Meet The Author

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye speaking at HKIS, January 2015 IMG_0011

In today’s SCMP, and slightly longer version below:

Standing in the packed HKIS library, visiting poet Naomi Shihab Nye closes her eyes, takes a breath and begins. “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco…” she says, reciting the opening line of one of her most recognized poems, Valentine for Ernest Mann, and the room is silent. It’s hard to know what these teenagers think as they sit, cross-legged, heads lowered, listening. But their thoughtful questions and deep, introspective reflections expressed after the talk show clearly that they have been deeply impressed by her words. With this talk, Nye offered these students a new way to approach poetry, both as consumers and as creators themselves.

“I learned to look at life as a long poem, filled with mundane, irritating, amazing and elated moments, ” reflected grade eight student, Sarthak Bajpai. Sophia Chuen, also in grade eight said, “Visiting authors allow us to learn that authors are real people too and that writing is thinking.”

Nye suggested that students keep a notebook with them always and that they pay attention to the ordinary moments in life and record three small ideas each day. The students learned that anyone can be a poet, that poetry is fun and that writing a book can take many, many iterations before the final version is published.

For most authors, producing a book is like birthing a child. Once that book exists, their lives are forevermore inextricably entwined. Most authors spend a fair amount of their non-writing time helping to grow the audience for their books. While the author receives some benefit in increasing book sales for this effort, the true benefit is really to the audience who gain further insights and a deeper understanding from hearing the author provide context and color about her process and result.

Meeting an author is a great way to make books come alive for readers. Many Hong Kong schools and organizations understand this and invest precious resources hosting authors to work with students, parents and teachers.

Last year HKIS hosted award-winning author/artist Grace Lin for a week as an artist in residence. As a Taiwanese-American who grew up in rural New York, Grace Lin’s books explore the immigrant experience, interlacing Chinese and American culture, and helping to articulate the competing feelings of pride and dislocation. In her evening talk for parents and children, Lin told the story of her childhood and gave insight into the decisions she made and how she felt about herself as an Asian American. While these underlying themes are present in her books, to hear her tell the story directly was much more powerful. As a result of this talk and seeing Grace Lin in the school, her book The Year of the Dog is my son’s favorite chapter book.

Ralph Fletcher, a renowned young adult fiction writer who’s books are particularly popular with young boys, spent a week at HKIS working with upper primary aged children. While there, Fletcher conducted certain workshops for elementary school aged boys, no girls allowed.   This was a brilliant strategy to encourage boys to embrace their talents as writers with the same enthusiasm as do more girls at that age.

Chinese International School (CIS) and HKIS will co-host award winning children’s book author Deborah Wiles at an event on March 4, 2015. In preparation for her visit, the entire upper primary school division is reading her book Each Little Bird That Sings. This is a great way to build enthusiasm for reading as a social activity and to nurture the community with a shared literary experience.

The Hong Kong Young Readers Festival is another great way to meet globally renowned authors. This year the festival will take place from 9-20 March, 2015 and has a full schedule of talks, workshops and events where children and adults can meet and interact with authors to learn about their process as well as the content of their books.

Meeting an author can be like meeting a hero. Unlike other professions, everyone is a writer. Some choose to pursue it as a profession, but even those who don’t are still writers. Meeting writers who have persevered through the difficulty, tedium and challenge of writing a book and having it published is inspirational for children and adults alike and can bring the written word to life in a whole new way.

Helping Teens Pick “Just Right Books”

My latest SCMP Between the Lines article appeared while I was out of town.  Here’s a link to the SCMP website, or the full text below:

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When children are little, part of the process of learning to read involves finding “just right books.” A just right book is one that interests a child, and that can be read fluently without struggling over more than a few words on a page. This is an important step toward reading fluency, and the process is relatively straightforward.

But once children are older finding “just right books” becomes trickier. Just because a child can read a book doesn’t mean she or he should yet. When children begin to read fluently parents often encourage more advanced books, but sometimes that can backfire, either ruining a book for a child, or exposing them inadvertently to inappropriate content.

Some parents have this idea that pushing young children into chapter books earlier and earlier makes them more accomplished or is an indicator of high intelligence. On the contrary, it’s actually robbing them of an extraordinarily rich world of content in picture books. Sophisticated parents understand that there’s a richness in picture books that doesn’t exist in the trendy, but rather straightforward popular young adult fiction. Oftentimes the language, vocabulary and humor in picture books are more subtle and advanced than in chapter books, and can help children develop critical thinking skills.

This is just another in a long line of inflationary pressure put on children. I recently spoke with a mother who told me her second grader was reading Percy Jackson to himself. An eight year old who can read Percy Jackson is superficially impressive, but how can an eight-year-old emotionally relate to a story told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy? What’s the point?

As children move into the teen years, finding appropriate books gets even more challenging. Because they can read everything, navigating a library or bookstore is akin to a minefield of unsuitable content. Keeping up with a voracious adolescent reader can be a full-time job.

So how do you help your burgeoning reader find the right books? Your school librarian is a great place to start. Most librarians have an extensive knowledge of and passion for books and once they get to know your child, can help match kids and with great books.

“To pick a good book you need to know your child, what mood he or she is in, his or her temperament and a wide range of books,“ says Maureen McCann, Hong Kong International School’s Middle School librarian. She suggests listening for “appeal terms” when you talk with your kids. What did they like about the last book they read? Try to determine if it’s the pacing, drama, exciting plot, or strong female character, for example, and that can help guide your next selection.

Think of your school librarian as your child’s book stylist. McCann likens book selection to buying clothing. “Everyone wants the well-edited closet. There’s an art to working a book shelf similar to a sale rack at a clothing shop.” McCann offers the library version of boutique shopping with a suggestion shelf of her favorites right in the front of the library. Some of her students select books exclusively from that shelf. Similarly, she has initiated a suggestions wall where children recommend books to their peers, and a special display for books about problems like bullying, eating disorders, divorce and other issues that teens might want to explore.

She suggests that children be allowed to browse with some autonomy. Let them discover the books on their own rather than hovering and deciding for them. She also uses a food analogy for picking books. Kids need nourishing literature and fun reads, or “snacks” – as she calls the lighter fiction books – for a healthy literary diet. Once you’ve selected a book, she suggests opening it to any page and reading a paragraph. Does it grab your attention? Do you like the character? These small investments in selecting the right book can save a lot of time in the end.

McCann also advises families to have a lot of books around the house. To be a good advisor, you have to be a good reader. You must model reading for your children, and not just on your iphone. If you’re not as familiar with a wide range of young adult literature, reading guides, essays and annotated book lists, like those by Bring Me A Book, Diane Frankenstein, Jim Trelease, and Paul Jennings for example, are great resources too.

Being a great reader is not about tackling the thickest tome you can plod your way through, but about curating your reading selections as carefully as you do your art and closet.

Let Your Child’s Imagination Run Wild

Here’s my latest South China Morning Post “Between the Lines” column that was in today’s paper.  A copy of the unedited version is included below.

Growing up in Pennsylvania on the edge of a wildlife preserve, I spent my childhood in the creek, building forts, swinging from vines and rolling down clover fields. I always imagined the same for my children. Instead, my kids have lived in urban metropolises their entire lives.   Suggesting to my son that he go outside and build a fort, he pointed to the tiny, well manicured back yard and said, “Mom, do you see any sticks out there? We have a gardener. There are NO sticks!” Sadly, he was right. There were no sticks to be found in our backyard. There are never any errant sticks.

Bill Plotkin in his book, Nature and the Human Soul, describes the stages of human ego development and explains that connecting with nature is an essential experience in transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. Those who fail to do so may remain stuck in egocentric adolescence, self-focused and unfulfilled. He says, “Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence.  Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached.” Getting kids out into nature is essential, but often a challenge in busy, urban environments like Hong Kong. In some cases, children are so immersed in technology and indoor activities that they can’t even imagine going out in nature much less doing so independently.

Adolescent children must be able to imagine the world beyond their own current circumstance, and survival stories are a great way to introduce the concept. In most of these stories, fear and feelings of inadequacy are slowly replaced with competence, self-awareness and success as the reader watches as a capable, powerful, centered and loving young person emerges from previously unimaginable challenge.

Jean Craighead George is the most prolific and celebrated author of young adult fiction survival stories. Her classic tale, My Side of the Mountain, written in 1959, tells the story of Sam Gribley, a fifteen-year-old boy who leaves his crowded home in New York City to live on his own for a year in the Catskills mountains. The book is filled with realistic details about how and what food he foraged and caught, the intricate shelter he constructed by smoking out a dead tree stump, his protection, entertainment and emotions, and has intricate drawings to bring the descriptions to life. George wrote many other books including Julie of the Wolves, a similarly artful and detailed account of a girl who survives alone on the Alaskan tundra by communicating with wolves, and The Talking Earth about a Seminole girl who struggles to reconcile her tribe’s traditional legends with the destructive practices of the contemporary world. In each, the child protagonist demonstrates an upstanding character, resilience and calm, focused strength and determination.

Abel’s Island by Wallace Steig is a classic tale of an aristocratic mouse that gallantly chases the scarf of his betrothed only to find himself washed downstream alighting on an uninhabited island in the middle of a swiftly flowing river. Despondent at first and completely inept, Abel eventually learns to take care of himself, to find and catch food, create shelter, protect himself and slowly realizes the beauty and value in doing so. When he finally designs a way to get off the island and is reunited with his bride to be, he is a much more capable and resilient mouse.

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who survives a plane crash and his parents’ divorce, eventually finding his own inner strength as he struggles to survive alone in the wilderness until he is eventually rescued. In Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, the heroine Karana lives alone for years on a pacific island, discovering her own strength and the natural beauty around her. These are just a few examples of dozens of survival books for children in the 8-13 age range that introduce the concept of solitude, discovery and competence to adolescent readers. By introducing the idea, kids find increased motivation to get outside and let their imaginations run wild.

Don’t confuse contemporary dystopian future scenarios whereby children are engaged in killing each other for sport or to survive a post-apocalyptic new world order with survival books. These popular series like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent books are entertaining and feed the adrenaline-fueled culture our kids enjoy, but they are not the same thing.

Taking our kids out into the woods to experience nature first hand is the best thing we can do for them. Despite Hong Kong’s urban center, the periphery offers some great outdoor adventures for children. Consider hiking the Dragon’s Back to Big Wave Bay, or walking from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo for a celebratory lunch at Turkish restaurant, Bahce. You can kayak in Sai Kung or Stanley, wander the country parks, visit Kadoorie Farm to pet animals or pick organic strawberries in Fanling. These are a few good ways to get kids out in nature. When that’s not possible, the next best thing is to read about it and help plant the seed for them to nurture in themselves later on.

Be Patient With Your Reader

The South China Morning Post published this article today in the Between the Lines column.  Here’s a link to the article directly, or you can read it below:

When parents lament that their children are not yet reading and consider hiring tutors and pricy evaluations to find out what’s wrong with their six year olds, I tell them to be patient and to keep reading to their kids. In most cases, when a child’s ability catches up with his or her interest in the narrative, the life long reader is launched. Reframing the situation not as a problem, but as a sign that their child might just have high standards for what makes a good story helps to alleviate some of the underlying anxiety.

A mother of three children, two adolescent avid readers and one developing reader, the benefit of hindsight allows me small experiential insight, butressed by a growing body of research in the area of brain development and functional readiness to read.

Doctor Martha Denckla, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins University is a leading expert in brain development and reading readiness. Regarding the trend in schools of teaching reading earlier and earlier she says, “They are doing enormous harm by blithely disregarding neurological readiness to learn these skills.”

Books have been an integral part of our parenting since my son was born 14 years ago. When he was tiny and we lived in California, we made daily trips to the local library and lugged home stacks of picture books, delighted in bookstores and attended a weekly local story time. Our evening routine after brushing his teeth involved reading two picture books that he would carefully select to read together.

In addition to the picture books, I read chapter books far beyond his own reading ability to him as he fell asleep. Even when he didn’t understand everything on a practical level, he intuitively absorbed the melody of the well-crafted tale as his own thought process and language was forming. A good novel is as beautiful to hear as it is to read.

With our family focus on literature I was sure he would be an early reader, but he was not. At the end of kindergarten, he wasn’t yet reading. His teachers weren’t worried and neither was I. After first grade, he still wasn’t reading. Again they weren’t worried. I noted it, but I didn’t worry. When second grade came around and he still wasn’t reading I began to express concern, but his progressive school said, “Don’t worry, he will read.

Just before Christmas of that second grade year I read the first Harry Potter book to him. He was hooked. Over that holiday we relocated to London and he spent the entire first few weeks reading hundreds of pages a day, for hours at a time. He was launched as a reader, and he has never looked back.

We moved from London to Hong Kong when my daughter was five. By the middle of second grade she could plod her way through Magic Tree House books, but not with any enthusiasm. On a trip to New Zealand that spring, I took along Roald Dahl’s The Witches and that was the magic one for her. She proceeded to read three more Roald Dahl books that holiday and hasn’t been far from a book ever since.

To fall asleep in the evening she liked to listen to books on CD. After I read to her, I would put on a CD and the books would play, sometimes all night when I forgot to turn them off. Little Lord Fauntleroy, Paddington and Ballet Shoes are indelibly embedded in her subconscious.   Acting is her favorite activity now, and she can copy accents with surprising aptitude. I attribute both her love of great stories and her mimicry ability to those beautiful narratives that lulled her to sleep.

My son and daughter are now in 9th and 6th grades respectively, and place reading for pleasure at the top of their list of leisure activities. They never saw a flash card, had a tutor or strung together words they knew how to spell to write a story. Theirs is an intrinsically motivated love for books that I expect will stay with them the rest of their lives.

My third child is in second grade now and true to our family pattern is still not reliably reading. Technically he can do it, but he does not yet enjoy it. I continue to expose him to narratives as I did the other two, wondering which will be the one that launches him into the ranks of readers.

Reading is the gateway through which we discover the world, and loving to read makes that process all the more enjoyable. Anxiety, impatience and busyness are the obstacles that unintentionally inhibit the journey to raising life long readers. Patience is more than a virtue when it comes to nurturing readers, it’s good parenting.

Redefining safety for children in a technology-obsessed world. An interview with Cris Rowan

Last week I sat down with Cris Rowan, Occupational Therapist and CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc. to discuss the impact of technology on children.  A short article was published in the South China Morning Post today.

For the full interview, keep reading…

Q: Most families in Hong Kong live in apartments and have very limited access to outdoor space.   Add to that crowds and an air pollution index (API) that is currently at the maximum measurable level, and taking children outside to connect with nature and to move has its own challenges and dangers.  In urban areas like Hong Kong, the appeal of technology is partially situational.  How does a parent weigh potential dangers and determine what is truly harmful for their children?

ROWAN:  I appreciate the concerns about potential dangers out of doors and can’t speak to the harms of air pollution specifically, but I do know that the consequences of keeping children indoors, disconnected from nature and attached to video games and other technology is causing real problems in the physical and mental health of children. The ways in which we are raising and educating our children with technology are no longer sustainable. Parents have the illusion of safety when their children are inside, but if they inform themselves about the alarming increase in attention problems, poor academics, aggression, impaired sleep, developmental delays that are directly linked to sedentary indoor lifestyles, they will definitely reconsider how to define safety for their children.

Being in nature and physical movement are attention restorative, sensory calming, and essential to healthy growth and wellbeing. For example, the act of swinging is not only fun, but has real impact on core physical strength and the development of the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and attachment systems that are needed for paying attention, printing and reading. Urban children are three times as likely to present with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) as are rural kids.   The good news is that as little as 20 minutes a day of green space time, time spent outdoors in nature, can alleviate many of the symptoms of ADHD in children.

In some urban areas efforts are underway to create green spaces where children can play safely without traffic and congestion. In New York City, the High line park on a former rail line is now a popular attraction and well used park, and plans are underway to repurpose defunct subway tunnels into indoor low line green spaces with light and air circulation and beautiful plants and gardens. This is an example of an effort to carve out green space even in densely populated areas.

 Q: It seems intuitive that technology is having a negative effect on society in the ways you cite (behavior problems, obesity, depression, lack of attention etc), but are these hypotheses or is the research definitively linking cause and effect?  Which are the most compelling studies upon which you base your conclusions?

ROWAN:  The truth is that we don’t know what the health impact of technology will be, as it is still so new. Remember that three years ago, the ipad didn’t even exist yet. But the research is growing. I spend my time collating research from thousands of studies that are increasingly showing evidence of causal relationships. We can now say definitively that playing violent video games causes childhood aggression. Increases in acoustic neuromas and sperm DNA fragmentation linked to cell phone and laptop use are only the first compelling twenty-year studies, and sadly indicative of more to come.

Another scary area is video game addiction. I implore parents to regulate video game use by their children before it becomes an addiction. Avid video game players experience the same physiological response as sex and gambling addicts. Their heart rates race and blood pressure escalates as their bodies release high doses of cortisol and adrenaline in anticipation of, and during, play. After awhile they achieve a state of Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) fatigue and require more and more of the stimulus to get the same feeling. Online games that are competitive and social with high immersion and realistic graphics are particularly insidious as addicted players are sometimes so reluctant to take a break they would rather wet their pants then get up to use the toilet. Video game designers call this the “pee factor” and strive for it. Remediation of video game addiction is an arduous process with only a 50% success rate The US military is processing 400 recruits each month with video game and pornography addictions. China has more than 300 treatment centers throughout the country for youth with video game addiction.

 Q: What about other experts who claim emphatically that video games are not harmful and sometimes even good for certain skills development like sharpening focus, reasoning and decision making skills?  Do you completely discount their research, or think it’s a matter of age/circumstance?

ROWAN:  I don’t disagree that this kind of limited positive effect is possible, but it’s all in context of who, what, when, where and why of the child’s overall health. Factors like age, duration of play and the general overall mental and physical health of the child are key determinants in the likelihood of healthy technology use turning into a harmful addiction.

Q: How can you tell if behavior problems in children are the result of technology?  If you take it away, the behavior often gets even worse.

ROWAN:  As an occupational therapist for the past 27 years, I began to see significant changes in my clients about fifteen years ago.   Increasingly, children demonstrated alarming rates of aggression, depression, ADHD, obesity, impulsivity, poor self regulation, and declining function of ocular motor skills to name a few. As I considered what might be causing the shift, I turned to a growing body of research related to technology use and children. I identified two primary areas of concern, the addictive nature of video games and the impact of technology use on children’s health, behavior, and ability to learn.

Recently I was in a classroom observing a child. He had fixed, dilated pupils and was playing on an imaginary ipad. After asking him to help the other students clean up the room, he responded that he had his ear buds on and couldn’t hear me. I decided to play along, so I pretended to take away the ipad which resulted in a tantrum rage, kicking and screaming for me to return what didn’t really exist. A child like this is most definitely demonstrating symptoms of addiction directly linked to his technology, as well as a dissociated state.

 Q: In a perfect world, parents and children would interact without technology, but are there any instances that you think technology is better than nothing, like books on tape if a parent is not home to read to a child, for example?

ROWAN:  I do believe there are wonderful resources in some educational technology, but I caution parents and educators that “What they watch is who they become.” Pro-social media, where characters are nice to each other, can have a positive impact on children when limited to roughly one hour per day for an otherwise healthy child. On the other hand, anti-social media, where characters intentionally harm others, can cause anti-social behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero exposure to technology for ages 0-2, one hour for ages 2-5 and 2 hours for those 5-18.

Technology in schools has great potential, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of learning without a teacher. For example, e-readers are effective in helping to create early readers, but once the “wow factor” wears off, children who have learned to read early on e-readers perform worse in school than those who learn to read with books. Furthermore, screen reading results in poorer concentration and memory than book reading. Teenagers are demonstrating a new level of impaired memory, concentration and a lesser ability to learn new information which is being coined “digital dementia.”  These are cautionary tales.

 Q: Do you think parents are as much a part of the problem as the technology itself?  

ROWAN:  Most definitely. We don’t have statistics on Asia, but we know that forty percent of North American adults are addicted to technology. Children watch parents and follow their lead. If we want to see any change at all, we have to change our own behavior around our kids. I suggest parents disconnect from technology, and reconnect with their children as a first step toward managing technology family over use.

 Q: Beyond the couch fort, can you offer any additional creative suggestions for what to do with children indoors that will engage their attention in the same way technology does?

ROWAN:  As a first step I suggest families start by reading one book per night, sharing one meal with the family per day, planning one game night and one family outing per week, and taking one technology-free holiday per year. Creating safe zones where there is no technology including the bedroom, bathroom, in the car and in restaurants is a good way to start creating boundaries to keep technology from taking over the household.

For further research and facts supporting this article, check out Cris Rowan’s excellent website  

For a link to her presentation and photos from her visit to Hong Kong, check out