez, now a junior in college, remembers how her parents would drop her off an hour before school started, as many working parents have to do. She'd make a beeline for the library, along with about a dozen other kids in the same situation.
"Mrs. Dittmer would hand out knitting needles, and all of us – boys as well as girls – would sit around her on the floor, knitting away, while she read to us," she said. "It was a really fun way to start the day."
I've talked to many, many Redwood grads, and they all told me the same thing: They all carry a book with them wherever they go, they all read like crazy, and they all say it's due to Mrs. Dittmer.
All of them are happy that I'm writing this column. More than one said, "She's so modest, it's about time she got some recognition."
In fact, there's only one person who isn't thrilled – Mrs. Dittmer, of course.
One day, I stumbled on something about her that 99 percent of the people at Redwood don't know: She has a PhD in Russian history.
I called her up and said, "Mrs. Dittmer, you've been holding out on me. You have a PhD."
"Do you have to print that?" she said. "I don't want this to be about me; I want it to be about the school."
That's Mrs. Dittmer in a nutshell.
But she would be the first to say that even the best stories have to come to an end, and it's my sad duty to report that she is retiring. Typically, she's already been training her successor.
"Redwood will get along just fine without me," she says, but the truth is that she is irreplaceable.
But she's left us with one final summer reading list, and it's her best yet.
And here it is:


"Yoko Writes Her Name" by Rosemary Wells
When Yoko entered kindergarten she knew how to write her name in Japanese but not in English. Two students teased her and warned that she’d never graduate from kindergarten at that rate. Yoko felt such a failure that she hid under the tale. Her classmate, Angela, found her and wanted to learn how to write his name in Japanese. If she would teach him Japanese characters he would teach her English letters. From that moment on, Yoko gained confidence and found her place in the class.

"One" by Kathryn Otoshi
In this title, Otoshi takes aim at the subject of bullying, using colors as characters. Blue was a quiet color and he had friends: yellow, who was sunny; green, who was bright; and so on. But red always picked on blue and made him miserable. Red bullied the other colors into silence, which made things worse. Finally one day the number one appeared and stood up for blue, which gave courage to the other colors to do the same, and at that moment the atmosphere for everyone improved one hundred per cent.

First Grade:

"Willow" by Denise Brennan-Nelson and Rosemarie Brennan
Young Willow goes to her art class and encounters a teacher who believes that she alone knows the right way to draw and the students must emulate her. The students follow directions and they all produce the same tree - all except Willow, who creates a tree as she imagines it. The class paints an apple and again everyone’s apples are the same except for Willow’s, for she imagines a blue apple. A clash of personalities between student and her teacher is inevitable.

"Bugs In My Hair" by Catherine Stier
Here’s perfectly groomed Ellie, who goes to the school office to talk to the nurse about her itchy hair and finds to her horror that she has head lice. How awful! How humiliating! How shameful! But Ellie and her mother become much calmer and smarter as they learn about lice and the methods for dealing with them. The author offers humor and information to deal with what could be an embarrassing situation.

2nd Grade

"Library Lion" by Michelle Knudsen
When a lion enters the local public library no one knows what to do. There seem to be no rules excluding the lion, and he was actually on his best behavior. He particularly enjoyed story hour, and once he understood the rules the lion helped the librarian. He dusted, he licked envelopes for the mail room, and when an accident occurred he became a library hero!

"Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai" by Claire A. Nivola
Wangari Maathai grew up in the highlands of Kenya, where she developed a love and respect for the beautiful land she called home. When Maathai finished her education in America, she returned to Kenya and found that the landscape had been transformed. The hills were dry, streams no longer flowed with water and fish, trees had been chopped down and the individual farmily farms that had sustained the people were gradually disappearing. replaced by corporate farms that produced goods for export. Wangari set out to restore an environment that could feed the population.

3rd Grade:

"Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom" by Tim Tingle
Back in he 1830s, a young Choctaw girl does the forbidden - she crosses the river Bok Chitto from Choctow territory onto slave land to find blackberries for her mother’s cooking. She finds the berries but gets lost on her way home. She wanders onto the slave plantation, where she encounters a church service and then a man who has his grandson, little Mo, take her back to the river. But the boy is worried. Slave owners have threatened to punish all the family of anyone who is seen near the river. The grandfather says, "there is a way to move amongst them where they won’t even notice you: You move not too fast and not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go.“ This is the beginning of a story of friendship and of freedom.

"Ivy And Bean" by Annie Barrows
This is the first of a delightful series (five books have been published thus far) about Ivy, who moves in across the street from fun-loving, mischievous Bean. Bean knows she’ll never be friends with quiet, bookish Ivy; but of course you know about how first impressions can be misleading, and in this book they definitely are. Bean gets herself into a “situation,” and Ivy comes to her aid, and soon Bean discovers that far from being dull, Ivy, the reserved shy girl wants to become a witch. And this is only the beginning.

4th grade:

"How To Steal A Dog" by Barbara O’Connor
Georgina Haynes faces a dismal family situation. Her father left home, and the remaining family members - mother, brother and Georgina - have been evicted and are living in the family car. Georgina is desperate to help her mother and decides the way out is to steal a rich person’s dog and then collect the money when a reward is offered. But our heroine is confronted with the fact that all her planning has been a waste of time. The dog’s owner, who she thought looked wealthy, has no money!

"Each Little Bird That Sings" by Deborah Wildes
Meet ten-year-old Comfort Snowberger and her family. The Snowbergers have owned the funeral parlor in their town for decades, and Comfort has attended 246 funerals. She works with her brother Tidings, her dog Dismay and her parents to make funerals both dignified and beautiful for the community. But she runs into a major challenge when her cousin, Peach, who is afraid of death (and all too ready to express his feelings in public) ruins Great Aunt Florentine’s funeral as well as Comfort's friendship with her friend, Declaration. This is a story about how messy life can be and how the Snowbergers accept the mess with understanding and love.

5th grade:

"We Are The Shop: The Story or Negro League Baseball" by Kadir Nelson
Kadir has brought together in this book the history of and the heroes of Negro League Baseball. Once the sport was developed in the late nineteenth century, it quickly gained nation-wide popularity. Though African Americans were excluded from the major leagues, Rube Foster - along with many players - created their own league. Kadir describes the conditions players in the Negro League faced: the inadequate equipment, the terrible umpires and rampant segregation. Despite constant hardships and harassment, fabulous baseball emerged, led by players like Josh Gibson, Grant “Home Run” Johnson and William Julius “Judy” Johnson.

"Emmy and The Incredible Shrinking Rat" by Lynne Jonell
Emmy is a good girl with a big problem. She’s working hard in school to get A’s, she eats her vegetables and does all the chores her tyrannical nanny assigns her. She hopes in this way to please her parents, who are always traveling and barely notice her when they are at home. None of these maneuvers seem to have any effect and at school the way the teacher acts and the way students treat her, she might as well be invisible. What is happening? What has she done wrong?

6th grade:

"The Road to Paris" by Nikki Grimes
Beautifully written, this book describes the plight of a young African American girl named Paris and her older brother, Malcolm, who are abandoned by their mother. The children are first put in foster care with the Boone family, where they are mistreated and finally run away. Family Protective Services then splits the pair up, with Paris going to the Lincoln family and Malcolm going who knows where. Paris isn’t told. The Lincoln family turns out to be a blessing. They are kind and thoughtful, they know how to give Paris space for herself, and they nurture her. Even the two Lincoln boys take to her. But just as Paris becomes comfortable, her birth mother returns to claim her.

"Emma Lazarus Fell Out Of A Tree" by Lauren Tarshis
Emma Jean is a smart 7th grader who tries to be a rational thinker while her classmates act illogically and emotionally. Students are often mean and tease one another for no reason, so Emma prefers to keep her distance. But one day she heads for the girls bathroom and finds a classmate, Colleen, sobbing into the sink. And why is she crying? Her best friend has ignored Colleen and invited another seventh grader to go skiing with her. Emma Jean wants to help Colleen and so she gets involved, a most irrational decision on her part.

7th Grade:

"Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman
Imagine a family of four sitting comfortably at home when suddenly a man, “Jack” invades the premises, kills both parents and the seven-year old child. The three-year-old boy manages to escape. He heads for a nearby cemetery and is discovered by the Owen family, two ghosts who are buried there. They and the rest of the ghost community decide to raise the boy and give him the name, “Nobody Owen” - Bod for short. Bod manages to acquire some ghostly talents. He ventures beyond the cemetery to see what life in the outside world is like - not a good idea, for he is ill equipped to deal with the real world. Meanwhile, in the background is “Jack,” the man who murdered his family and is still determined to kill him.

"Ties That Bind, Ties That Break: A Novel" by Lensie Namioka
The time is 1911; the place is China. The main character, Ailin, is about to marry the son of an upper class family, but she protests loudly and vigorously about having her feet bound, a common tradition for the Chinese elite but one that seems brutal and senseless to Ailin. So Ailin loses her chance at this marriage because of her obstinacy, and her family warns her that she has ruined her life and caused them shame beyond repair.

8th grade:

"Trouble" by Gary Scmidt,
In this novel, a young teenager (perhaps 14-years-old) deals with loss, grief and prejudice. Henry Smith, had a father who always said, “If you build your house far enough away from trouble, then trouble will never find you.” This book is proof that the adage is wrong. Henry and his older brother, Franklin, are students at a very upscale private school and seem safe from the insecurities that hover over most of us. One night, Franklin was riding with friends in a car when Chay Choun, a Cambodian immigrant, hits Franklin's car and leaves him hospitalized in critical condition. The Smith family is in shock, the town is infuriated and uses the accident to attack the Cambodian community. How can Henry handle his grief? How can Chay Choun deal with his guilt?

"The Boy In the Striped Pajamas" by John Boyne
Nine-year-old Bruno and his family lived in Berlin until 1941, when his father was appointed commandant at a place Bruno calls “outwith.” (Auschwitz). The famly moves from an elegant place in Berlin to a smaller and more ordinary house in “outwith,” and the children (Bruno has a sister) get no explanation of where they’re going. There is a barbed wire fence separating the family home from a bleak area filled with ramshackle huts, and smoke stacks and thousands of people wearing striped pajamas. Bruno wants to go and explore, but his parents have made it clear that such activity is forbidden. But what’s a nine-year-old to do for adventure? He goes exploring anyway.

Thank you, Mrs. Dittmer.