Monday, July 9, 2012

It's ALIVE! It's Alive?!?

For my guest post this week, I reached out to Evelyn Tan-Rogers, who actually is the first person that left a comment in this blog when I started years ago! :) Evelyn was a regular reader at my brother's blog (now defunct) and I connected with her through a Facebook group and subsequently did a guest post for her on my rocky start into motherhood. :)

In this post, I got to chat a bit more with Evelyn and find out her thoughts on LIVING BOOKS! What exactly are they? Read on to find out more!

1) First, tell us a bit about yourself.

Hi everyone! I'm a stay-home mom (of two) who writes and tutors on the side. I've been a music journalist, and I've worked in advertising and custom publishing. Dealing with text is so much a part of my life, and I knew that once I became a mom, I was going to be quite particular about what my kids were reading. I was right about that!

2) Many parents are keen to read to their children. What would you consider to be a "good book?"

Well a good book, like a good movie, can teach you something new, make you laugh and cry, and give you something to think about. That's quite a feat for a kid's book, considering that these authors have to make do with fewer pages and words! Some parents look for books that will reinforce their values, but for me, I like books that show us how the world doesn't operate in black and white. So yes, I wouldn't hesitate to let my kids read a story set against a backdrop of war or racial discrimination, or one that doesn't have a happy ending. But this is a personal choice, and if you like books enough, you will definitely have your preferences.

3) I read a short piece you wrote where you talked about "living books." What are living books and how are they different from regular books?

I discovered the term "living books" while reading a local homeschooling parent's blog, and by checking out the books that she talked about, I soon began to see what she was referring to. "Living books" are essentially soulful books, written by someone who is passionate about his subject and takes care to craft his writing by choosing the best words to get his message across, instead of say, reaching for the easy cliche. Dry books (or books written without emotion) such as readers, encyclopedias, and fact books wouldn't fall under the "living books" category. Books lacking in literary quality (yes this is subjective), such as the True Singapore Ghost Stories series, wouldn't qualify either. But it's really up to you to make your own rules as you go along. I think that many homeschoolers who subscribe to the "living books" philosophy tend to favour the classics over modern literature but I'm just the opposite—I love everything modern!

To me, the coolest thing about a book that "lives" is how it can make you fall in love with something that you never expected to even feel anything for prior to reading the book. Just to give you an example: I would consider all of Eric Carle's books "living books," and in one of his books, Mister Seahorse, we read about a Mr. Tilapia, who held little baby eggs in his mouth because he was taking "good care of them" until they hatched. This was some years ago, but I remembered that shortly after we read Mister Seahorse, I spotted an article in the paper about environmental service workers finding dozens of dead tilapia in a canal, and I actually felt a bit sad! I mean, I'm not the sort of person who would normally have feelings for random fish! So there you go, books that are written with passion can change your life, and kid lit is no different.

4) Is your daughter still reading such books now?

Actually, a couple of years ago, I was buying my daughter books that were pitched several years above her age. I figured it didn't matter since I was the one reading them to her, and she could usually understand the gist of a story even if she was too young to grasp the subtext. Now that she's five going on six, she can finally read most of these books on her own, and I don't buy as many books as I used to. The next big leap for us is the transition to pictureless books. Maybe I'm the one who can't bear to leave the pictures behind; I'm going slow on this, but I've already bought my daughter one of my favourite books from when I was a kid, Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Beezus.

5) Where should parents go to for a list of living books?

I've never consulted magazines or blogs for book lists. There are just too many out there! There are actually two prestigious awards for kids' books known as the Caldecott Medal and the Caldecott Honor. I guess you could say this was the kid lit version of the Academy Awards! It's actually an award for illustration, but I've checked out a lot of the winners and the writing is superb as well. You can view a list of the winners (from 1938 to present!) here.

Of course, there will be the odd book on the list that will leave you scratching your head and wondering why it's an award winner. Don't be swayed by the medal; just use your discretion. The Caldecott list is the only list I've ever needed, but if you need more ideas, you could try Ambleside Online, which has booklists categorised by age/school year; these lists are used by homeschooling parents in the US. We've also discovered some great stories off our Scholastic Storybook Treasures DVD series, which contains 100 stories in video form.

6) Do you have any recommendations for under-3s, 3-5YOs, and kids above 5?

Some of the parents I've hung around have liked the Before Five In A Row booklist for kids aged 2-4, and the Five In A Row booklist for kids aged 4-8. It's known as BFIAR/FIAR in the homeschooling circles, and the books on the lists tie in to a curriculum that covers a variety of subjects. Over in my home, we read just to read (i.e. for fun!), so I didn't purchase the learning guides developed by the people behind these lists. Many of the books on the lists are Caldecott winners, by the way! If you're intending to do read-alouds frequently, I would say skip the baby board books (or don't stock up on too many) and start building your collection with books that have an actual storyline.

7) Are there books that parents should avoid?

Yes, books that you feel are badly written, or books that promote values that aren't in line with your own. For me, bad writing is uninventive writing, like what you might find in a book of model compositions. As a writing tutor, I'm dismayed to realise that parents are still buying such books for their kids, and worse, making their kids memorise the stories!

8) Any final tips?

Buy books you love, not books that someone else says you should love. Also, not all books are suited for read-alouds; if you are buying them primarily for that purpose you might want to do a test run beforehand. (Not all of us can read poetry or rhymes out loud and do it well, for instance.) And finally, you can build an impressive library for your kids on a budget by heading to the annual library booksale, or looking out for budget bookstore sale events in shopping malls. If you've ever seen a $5 for 3 yellow sale sign, that's from Evernew Bookstore, the discount bookstore that all local bargain hunters love! I've bought many good books from such sales.

Evelyn Tan-Rogers is a freelance editor and a writing tutor. She has two kids, aged six and 10 months, and is a firm believer that life after kids is pretty exciting. Since becoming a mom, she has played rhythm guitar in a garage rock band and set up her own party photography business.

She blogs about her life and inspirations at


  1. I would really love to hear some of Evelyn's fav modern lit authors for children, apart from Eric Carle. Would it be possible to channel the question to her?

  2. Hi Elaine!

    Am sure Evelyn will pop on by and reply to this. Will send her a note too! :)

  3. Hi Elaine! Thanks for reading!

    Some of our favourite authors write about real-life events and people:

    * Mordicai Gerstein--The Man Who Walked Between The Towers, about the tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and What Charlie Heard, based on the life of composer Charles Ives. I liked that these two books featured dreamers who weren't really understood by their peers.

    * Laurence Anholt--he's written a series of books based on artists' lives. His stories focus on a friendship/relationship between the artist and a child (or young person).

    * Carole Boston Weatherford--I love her story about Harriet Tubman (a runaway slave who led others to freedom), which is framed as an imaginary conversation between her and God. Honestly it's one of the best kiddy books on faith and courage that I've ever read.

    That said, we also like fiction and these are some of our faves:

    * William Steig, because he's funny
    ! (Shrek, Dr De Soto)

    * Vera B Williams. Love her books about Rosa, a girl who doesn't have a lot of money (or a dad, seemingly). Sounds bleak, but the stories are really positive. (A Chair For My Mother, Music Music For Everyone)

    * Marjorie Priceman--love her for her sense of whimsy. (try It's Me Marva, A Story About Colors and Optical Illusions.)

    * Simms Taback--love his illustrations, and the humour in his Yiddish folktales.

    * Uri Shulevitz--I'm a sucker for bittersweet stories, and that's what this author serves up. (How I Learned Geography, Toddlecreek Post Office)

    * Mike Thaler--this is my kid's pick, she's hooked on his Black Lagoon series! Basically it's about kids facing new situations (e.g. first day of school) and imagining the worst (monsters!). But by the end of the book, they would've realised that their fears are unfounded.

    We haven't really gone into poetry yet but here's an author we like:

    Carol Ann Duffy (

    For science, we like the Backyard Books series, as well as books by Dianna Hutts Aston (An Egg Is Quiet, A Seed Is Sleepy).

    For others who're popping in, please share your favourites too!

  4. Wow, more books to check out! Thanks E for the list of reads, and thanks Alicia for featuring all these great guest posts! :)

  5. Thanks Evelyn... you've got a few of my fav ones too like Vera B Williams and Marjorie Priceman. Ha.. we do read modern works after all.
    I love most of Uri Shulevitz's, including How I Learned Geo. I never did consider her works modern though... :P I love Dawn and Rain Rain Rivers. Beautifully written.
    I've read about Carole Weatherford... planning to get her books when my kids are a little older. Theme's too mature for a tender age I find.
    I'll check out the other few authors that you've mentioned Thanks...

  6. Btw, Evelyn, do you read Joyce Sidman? I love her poems... simple, beautiful and easily grasped by the young ones. We love her Red Sings from the Treetops. One of the few books that I'm happy to buy and keep after reading the borrowed copy. :)

    I think I read more classics than modern. But a recent fav is Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. We also love Sarah Stewart. I guess these authors don't write modern works but they write beautiful living books. :) Another long time fav of mine's Patricia Polacco.

    I'm into Jonathan London and Jim Arnosky for books on nature.

  7. Hey thanks for the book recommendations! We have Sarah Stewart's The Journey, which I bought on sale. Love that!

    Will definitely check out the authors you've mentioned, I think I'll like them too! And I'll look for you on the homeschool group, we should meet up and talk about our books! :)


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