Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Author Interview: Shelley Harwayne

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the upcoming professional book by Shelley Harwayne called LOOK WHO'S LEARNING TO READ. This is a great resource for preschool teachers, childcare providers, parents, and grandparents. This book is due out in July. As I was looking at it again today, I realized that it stretches far beyond preschool and Kindergarten. I found lots of fun things I can revise a bit for older kids--in homes, classrooms, libraries, etc. By far, its main audience is parents and early childhood teachers but so much that can be used beyond age 5 or 6.

For those of you who know Shelley, she has always stayed strong in her beliefs about children and literacy. In her introduction to the book, Shelley lets us in on the principles that she honors as she works with children. Some of my favorites include:

*Children need choice. They love to be part of making decisions.
*Children deserve the finest literature. We need to be fussy about the books we borrow or buy for them.
*Children need to laugh every day. And their silly sense of humor often differs from ours.
*Children need to know that we think they are clever when they ask questions, not simply when they answer questions.

I am thrilled that Shelley has taken on early childhood education. This book is a huge contribution to the field. We spent some time interviewing her about her book. As always, Shelley gives us lots to think about.

Franki: Tell us how you've become so interested in early childhood literacy.

Shelley: I didn't choose early childhood literacy as an area of interest. It chose me! What with 5 grandchildren in my care, how could I not be fascinated by their entrance into the world of literacy? They teach me new things about language acquisition and literacy learning everyday.
Franki: One of my favorite things was the list of principles you stick to when thinking about children. Can you tell us about the basic principles that you believe are important for children.

Shelley: As to the list of principles, I will address them one by one. Children need choice: It's interesting to me that when there is a moment of stress with the little ones, I can usually make that go away by giving them a choice.So if Zach wants Ben's toys, I simply ask, " What would you rather do, play with Ben's helicopter or do a puzzle with Grandma?" He usually chooses the latter and if he does choose Ben's toy, we usually engage in a lovely conversation about why the helicopter is so much fun." Partly the distraction calms him, but also it's making him feel that he is part of the decision-making in the family. "So the helicopter moves so fast, it's no wonder you want a turn. When Ben finishes playing with it, it will be your turn." Children deserve the finest of literature. Quite simply, they won't say "Read it again, if it's not a great story." Then too, it's a bit of "So little time, so many books!' I don't want to waste their time. I want books that they talk about when we are not reading them. Laughter is good for young children's emotional life and for mine! There is nothing like the p words to get pre-schoolers going: pee-pee, poopie, and the like. The sillier we get, the happier they seem. There is also a great deal of laughter attached to our language play. Just ask a 3 year old if he wants a bamburger for dinner. I am just amazed at how quickly youngsters acquire language.I can recall the first time my granddaughter realized that words that sound the same can mean different things like the ant that crawls on your picnic blanket and the aunt who is married to your uncle. I deliberately use synonyms as often as I can and as naturally as I can. “Choose one cupcake. C'mon select just one. It's up to you to pick your favorite." I must admit that I work really hard not to talk about myself in the third person. There is no reason to say, "Grandma will help you," when "I will help you," is a more natural language pattern. I also took great delight the first time I heard my grandkids use such words as , "actually" or say, “Seriously, Grandma." As to a wide range of ways to use language, I think we just need to expose them to rich language in all its possible contexts.The way you root for a team differs from the way you talk to the pediatrician. The way you talk to an elderly aunt may differ form the way you talk to a repairman. Commend children for working hard. Many studies have been done in this regard. Sometimes when children are told over and over again that they are smart, they begin to fear not looking smart and therefore take less risks, accept fewer challenges. Children who are commended for working hard are more likely to accept bigger challenges because they understand and do not fear the hard work that will be needed. Asking questions is a really important one. My grandson Ben recently asked me why some NYC street signs are green and others brown. We looked it up and discovered that historic districts have the brown signs. Imagine a 3 year old led me to learn something so new. In schools as well, kids need to know that it is not how many great questions you answer but how many you ask that sets you apart and demonstrates your intellectual curiosity. Rituals, of course. Children need to know what is expected. They thrive on boundaries. Creating rituals is one way to help them understand how the world works and what is around the bend. Empathy is what we look for in our friends and neighbors, not how they scored on a fourth grade exam. Children are always watching. Adults who show empathy are more likely to raise children who show empathy. And of course, carefully selected literature puts issues of empathy on the front burner.

Franki: What is the best thing parents and childcare providers can do to support literacy?

Shelley: Read aloud, read aloud, read aloud! Be fussy about what you read aloud and talk about the books together with your child.

Franki: What are some of your new favorite books for young children—new children's books that you love and that are perfect for young children?

Shelley: Every day it seems I have a new favorite. My 3 and 4 year olds laughed out loud with GORGONZOLA. My five year old adores Eileen Spinelli's SOMEDAY.

Franki: I imagine that each of your grandchildren respond differently to the different things you do. Can you share a few favorite stories of literate moments with your grandchildren?
Shelley: Lately,my grandkids love to play Stump Me. It's written up in the book. We tell stories rather generically to one another and the other person has to guess the story. This is a favorite bathtime activity. Will the 3 year old recently initiated, Stump Me with Songs. He hums a song and asks me to guess and then we reverse roles. Our almost 6 year old has begun playing, Fortunately, Unfortunately. She begins a story and then says Unfortunately...I have to continue the story and add Fortunately and on it goes. She has also taken to MadLibs for Juniors which simply delights me. I also love walking down the city street and Ben, (3 1/2) announces, “Please Curb Your Dog.” or Will, our 3 year old spots his name in books and newspapers, minus the capital "W'.

Franki: Can you tell us some of the favorite activities (from the book) in your family?

Shelley: I would say the top activities in the book, besides Stump Me, have been the storytelling jug filled with random party favors, pretending to use a rhyming word instead of someone's name, " I want to write something. please bring me a Ben. I mean pen," and songs with a twist. We are always inventing parodies, versions, etc.

Franki: What are your next projects--things that we can look forward to?

Shelley: Well, I have a series of emergent readers coming out with Scholastic. 32 will be released this month. They are very simple 8 page books about Ben and Ruby. I think the series is called I'm Reading Now! I have just written a few dozen more.

I am also considering writing about offering young writers easier structures or containers for their writing as opposed to these "show-off" genres that are so popular today and take so much time and appear too sophisticated for most kids. The ones I am thinking about only take a week and yet you can push for high quality because the structures don't get in the way. It's just like teaching a reading strategy and then the child tries to apply it to too hard reading material. Other things get in the way. I think the same things happen with issues of craft. I prefer teaching craft issues in rather easy structures so that the child really internalizes his understanding. These are my "intermission" ideas, things to do when you are not having formal studies. Of course, I would love for teachers to let children do more free exploration in the writing workshop, another one of my intermission ideas.


  1. "Children need choice." So, so true. The emergent reader books sound interesting. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I loved reading this interview and I felt as if I was nodding my head to all of Shelley's smart insights. Choice, helping kids embrace being smart and appreciating their humor are so important. Thanks!

  3. I loved reading this interview! Shelley came to speak at our PTA meeting this week in NYC and she was a dynamo. I had trouble writing down all she had to say, but you reminded me of a lot of it, and more, in your blog.

    I am writing a post in my blog, www.frugal-mama.com, about Shelley and her ideas. Can I quote her from your interview?

    I'd also like to include some of Franki's favorites.

    Thank you!


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