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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

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License Plate 007

Writing Road Trip: License Plate 007

When I was a kid, my career ambitions wavered between detective, mad scientist, shoe salesperson, teacher, and spy. Fortuitously, most of them have become critical facets of my grown-up job as a writer.

My practice as a spy came in handy just recently when I needed to create authentic-sounding dialogue for characters who are young teenagers. In other words, I eavesdropped like crazy on my teenage nephews and their friends— volunteering to drive carpool for a few outings proved to be a goldmine—but I also lurked via social media and positioned myself strategically near random teenagers in public. It may be that their Adult Detection Systems alerted them to my interest, and therefore skewed my results. But seriously, dude, I doubt it: I’m like, 1 gr8 spy.

Eavesdropping was a great reminder of the way that all of us, not just teenagers, really talk: there are different rhythms to different people’s speech, we use current slang and off-color terms, we prefer contractions and other shortcuts. I was reminded all over again how much less formal spoken language is. Real conversations are composed more of interruptions, fragmented speech, repetitions for emphasis, grunts of acknowledgment, body language, and silences than they are of formally structured sentences.

You can rarely, on the other hand, just recreate an actual word-for-word chat in a story: your writing would too quickly be weighed down by the outright jibber-jabber and the sheer number of conversational “dudes” (or whatever term is currently in vogue in middle schools near you). Making your characters sound authentic is important, but the way I explain it to my adult writing students is, if you’re trying to establish that a character has a Scottish brogue, you get only one “Nay, Lassie,” per 25,000 words.

And remember that dialogue is also charged with the large task of helping to tell the story: it reveals characterization, advances the plot, and provides action. That’s a lot for those lassies and dudes to have to carry—no wonder it’s a struggle for young writers to write good dialogue!

Reminding your students to ration out their slang and eliminate excess is critical, but more important, I’ve found, is to remember to give them permission to make their dialogue informal. If you don’t, they too often end up writing stilted conversations where everyone sounds like a nineteenth-century British butler or a walking research paper.

Effective dialogue lands somewhere in the middle between the way people really talk and the way we’ve all been taught to write prose. Effective dialogue is less redundant and more expressive than real speech; it’s less formal and more fragmented than the rest of the story text surrounding it.

A page of well-written dialogue isn’t exactly what you might hear from the back of the van while you’re carpooling—but it’s close enough that any good spy could decode it.

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Skinny Dip with Cathy Camper

Cathy Camper

Are you fans of the Lowriders graphic novels? We are! And we can’t wait for the next one. The author who thinks up those great stories is Cathy Camper. We invited her to Skinny Dip with the Bookologist … and she said yes! When we asked her pointed questions, here’s what she had to say.

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

Eating cake for breakfast just like Two Bits in The Outsiders.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Making my stupid lunch. I work full-time and it’s never-ending! I make my lunch, go to bed, go to work, eat my lunch, go home, and have to make my stupid lunch all over again.

When are you your most creative?

When I have a little bit of something with caffeine, preferably dark chocolate, maybe a small gulp of coffee, then go for a run or walk, or some mindless activity that allows me to daydream. When the ideas start to come, I write them down immediately.

Raul III, Jon Scieszka

Raul III, winner of the 2017 Pura Belpre award for illustration, with Jon Scieszka and Cathy Camper at the Chronicle Books booth at ALA in Chicago, 2017

Best invention in the last 200 years?

Indoor plumbing and clean water, in particular, hot water WHENEVER you want a bath or shower, and clean water whenever you want a drink. I give great thanks for being born in a time and society where we have that luxury.

What’s your best contribution to taking care of the environment?

I never had kids. One less human.

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Capitulate vs Conquer

Students readingAs I eagerly gathered up my ideas and insights for a follow-up article about last month’s “Mystery Reader” topic, I found myself trying to negotiate two seemingly incompatible schools of thought regarding effective literacy teaching and learning. I am a huge proponent of student choice and voice (instead of teacher- or curriculum-dictated text selections), teacher expertise (instead of reliance on scripted programs), and fostering a lifelong love and motivation for reading (instead of seeking the holy grail of high test scores). However, lately I find myself grappling with the ideal world of what literacy teaching and learning could and should look like and the reality of the world most teachers live in, one filled with constant pressure to meet the standards and produce readers who show what they know by passing high stakes tests. Searching my thesaurus for just the right words to describe this mixed feeling, I settled on “capitulate” and “conquer.” Allow me to elaborate.

Capitulate, in the strongest sense of the word is to say someone is caving in. A milder form of the word means to come to terms with something that is perceived as unsettling. It represents the negative side of the coin. Conquer, on the other hand, represents victory. It describes the ability to overcome or avoid defeat. Definitely the preferred side of the coin for most folks.

So what do these two opposing words have to do with promoting reflection and enhancing comprehension through analyzing miscues of students’ oral reading (the essence of Mystery Reader)? In sharing my enthusiasm for such a technical aspect to literacy instruction, I must confess that I expect some exceptional educators to dismiss it because it sounds too dry, too focused on judgment of a reader’s performance, with not nearly enough emphasis on igniting a passion or promoting reading joy. To those who might question the Mystery Reader approach, it just might feel a bit like capitulating, like accepting a practice that tries to quantify a process that shouldn’t be used for any kind of measurement, especially that of children.

But here’s the thing, with more than twenty-five years of experience as an educator, I can still vividly recall just about every single former student who needed more than his or her peers to discover what it means to be a reader and to find pleasure in that experience. For some kids, connecting them with the right book is paramount but equally important is providing effective instruction that builds necessary foundational skills and strategies. Skills and strategies that won’t materialize haphazardly. And that’s why I encourage you to consider sharing this activity with your students, enabling them to learn and understand the benefits of a powerful form of feedback. Flip the coin, choose to conquer the barriers that keep some kids from knowing what it feels like to get lost and found in a great story. And while it’s true that not all things that are measured really matter and not all things that matter are always measured, I am convinced that running records and miscue analysis deserve a place in our literacy teaching and learning.

As promised in the first installment of Mystery Reader, I have a few suggestions for collecting audio recordings of anonymous student readers to share with your miscue analyzers. The first is a free app I’ve used extensively, called VoiceRecordPro. With just a bit of exploring, I found the app to be user-friendly and perfect for collecting oral reading samples. Once recordings have been captured, it is easy to rename them, add notes and share them via dropbox, google drive, or email. These options make it possible to quickly swap recordings with colleagues in other grades and schools to ensure anonymity when sharing Mystery Readers with students.  VoiceRecordPro can also be used for all sorts of multimedia projects. My students first utilized it when illustrating and performing the poem, “If You Give a Child a Book” by Dr. Pam Farris. Check out our YouTube video here.

Another option for collecting oral reading samples is using the “running record” assignment tool from Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus. Though I am not one to plug commercial, for-profit sites, I have to say I am a huge fan of this feature and how it lends itself to Mystery Reader. A free two-week trial is offered for the Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus site that may be best known for its vast collection of ebooks and printable blackline master books. The annual cost for an individual teacher is close to $200, which is pricey, though discounts are offered to schools or districts signing up for 10 or more subscriptions. The running record feature on the site allows teachers to access a powerful way to record and analyze running records as well as collect oral retellings. Student recordings can be saved and shared with parents to demonstrate student growth over the year or they can be used with students during reading conferences or intervention sessions.

I invite you to submit questions or contact me for more information about how to use either method, VoiceRecordPro and Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus to implement Mystery Reader.

A third column related to Mystery Reader will be shared in Teach it Forward next month, with a focus on expanding the activity to include reflections and conversations with students about reading conferences.

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Me, All Alone, Reading This Book

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

Sometimes, the illustrations are wonderful but the language is captivating. You know how you read a picture book and you can’t decide which part to focus on? Should you look at the picture first? Should you read the story because it’s the thread that’s pulling you through?

Well, when you read “He was a long-leggedy man with a wide, wide hat and a beard in a circle around his head. His glasses reflected the clouds,” the impetus is strong to read the story first and come back to look at the illustrations later.

But then you peek at the illustrations and you realize there is always something extra-ordinary going on in them. A branch is really a worm-like creature about to devour a pot of gold.

There is being alone, and there is lonely, and there is being busy, and there is a world of dazzle and FUN. This is a book that explores each of those parts of life. The noise and the quiet. The raucous gaiety and the art of listening. The fun you sign up for and the joy you find and the never-before-noticed amazements you explore.

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

This is a story book. It has a longer text which I believe is just right for reading out loud. The language is a revelation. It’s a parable of our modern world. And then you realize, the story and the illustrations are vital to each other. You can read this book again and again to notice a new phrase in Mr. Anderson’s writing, a small element of wonder in Mr. Hawke’s art. This is a book that tells a story that means something. It’s a treasure.

I missed this book when it was first published in 2005. Candlewick has reissued it. Don’t you miss it now.

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World
written by M.T. Anderson
illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Candlewick Press, 2005; reissued, 2017

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Next Exit: Adventure

Writing Road Trip | Next Exit: AdventureSometimes just a town’s name is enough to entice you. Who could drive past the exit for Last Chance, Idaho—or Hell, Michigan—or Happyland, Oklahoma—without at least contemplating how your life might be changed if you took that unexpected detour?

All on their own, names tell a story. That’s why I often do an online search to learn as much as I can about a character name that I’m considering for my writing—looking up ethnicity, variations, meaning—because many times, it opens up new insights into that character for me (or proves to be the wrong choice). Have your students try an online search into the names of the characters in the current story they’re either reading or writing—it’s a fun little research side trip.

The “naming” that I struggle with is in coming up with a title. This is usually a labored effort for me, as it is for some students. Here are the suggestions I share with those who struggle to find a good “name” for their story:

  • Remember that the reader will look at the title first. You want it to grab the reader’s attention.
  • Think about the kind of story you have written. The title can tell the reader what kind of story it is: mystery, adventure, romance.
  • Look at all your story ingredients. Which ones do you think are the most interesting? How could you use them in a title?
  • Think about the most unexpected or surprising thing in your story. Can you hint at that in the title, making the reader feel like they need to read the story to figure out a riddle?
  • Consider slang, word play, and if appropriate to the book, humorous possibilities.
  • What is the book about? What theme, or message, is at its heart? Is there a title that hints at that?

Finally, for a fun writing warm-up for your classroom, ask your students to spend a couple of minutes coming up with an intriguing title for a story they have not yet written. Then when they’re ready, have them trade titles with somebody nearby, and begin the story that fits the new title they have now been handed. When writing time is up, they can share what they have so far with the student who originally created the title.

An evocative name (or title) is just the start of a grand adventure….

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Following The Ducklings

We have just returned from a trip to the Boston/Concord area and Maine. It was a bit of a literary trip. Three days in Concord, Massachusetts set the stage as we toured Louisa May Alcott’s house and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, too. We followed The Amble, which became more of A Ramble, between Emerson’s home and Thoreau’s cottage at Walden Pond. We visited museums and archives, bookshops and the library. It all made this English major very happy—I’ve wanted to visit Concord since my Walden obsession in high school.

We made sure to see The Ducklings in Boston Public Garden, of course. #1 Son had refused to pose with them, as other small children do, when he was four. He loved Make Way for Ducklings, however, and insisted we buy it in Boston since “we only have the library book.” So, of course, we did. (Side Note: If you don’t know the story about Robert McCloskey’s attention to his art with regard to this book, check out Anita Silvey’s telling of it on Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac.) Darling Daughter was game to pose with The Ducklings on this trip, but she didn’t want to get in the way of the little ones who climbed all over them, so we have no pictures of either child with this monument. But the mere thought of those bronze ducks makes me smile.

What I didn’t realize as we stood watching the kids on the ducks, is that we were merely starting our Robert McCloskey tour. Our next stop after Boston was Deer Isle, Maine, an island in Penobscot Bay reached by a stunning suspension bridge from the mainland. Deer Isle was home to Robert McCloskey, who moved to the idyllic island in search of peace after World War II. I had no idea, though I knew he was a Mainer, of course. (So many of my favorite writers are.) Turns out, The McCloskeys raised a family on Deer Isle and we recognized the place from Blueberries for Sal, Time of Wonder, and One Morning in Maine.

We had a lovely stay and enjoyed perusing Maine authors in every library, bookstore, antique store, and even one gas station. The McCloskey sections were especially large. It was in an antique store in Stonington that I had the delightful surprise of coming across the Henry Reed books in the McCloskey section. I reached for Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service as if in a dream—it was like time slowed…the sounds around me became distorted…and the movie of my life rewound itself to Parson’s Elementary school. There was the Henry Reed section, right in the corner where the shelves came together in our school’s library….. Henry Reed, Inc., Henry Reed’s Journey, Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service, Henry Reed’s Big Show, Henry Reed’s Think Tank—we had them all! I read them all—many times!

I’d wager I haven’t thought about Henry Reed in nearly 40 years, however. I know I didn’t read these delightful books by Keith Robertson with our kids—how could I not have read these with them?! Oh, how I loved Henry and his friend Midge! I can’t remember much about the plots of the books—I paged through Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service standing there in the store and remembered it viscerally but with almost no detail. Robert McCloskey illustrated them—and you can recognize his style immediately. I have the Henry Reed books all mixed in with the Ramona Quimby books—same look and feel (different illustrators, as well as authors) and similar stories about wonderfully ordinary kids. These books were my childhood.

Our kids are twenty and almost fifteen now. I wonder if I could convince them the Henry Reed series would make for great porch reading this summer…? We used to drink lemonade and eat popcorn while we read books on the porch in the hot afternoons of summer waiting for Dad to come home from work. I miss this. Maybe they do, too? I feel like I’ve left a terrible hole in their reading lives by inadvertantly skipping Henry Reed! I shall procure the books and then suggest it. Maybe someone will join me out on the swing…..

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The Best Wish of All

World PizzaOnce in awhile I find a book on my reading pile that I’ve passed by a few times. It might be that the cover doesn’t make sense to me and I shuffle through to choose another title. Or the title might be silly (in my mind) and I don’t open the book because something else catches my interest. And then one day I open that book and I discover that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. (Is there a truer truism?)

This time that book is World Pizza. It’s going to be about the different kinds of pizza around the world, right? It is not. There’s a clever play on words in the title which I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t opened the book and read it. (Note to self: open the book and read it!)

You see, World Pizza is a lovely book. It’s a tiny bit silly, enough to keep those being read to smiling, but it’s really a book about peace (I can’t figure out how to recommend this book without giving that away). A mother makes a wish and sneezes, resulting in pizzas for everyone, everywhere. It’s a book about what we have in common and how that brings us together and how that’s more important than what keeps us apart.

Cece Meng’s story is told with the right kind of words, words that tell the story as it should be told, which are words that get the reader thinking. And smiling. They are not preachy words. Not at all. It’s a happy book and we all need happy books.

Ellen Shi’s illustrations of a diverse population of characters around the world eating and celebrating pizza, as well as pizza combinations you’ve never considered before, open the reader’s mind to all the possibilities of World Pizza. They are sometimes funny and sometimes gentle in all the right ways, creating a story that leaves an impression. And her color palette is yummy.

I can easily see this book being asked for again and again. Who doesn’t want to hear a story about pizza for everyone? And who doesn’t want to be reassured about the goodness in this world we live in?

World Pizza
written by Cece Meng
illustrated by Ellen Shi
Sterling’s Children’s Books, 2017

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Swerving Over the Line

St. Peters Church in Rome, Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

During one of my visits to see my Alabama brother’s family, we took a road trip to the Ave Maria Grotto. That’s where a Benedictine Monk named Brother Joseph Zoettl built over 125 Mini-Me versions of some of the greatest buildings of the world.

Artists are often inspired by someone else’s masterpieces.  But in working with young writers, I’ve found that it’s easy to mistakenly swerve over the center line from the safety of inspiration into the danger of plagiarism (or trade- mark infringement). Not to mention the questions that arise when you’re teaching “creative” writing and the student in front of you has borrowed from another writer’s creativeness.

I’m not talking about sneaky kids trying to get out of doing their work. I’m talking about kids who are innocently inspired by their favorite books, movies, or video games, and who are excited to extend these adventures. And kids aren’t the only ones to do this. Writers of all ages have posted hundreds of thousands of “fan fiction” stories online. But where does “paying homage” end and “taking someone else’s ideas” begin?

I don’t have a “one size fits all” answer about how to handle this situation in the classroom. When the question comes up as part of a group discussion, I take the opportunity to address the issue of plagiarism.

When the question comes up when I’m reading an individual student’s story, I try to personalize my approach. Some kids, I know, are ready to be challenged to invent characters and a setting “from scratch.” Others struggle mightily to come up with their own ideas. Sometimes giving them permission to borrow a familiar character is the very thing that allows them to truly engage in the act of writing for the first time—rather than freezing up completely. In those cases, I have a little chat with them about how important it is that they don’t just “steal” somebody else’s work. But I do sometimes allow them to take inspiration or even characters from their favorite stories and then write their own adventure using them. My hope is that in doing so, they’ll learn how to do it completely on their own the next time around.

I think Brother Joseph would see the whole thing as an act of homage rather than a case of outright theft.

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Skinny Dip with Suzanne Costner

Suzanne Costner

Suzanne Costner

We’re thrilled to Skinny Dip with outstanding educator Suzanne Costner, Thanks to Suzanne for answer our questions during her very busy end-of-the-school-year hours.

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Hill in 4th grade. She read to us every day after lunch: Stuart Little, Where the Red Fern Grows, James and the Giant Peach. She introduced us to so many awesome writers that I still go back and reread.

When did you first start reading books?

I can’t remember a time that I didn’t read. I still have my first little cloth book that I chewed on as a baby. My grandmother had a set of Dr. Seuss books on the shelf and read them to me whenever I stayed with her. I was reading on my own before I started kindergarten.

Suzanne’s first book, a Real Cloth book.

Your favorite daydream?

In my daydream, I am living in a little cabin in the woods with my dogs and my books. There is a little stream gurgling along nearby and sunlight filtering through the trees.

Dinner party at your favorite restaurant with people living or dead: where is it and who’s on the guest list?

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, and Lloyd Alexander. My sister and my nieces would have to be there, too.

All-time favorite book?

The Princess Bride—chases, escapes, swordfights, torture, pirates, giants, magic, true love…

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

My favorite lunch was a peanut butter sandwich, and I always asked for “a lid on it,” because I didn’t like open-faced sandwiches.

What’s your least favorite chore?

It’s probably laundry, because the washing machine is in the basement and it means multiple trips up and down the stairs.

What’s your favorite part of starting a new project?

Bouncing my ideas off my friends and having them suggest ways to make things even better.

Barefoot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Barefoot, and either reading a book or listening to an audio book.

Toy RocketWhen are you your most creative?

When I am writing grant applications to fund more STEM activities for my students. I can think of all sorts of ways to tie rockets, robots, and gadgets into literacy instruction.

Your best memory of your school library?

I was a library aide in middle school and loved being in the library and helping to get the new books ready for the shelf. That “new book” smell when the box was opened should be a signature perfume or cologne.

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

O’Charley’s Caramel Pie ice cream from Mayfield Dairies (the best of both worlds)

What I'm reading nowBook on your bedside table right now?

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and The Unbreakable Code by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman.

What’s your hidden talent?

I have a brain that holds onto trivia, so I can come up with a song or movie quote for almost any occasion. Sometimes at family dinners we all just speak in movie quotes.

CowgirlYour favorite toy as a child …

I had a little wooden riding toy that looked like a giraffe. I rode it up and down the walk behind my grandparents’ house. I also had a cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and hat that I loved to wear.

Best invention in the last 200 years?

Digital books so that I can go on vacation without taking a second suitcase just for all my reading material.

Favorite artist? Why?

I love space and stars, so Van Gogh’s Starry Night is my favorite painting. I don’t really have one favorite artist.

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

Spiders—because my sister Jamie hates them and I have to rescue her from them.

What’s your best contribution to taking care of the environment?

Recycling. especially trading in books at the used bookstore, or using CFL bulbs in my reading lamps.

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Because kids still fall in love with books. If they can lose themselves in characters and settings that are different from their everyday world, then they can learn tolerance and kindness.

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Mystery Readers

In this column, I’m pleased to share a brief overview of Nurturing the Development of Reflective Readers,” a session I attended at “Echoes of Learning,” the literacy conference at Zaharis Elementary in Mesa, AZ. Kris-Ann Florence and Megan Kypke, second and fourth grade teachers, shared how they promote reflection and enhance comprehension by using a student version of miscue analysis to help readers understand the importance of meaning-making. In kid-friendly language, it’s simply called “Mystery Reader.” Kris-Ann and Megan showcased the power of this engaging and fun approach to literacy learning by demonstrating it in action. They were assisted by an eager bunch of brave students who volunteered to spend part of their Saturday showing what they know in front of a group of conference attendees. The activity is usually introduced and shared with the whole class. However, it could certainly be done with small groups of students who need extra guidance and support with decoding, fluency, self-monitoring, comprehension, or choosing good-fit books.

Teaching kids how to effectively participate in meaningful discussion about what it means to be a reader is the ultimate goal of “Mystery Reader.” You might agree that being respectful and sensitive about correcting errors and offering suggestions for improvement requires a degree of tact and finesse that may not be refined in most seven- to eleven-year-olds. To counter this, Kris-Ann and Megan stressed the importance of sharing audio recordings of oral reading that guarantee to keep the identity of the reader a mystery. They rely on an inventory of recordings of anonymous students from years gone by as well as excerpts collected from audio swapping with teacher friends from other schools or districts.

I was so captivated by this unique idea! And as much as I love working as an instructional coach, the thought of setting up this “Mystery Reader” as a routine literacy practice made me really wish I had my own classroom again. I’m hopeful that next fall I can support teachers who are interested with this innovative approach to fostering independent, confident, and motivated readers.

Mystery Reader

The steps to implementing “Mystery Reader” are simple. I’ve outlined them as if I were presenting them to students.

First, set the purpose. 

In this activity we will listen to someone we don’t know read a short passage as we follow along with a copy of the text. We will learn how to take notes about the reading so that we can talk about what we noticed and give advice to the reader. “Mystery Reader” helps us understand the text and the reader. It helps us become better readers because we also learn about how each of us reads on our own.

Mystery Reader

Second, explain and practice marking the text with students. 

  • When we read aloud it is important to read with expression, to sound the way the character would really sound. We’ll call that using “voice.” Any time a mystery reader does a great job of using voice, we will write a “V” on the paper at that spot.
  • When a reader fixes a mistake all by him or herself, we’ll call that a “self-correct” and will write down an “S/C.”
  • Sometimes readers pause because they are stuck on a word or are thinking about the text. Other times readers will repeat or reread a word or sentence to make it sound better. If either of these happen, we will write down a “P” or an “R.”
  • If the reader skips a word, we will write down an “S.”
  • Finally, we will listen and watch carefully for any words that are not said correctly. These are called “miscues.” If that happens, we will cross out the word and we will write the word the reader said instead above the one we just crossed out.
  • Later when we talk about the miscues, we will decide if the word the reader said changed the meaning or not. If the meaning was not changed, for example saying “home” instead of “house,” we will write “QM” for “quality miscue.” But if the meaning did change because of the miscue, we will write “MCM” for “meaning changing miscue.”

Guiding Questions

Third, practice, reflect on, and discuss the process using guiding questions.

This year we will be practicing, thinking about, and talking about “Mystery Readers.” We will share things we notice about what makes each reader a good reader. We will really focus on whether the reader is making meaning or understanding the text and we will decide if the text was a “good fit.” 

And finally, students demonstrate greater awareness and comprehension in their own reading. 

As we get more comfortable doing “Mystery Reader,” we will see how it helps us with our own reading. We will be able to use voice to show good expression when we read aloud. We will also get better at self-correcting our miscues. And if we do have miscues when we read, we will be able to figure out if they are quality miscues or meaning-changing miscues. All of these things will be important ways to help us learn how to choose “good fit books” and gain meaning from the texts we read.

A final note about “Mystery Reader”… For as long as I can remember, I have strived to capitalize on time spent with students in one-on-one sessions involving reading conferences or taking running records. When classrooms are filled with 25-30 students who range significantly in their reading proficiency, self-monitoring ability, motivation, and self-confidence, it is imperative that teachers bring efficiency and a sense of urgency and fun to the table. “Mystery Readers” has the potential to do all of these things in one sweet and simple swoop.

The next Teach it Forward column will offer additional ideas for implementing “Mystery Reader.” Suggestions for collecting oral reading samples and adding a comprehension conference portion to the activity will be offered.

RESOURCES

The origins of this approach date back to 1996 with “Retrospective Miscue Analysis” by Yetta Goodman. To learn more, check out these articles and handouts:

Retrospective Miscue Analysis: Revaluing Readers and Reading” by Yetta Goodman and Ann Marek

Retrospective Miscue Analysis: An Effective Intervention for Students in Grades 3-12,” presented by Sue Haertel

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Watch Where You’re Going

Writing Road Trip | Watch Where You're GoingRiding along with my dad was like going on a Midwestern safari. Even while driving, he had an amazing knack for spotting critters as they peeked out from behind trees, perched on phone poles, or slid along the roadside.

He didn’t seem to pay any attention to the makes of other cars, or billboard messages, or what other drivers were wearing. His focus (with the exception of safe driving itself) was wildlife-centric.

That kind of exclusive focus can be key to successful story-writing. Many stories center around a core focus, a central idea or message. Many characters are built around a core motivation or driving emotion. Anything that pops up during the writing process—even good stuff—that doesn’t support that focus, may have to go. It’s not as easy as it sounds: even experienced writers are sometimes seduced by an intriguing side story, a brilliantly written description, a charismatic secondary character. But however brilliant or charismatic, if those things don’t help develop the core story or illuminate the main character for the reader, they need to be sent packing.

Here’s an example: in the novel I’m working on, my teenage character looks out over the water and speculates that perhaps the person he is searching for has “planted” himself in the lake. The image fits the rural setting and the moment of the story. But it doesn’t fit my character, who’s an urban kid. As one of my critique partners pointed out, my kid would never think in terms of an agricultural metaphor. However deft that description—and I’d received compliments on it from other readers—I had to acknowledge that it didn’t belong to the story I was telling.

Sometimes I think these things are hints of future stories or future characters, playing peek-a-boo from the depths of our subconscious. But it’s better to admit that they don’t belong in the spot they’ve popped up, and save them in a “great ideas file” for later.

Point out these peek-a-boo moments in your young writers’ stories. Encourage them to take another look at what’s at the heart of their story—at the heart of their character—and judge by that whether that great idea belongs to their current story, or needs to be set aside for another writing day.

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Skinny Dip with Aimée Bissonette

Aimée Bissonette

We’re thrilled to Skinny Dip with Aimée Bissonette, who is the author of two acclaimed picture books so far, North Woods Girl (Minnesota Historical Society Press) and Miss Colfax’s Light (Sleeping Bear Press). Thanks to Aor taking time away from writing and work to answer Bookology‘s questions!

When did you first start reading books?

My best friend, Lyn, taught me to read when I was 5 years old.

Fun with Dick and JaneLyn was a year older so she went to first grade the year before I did. When she got home from school, she would bring her reading books (the “Fun with Dick and Jane” series) over to my house. We’d sit on my front steps and Lyn would teach me everything she’d learned in school that day. I am sure I read with members of my family, too, but Lyn was the one who really taught me to love reading.

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

I always loved Sunday breakfast growing up. It was the one time of the week we were all guaranteed to be in one spot together. I have six brothers and sisters, so it was a bit of a challenge to get enough food ready at the right time to feed everyone. (Remember, this was before microwave ovens!) And it was pretty chaotic. My mom used to joke that when she wrote the story of her life, she would title it “Raw Eggs and Burnt Bacon.” Maybe I’ll write a book about her someday with that title.

Sock basketBarefoot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Socks! I love socks! In fact, my mother-in-law used to laugh at the size of the sock basket in my laundry room—you know, the place where you throw all those clean socks from the dryer so you can pair them later while watching TV? My sock basket is huge.

When are you your most creative?

I am at my creative best when I am out in nature. I love to hike, bike, and snowshoe.  I walk every day—rain or shine, puddles or snow. I need to get away from my desk, smell outdoor smells, listen to birdsong. Nature always finds its way into my books.

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint chocolate chip. Hands down.

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The Reading Summer

A stressed mother of a first grader sought my counsel this week. The issue was reading. Her son wasn’t. And at the close of first grade he was expected to. There was talk of testing, remedial help over the summer, reading logs, etc. She and her spouse were dreading it, worried, and a little irked—not at the not-yet-reader, but at the expectations and the pressure. I listened for a long time and when she finally took a breath, I asked what she was most worried about—for instance, was she worried there was a learning issue that needed to be addressed? “No!” she said. “I’m worried he’s going to hate reading if we spend the summer doing these things!”

And that response completed the time-warp I was experiencing while listening to her story—twelve years I vaulted back in the space-time continuum. Twelve years ago this week we received the phone call that was the culmination of an entire school year of frustration and concern. #1 Son was not reading—he’d staunchly refused to even try to read the testing selections his second-grade teacher asked him to in the last weeks of school. He just sat there—a conscientious objector of sorts.

Our kids went to a wonderful Spanish-immersion school and there was a little extra time built in before they started suggesting interventions simply because the students learn to read first in a language that is not their first language. But it was clear that he was “behind” by the time second grade was drawing to a close—The Other Children were reading well in Spanish, and some of them quite well in English, too. The school recommended summer school, a reading program, and a Spanish tutor for the summer.

I calmly asked if anyone was concerned that there was a learning difference/disability that needed to be addressed. They didn’t think so. I called a reading specialist and wise mother and told her of the school’s recommendations. And then I told her that our collective parenting gut was telling us to decline any programming whatsoever in favor of simply reading good books together all summer.

She was silent on the phone for several seconds. And then she whispered (whispered!) that she thought this was a wonderful idea. I’d been a storytime reader in her classroom before and she said she wondered if #1 Son wasn’t reading simply because he couldn’t read like I read quite yet—with all the inflection, voices, and fun. She said it was obvious to her that stories were very much alive for him, and when you’re being asked to read those very early books in which each word is not longer than four letters and most of them rhyme [Mat sat on the cat.]…well, it’s harder to make them come alive.

“Take the summer and read!” she whispered, as if she was telling me a secret that reading specialists don’t impart to the masses. “Read the very best books you can find and read your very best. See where he is in the fall.”

And so we did—we read all summer long. We read The Sword in the Stone and The Mouse and The Motorcycle. We read Peter and the Star Catchers and Stuart Little. We listened to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the car on vacation and read Swallows and Amazons in the tent while camping. We went to the library every Friday and then on a picnic where we read stacks of picture books (his sister was two!) while we ate our PB&J. We visited our local kids’ bookstore with regularity and took our new books down to the lake and I read while they fed the ducks. I did not ask him to read “the next paragraph” or to sound out a word here and there. I just read—until I was hoarse, sometimes, I read.

At the end of the summer, we went to meet #1 Son’s third grade teacher. She was a no-nonsense grandmother and she got his number immediately. I loved her just as immediately. She took away the Clifford El Gran Perro Colorado picture books and handed him Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal. And he opened that thick novel and started reading—just like that. 

It was a wonderful summer. She was a wonderful teacher. #1 Son is A Wonderful Reader (in two languages!), and he always was. He just didn’t “perform” until he was good and ready. (He still resists performing.)

I told the worried mother our story. She nodded smartly. “That’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “If there’s actually a reading problem that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it, but I just don’t think we know that when he’s just six.” I wished them well and shared a booklist. 

I envy the summer ahead of them. The Reading Summer was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made, I think. I hope it turns out as well for them.

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Summer Travel

Kids' Book of QuestionsHere are three words that may be looming large in your mind: Long. Car. Trip. You’re packing games, snacks, an audio book or two, several books to take turns reading out loud, and … The Kids’ Book of Questions.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid and we went on long car trips (nearly every weekend), I read a lot (which must have been boring for my mom), but the two of us also sang songs, talked over the week we had just explored, and, if we were heading to family, expectations for behavior. But that only took so long.

It would have been great to have this book to delve into. Depending on your kids’ ages, it would be a good idea to let family members browse through the book to pick a question to have each person answer in turn.

TKids' Book of Questionshe author, Dr. Gregory Stock, Ph.D., has an interest in life science, medicine, technology, and discussions about values. He speaks frequently at schools and on radio and television. This book was first published in 1988, a follow-up to the adult version, The Book of Questions. Now it’s been updated to include questions about the internet and school violence and climate change.

“If you were riding your  bike and accidentally ran into someone else’s bike and wrecked it—but no one saw you—what would you do?”

“What is the wildest and craziest thing you’ve ever done? Would you like to do it again?”

Whether you use them as conversation starters, components of a game, or just a way to pass the time, you might find this book a handy tuck-in for your Long. Car. Trip. this year. I know we’re taking it along.

The Kids’ Book of Questions
written by Gregory Stock, Ph.D.
Workman Publishing, 2015

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Driving in the Dark

A while back I was at my parents’ lake cabin with my extended family. My brother’s teenagers had all brought along friends, and on Saturday we packed everyone who fell into the “thirteen to fifteen” age range off to the late movie. As the resident night owl, I volunteered to pick up the kids when the movie was over so that the other grown-ups could make it an early night.

By davidsonlentz. AdobeStock 91080377Which is how it turns out that the first time ever in my life I was pulled over by the cops, I was driving someone else’s minivan full of McDonald’s wrappers and dog hair.

Those flashing red lights in my rearview mirror instantly had me feeling all Bonnie-and-Clydish, despite the fact that I had no idea what I had been doing wrong. Driving too fast? Nope, I’d just checked my speed. Driving under the influence? Not unless they’d added iced coffee to the list.

What was I missing?

It turns out that one of the van’s headlights was out. Once I knew that, I realized that the road had seemed a lit- tle poorly lit—but then again, I was in a tiny town with no streetlights. It never occurred to me that I might be missing a headlight. The very pleasant sheriff’s deputy ran my license and, as he promised, had me back on the road within five minutes. I arrived to find the kids running around like maniacs in the dark parking lot of the small-town movie theater, and my “street cred” as the cool aunt only seems to have been heightened by my harrowing run-in with the law.

Sometimes it helps to have somebody pull us over and point out what we’ve overlooked in our writing, too. When it’s time to begin the revision process, ask your students to exchange their writing, and then to ask each other, “What’s missing from my piece?” It’s a great all-purpose peer-review question. Often, it turns out, the missing element is something that the writer already has in their head—but that hasn’t yet made it onto the page.

Asking a reader “What’s missing?” often sheds some much-needed light on a writer’s up-to-then shadowy problem.

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I Know It’s Weird

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Skinny Dip with Susan Latta

Susan Latta

Susan Latta

This week we’re all set to Skinny Dip with Susan Latta, who is celebrating the publication of her first trade book on September 1st, Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs (Chicago Review Press). With historical to contemporary biographies of women who have found cures, advanced medicine, and tended to the sick with compassion, Susan has written an inspiring book that teen readers will find fascinating. Thanks to Susan for taking time to answer Bookology‘s questions!

Bold Women of MedicineWho was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

My favorite teacher was my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Palmquist. I don’t remember her first name. She had a system of writing the numbers 1, 2, 3, on the blackboard for discipline. If the class misbehaved and she got to number 3, that meant she wouldn’t read to us that day. Since I was one of the “goody two-shoes” in the class it always made me so angry when one of the boys (usually Dennis) did something to get us to number 3. I especially remember when she read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. I was fascinated and looked forward to that time of day.

Caps for SaleWhen did you first start reading books?

Probably in about first grade. We had all the usual books for the time; Cat in the Hat, A Snowy Day, The Little Engine That Could, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Caps for Sale. When I was a little older, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, as well as anything by Beverly Cleary. And a bit later, I devoured every Agatha Christie mystery.

Dinner party at your favorite restaurant with people living or dead: where is it and who’s on the guest list?

Broder’s Pasta Bar in Minneapolis, their homemade pasta is to die for. As far as guests, I think Abigail Adams, Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, Dr. Helen Taussig, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Julia Child, and my family; husband Rob, sons Ryan and Robbie, and daughter Kristen. Our golden retriever Stanley would love to come for the leftovers.

Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksAll-time favorite book?

Hard to choose just one. As a child, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. As an adult: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, John Adams by David McCullough.

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

American Braunschweiger which is a type of liverwurst or liver sausage with a little mayonnaise on white bread. Haven’t had it in years; not sure it is considered health food.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Changing the sheets.

What’s your favorite part of starting a new project?

Digging into the research.

Barefoot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Shoes and good wool socks in the winter, barefoot in the summer.

strong coffeeWhen are you at your most creative?

Morning, but after breakfast and good strong coffee. And when I say strong, I mean “spoon almost standing up in the mug strong.”

Your best memory of your school library?

As fifth graders, we wrote and illustrated picture books to read to the kindergartners in the library. Mine was something about bears. Sure wish I still had it.

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mocha chip.

Lilian Boxfish Takes a WalkBook on your bedside table right now?

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney.

What’s your hidden talent?

I can wiggle my ears.

Your favorite toy as a child?

My Barbie and Skipper dolls.

Best invention in the last 200 years?

The dishwasher.

Girl with a Watering Can

Girl with a Watering Can, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876

Favorite artist? Why?

Claude Monet or Renoir. I love impressionism and had a poster of Renoir’s painting A Girl with a Watering Can in my bedroom growing up. I also love Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses. Her idyllic paintings have so many things to discover.

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

That’s a toss-up. Probably spiders.

What’s your best contribution to taking care of the environment?

Recycling.

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Because buried in each of us there is goodness. In some it may be hard to find, but it is there.

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Theater Geeks!

If your children (or you) are captivated by talent shows on TV, or dreams of acting on the stage, or the next theater production at school, there are a chorus line of books just waiting to audition for your next favorite. Here’s a mixture of classic and new stories, ranging in interest from grades 3 through 7.

All the World's a Stage  

All the World’s a Stage
written by Gretchen Woelfle, illus by Thomas Cox
Holiday House, 2011

Twelve-year-old Kit Buckles has come to London to make his fortune. Unfortunately, he’s caught up in crime to stay alive. Immediately caught in his first pickpocketing assignment, Kit is enthralled by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to do odd jobs for their Theater Playhouse. When the acting troupe is evicted, Kit is caught up in the plot to steal the theater! William Shakespeare is a character is this story and the well-researched history that defines this novel is exciting. Highly recommended.

 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
written by Barbara Robinson
HarperCollins, 1971

It can be argued that this is one of the funniest books ever published for children. When the Herdman children learn that there are free snacks at the church in their neighborhood, they attend Sunday School even though they haven’t heard of Jesus and the Christmas story before. When they’re cast in the Christmas pageant, the story of Jesus’ birth takes unusual—and eye-opening—turns. It’s a laugh-out-loud book with a heart-tugging ending. Many families read this out loud each year as part of their holiday celebrations but it’s a well-written book that works well any time of year.

Better Nate Than Never  

Better Nate Than Ever
written by Tim Federle
Simon & Schuster, 2013

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster has been growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in a school and town that doesn’t appreciate his showmanship. His dream is to be on Broadway, a life plan he and his best friend Libby have been rehearsing for forever. When an open casting call is advertised for E.T. The Musical, Nate is determined to be there. By turns funny and heart-rending, Nate’s story will strike a chord with every kid who wants to be a performer on the spotlit stage.

Sequel: Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, Tim Federle, S&S, 2014

Drama  

Drama
written by Raina Telgemeier
Golden Books, 1947

In this book for early teens, Callie gives up her ambition to be in her school’s musical when an audition fails to impress the casting committee. She isn’t a singer. Instead, Callie becomes a part of the backstage crew, a circumstance many disappointed kids can relate with. But Callie discovers that she likes working on the set. She doesn’t know what she’s doing but she’s enthusiastic. And there’s as much drama backstage as there is onstage. Callie goes from one crush to another, maintaining suspense with humor. This graphic novel is a big hit with readers.

Forget-Me-Not Summer  

Forget-Me-Not Summer
written by Leila Howland
HarperCollins, 2015

Marigold, Zinnie, and Lily Silver have their LA summer all planned out—until their dad and mom, both working for the film industry, get jobs out of town. The girls are sent to a small, coastal, Massachusetts town to live with their aunt. They’re not happy because Marigold, twelve, had plans to audition for a movie being made of her favorite book. And life in Pruet, MA, is unplugged. No cell phone reception. Then Marigold discovers the movie’s producer has a summer home nearby. Zinnie writes a play to feature Marigold’s talents and the girls create a talent show in a community that is accepting and friendly. A heart-warming book.

Goblin Secrets  

Goblin Secrets
written by William Alexander
Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, 2012

Rownie’s older brother, Rowan, his only living relative, has disappeared. Rowan is an actor in a city that has outlawed acting. To find Rowan, Rownie joins a Goblin theater troupe that performs in Zombay, managing to get around the law. They’re up to more than is apparent and soon Rownie is caught up in the drama of life. There are touches of steampunk in this fantasy world. Rownie is taken in by Graba, a woman with mechanized chicken legs. Yes, the books is that inventive! National Book Award for this debut novel.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!  

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Voices from a Medieval Village
written by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd
Candlewick Press, 2007

Set in 1255, this engaging set of monologues create medieval vignettes that transport the reader, or performer, to a well-researched, involving era. From the singing shepherdess to the town’s “half-wit,” to the peasant’s daughter, we learn the stories of 22 people in this community. This book isn’t about theater, it is theater, offering a dramatic opportunity for understanding of a time long past. Winner of the Newbery Medal.

King of Shadows  

King of Shadows
written by Susan Cooper
Margaret McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster, 1999

One of the best time-travel novels ever written, this is the story of Nat Field, a member of the American Company of Boys, an acting troupe. An orphan, this opportunity provides a home for Nat, who travels with them to London to star at the new Globe Theater as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When he goes to sleep, he discovers he has been whisked back to 1599 where he becomes the protege of William Shakespeare with a time-traveler’s ability to save the Bard’s life. Replete with historical detail, an exciting plot, and memorable characters, this is a book to beckon readers toward modern-day excitement about Shakespeare’s plays. 

The Life Fantastic  

The Life Fantastic
written by Liza Ketchum
Simon Pulse, 2017

Fifteen-year-old Teresa is drawn to the vaudeville stage. She feels the need to sing, to perform. Her parents were vaudevillians, but they chose a conventional life of 9-to-5 jobs and staying in one town to take care of their two children. Teresa wants to try her own career on the stage but her father is vehemently against it. She sneaks away from home to New York City where she eventually ends up with a national vaudeville troupe. There are fascinating, well-researched details of vaudeville, racism in the theater and 1910 America, and life as a daring girl before women had any rights. A very good story for middle grade and older, including adults.

Okay for Now  

Okay for Now
written by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2011

Formerly cast as the bully in The Wednesday Wars, Doug Swieteck is starting over in a new town. His father is abusive, his mother doesn’t stand up against his father, and his older, unkind brother is off fighting in Vietnam. Doug realizes he has an opportunity to make himself over into someone with a different reputation. He makes friends with Lil Spicer, becomes spellbound by a library book with plates of Audubon’s birds, and sets off on a grand adventure with Lil to appear on a Broadway stage. Funny, heart-wrenching, and absorbing, this book is not be missed.

Replay  

Replay
written by Sharon Creech
HarperCollins, 2005

Leonardo is the middle child in a loud, chaotic Italian family. He’s a dreamer, a thinker, and perhaps an actor. He is cast in the disappointing role of the Old Crone in Rompopo’s Porch, a play his teacher wrote. At home, he discovers the journal his father wrote when he was thirteen years old, the same age Leo is now. These two disparate occurrences will give him more confidence, solve a family mystery, and change his life. The full text of the play is included in the book so creative thespians can put on their own show.

Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive) At Last  

Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive) At Last
written by Avi
Scholastic, 1987

A lighthearted rendition of Romeo and Juliet is written and produced by a class of eighth-graders whose true goal is to get shy Peter Saltz and shy Anabell Stackpole to realize they’re just right for each other. The matchmaking attempts, the earnest but laugh-out-loud funny production of Shakespeare’s classic play (often taught in eighth grade), and the ringing-true thinking, planning, and missteps of this group of kids make this one of my favorite of Avi’s books.

The Shakespeare Stealer  

The Shakespeare Stealer
written by Gary Blackwood
HarperCollins, 2005

Ordered by his nefarious “owner,” and Shakespeare’s competitor, to steal the unpublished “Hamlet” from the Bard himself, the orphaned Widge is bound to obey. The only problem is that once he’s cleverly inserted himself into the troupe at the Globe Theater, he finds real friends for the first time in his life. How will he avoid the repercussions of disobeying his owner? How can Widge find a way not to disappoint his new friends? The plot twists, turns, and ultimately provides a riveting reading experience.

Snow White  

Snow White
written and illustrated by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press, 2016

You may be thinking Snow White and the theater? What’s the connection? In Matt Phelan’s compelling re-imagining of the fairy tale, Samantha White (called Snow by her dying mother) is the daughter of the King of Wall Street. It’s the late 1920s and life is giddy. Her father marries the Queen of the Follies (as in Ziegfield, our minds supply), who turns out to have very evil intentions. She sends Samantha off to boarding school and somehow Samantha’s hale and hearty father dies. Seven street urchins and Detective Prince round out the cast in this highly readable and discussion-worthy graphic novel. 

The Cruisers A Star is Born  

A Star is Born, The Cruisers series
written by Walter Dean Myers
Scholastic Press, 2012

Eighth graders Zander, LaShonda, Kambui, and Bobbi run an alternative newspaper, The Cruiser, at their high school for gifted and talented students in Harlem, New York. In this third book in the series, LaShonda earns a scholarship to the Virginia Woolf Society Program for Young Ladies, honoring the costumes she designed for a play the Cruisers produced. Once she’s completed the program, she’ll be eligible for financial assistance for college. But there’s a wrinkle. LaShonda will have to move to be a part of the program and she’s hesitant to leave her autistic brother behind. The friends work to solve this conundrum in a realistic way. A great friendship story told with Walter Dean Myers’ deft and sure touch, using interjected poems, essays, and articles that are published in The Cruiser.

Starstruck  

Starstruck
written by Rachel Shukert
Delacorte Press, 2013

For readers mostly aged 16 and older, this 1930s Hollywood novel tells the tale of Margaret Frobisher, who is literally discovered in a drugstore. Because she looks like a movie star who’s gone missing, she is swept into the studio system, renamed Margo Sterling, and is suddenly starring in a movie. It’s a lot for a young woman to handle and it turns out that Hollywood isn’t all glamour and bright lights. Evil and darkness are a part of this new world and so are heartache and stark reality. The details are good, the characters are well-drawn … it’s a good book to read if you’re hungry for Hollywood as it was in its Golden Age.  

Summerlost  

Summerlost
written by Ally Condie
Dutton Books, 2016

Cedar could be forgiven for moping around in her new summer home. Her father and younger brother Ben were just killed in an accident. And yet she’s intrigued when she sees a boy in a costume riding past her house on a bicycle. She follows him and discovers the Summerlost theater festival. Soon Cedar is working concessions at the festival and she’s caught up in the mystery of a ghost and mysterious gifts that show up in surprising ways. Edgar Award nominee. It’s a good middle grade novel that reads with great warmth and understanding of loss.

Surviving the Applewhites  

Surviving the Applewhites
written by Stephanie S. Tolan
HarperCollins, 2002

Thirteen-year-old Jake Semple is a tough nut. He’s been kicked out of schools until there are no options left. That is until a homeschooling family, the Applewhites, offer to let him attend their Creative Academy. Everyone in the family has an artistic talent. Dad’s producing The Sound of Music at their local theater. Mom is a mystery writer who’s taking a break to write the Great American Novel. Uncle is a woodcarver and Aunt is a poet. Even Cordelia and Destiny have their unique talents. All except for E.D., who is quite possibly the only Applewhite who is organized enough to keep the family running. The book is told from Jake’s and E.D.’s alternate viewpoints. And it turns out that Jake might not be as impenetrably tough as he believes.

Swish of the Curtain  

Swish of the Curtain
written by Pamela Brown
Longwater Books (reprinted edition), orig. 1941

Most Seven children from three families organize The Blue Door Theater Company, renovating an old chapel and producing their own plays. They write, direct, stage, sew costumes, design scenery, and rehearse on their own. Their goal is to compete in the drama contest at the end of the summer, the prize for which is a scholarship to attend drama school. The group has the goal to be in the professional theater. Pamela Brown began writing this book when she was 14, but it wasn’t published until she was 17! She was a UK author, and her series of books about this drama troupe was immensely popular, being translated to radio, television, and movies. A true classic. 

Theater Shoes  

Theater Shoes
written by Noel Streatfield
Yearling, originally published in 1946

The three Forbes siblings are orphaned. Their grandmother, a famous actress, forces them to go to a theater school. They can’t afford the tuition but the Fossil Sisters (yes, the sisters from Ballet Shoes) sponsor them with a scholarship. They don’t believe they have any talents but they’re determined to live up to their sponsors’ expectations so they make their best effort. And they discover that they are talented indeed. The “Shoes” books were favorites for readers who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. They still read well today. Many children of those years pursued careers in the arts because of Noel Streatfield’s stories!

The Wednesday Wars  

Wednesday Wars
written by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2007

Holling Hoodhood, seventh-grader, has a lot of challenges. He’s the only Presbyterian in his Catholic and Jewish school. He’s being forced to read Shakespeare by his teacher, Mrs. Baker. His father is demanding that Holling and his sister are always on their best behavior so his business can succeed. There’s a bully that won’t leave Holling alone. And Holling’s baseball heroes are coming to town to sign autographs on the same day he has to put on yellow tights and appear in a play. If that weren’t enough, the anxiety of the Vietnam War surrounds Holling’s life. A book that’s thoroughly enjoyable to read and unforgettable. It received a Newbery Honor.

Will Sparrow's Road  

Will Sparrow’s Road
written by Karen Cushman
Clarion Books, 2012

Will Sparrow’s father sells him to an innkeeper in exchange for a daily supply of ale. The innkeeper is cruel so 13-year-old Will runs away … to a world that is not kind. Stealing food to eat, lying, Will thinks of himself as a bad person. When he meets Grace and her traveling theater troupe of “oddities,” he discovers an assembled family that cares for one another. Wills learns the performing skills necessary and he realizes that he is somebody with worth in his Elizabethan England world. Filled with Karen’s Cushman’s elegant and funny language, the era comes alive because of her careful research.

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Superheroes and Bad Days

Even Superheroes Have Bad DaysI don’t know about you, but I’ve been wishing for an honest-to-goodness superhero to save the day.

If adults are feeling that way, kids, who pick up all of our emotions, are wishing for the same thing. Batman and Wonder Woman led the list of most popular Halloween costumes in 2016. The proliferation of superhero movies is hard to ignore. But there are very few books about superheroes that are appropriate for the 3-7 year age range.

With rhyming text and a cartoon illustration style that has a sophisticated palette and delicious details, Even Superheroes Have Bad Days is a book everyone can use right NOW. For kids of that certain age, Shelly Becker and Eda Kaban have teamed up to give us a rowdy, exuberant book filled with images of superheroes in action.

We first learn what they could do when they’re having a bad day: kicking, punching, pounding, shrieking. They could be quite destructive with their superpowers.

“But upset heroes have all sorts of choices …
Instead of destruction and loud, livid voices
They burn angry steam off with speed-of-light hiking
Or super-Xtreme outer space mountain biking. “

They clean up other people’s messes, they protect people from harm.

Even Superheroes Have Bad Days

There’s no denying that superheroes could use their powers to wreak havoc, make mayhem, but:

“Instead they dig down to their super-best part,
The strong super-powers contained in their heart!”

There are lots of images to look at while you read together, including eight superheroes created just for this book. Beastie, Zing, Thrash, Laserman Magnifique, Screecher, Typhoon, and Icky are good writing prompts, especially for difficult days.

Every single one of us has those crabby days, down days, exasperated days. How are we supposed to act? We can look to these superheroes for inspiration to be our best selves.

Captain America and Avengers star Chris Evans chose to read this book on the CBeebies ‘Bedtime Story’ on the BCC!

Fun and emotions and resiliency and good reading all in one package! It’s a message book but one that will resonate with many kids. Recommended for school libraries, public libraries, and exuberant bookshelves everywhere.

Even Superheroes Have Bad Days
written by Shelly Becker
illustrated by Eda Kaban
Sterling Children’s Books, 2016

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Tunnel Vision

Writing Road Trip - Tunnel VisionDriving through a tunnel effectively narrows our field of vision. The walls and ceiling restrict our view to only that which is inside the tunnel. It doesn’t matter if there’s a mountain parked on top of the roof, or an ocean of water being held back by the walls: when we’re inside the tunnel, those things are outside our view.

This concept of tunnel vision provides a good way to talk with your writing students about using first person point of view. This viewpoint is distressingly easy to mess up. When we’ve chosen to tell a story using the “I” voice, it’s all too simple to slip into another character’s head. But it’s a no-no to wander into a landscape that is beyond the “view” of the perspective character.

Sometimes it happens because the writer has been tempted to bring in information that the character doesn’t know, perhaps to increase tension or suspense (Will the snake the author has told us is hiding under the bed strike a fatal bite? Will she ever realize that he’s secretly attracted to her, as the reader knows because the writer snuck into his innermost thoughts?).

And sometimes it happens just as a slip: suddenly the writer has entered another character’s thoughts, or introduced action, that is outside the field of vision of the perspective character.

There’s a simple line I use to remind students that they can’t deviate from their character’s “tunnel vision” this way: in first person, the action has to stop whenever that character falls asleep, slips into a coma, or leaves the room.

The character can certainly come back into the room (or wake up from the coma) and guess that something has happened: they might read someone’s face and guess they’ve been crying, or see a broken vase and interpret that somebody threw it in a rage. But what happened inside that room after the character left is officially “outside the tunnel,” and therefore out of bounds of the character’s direct experience for storytelling purposes. If the writer wants what happened to be part of the story’s action, they have to find a clever way for the point of view character to discern what has gone on; they can’t simply sneak into somebody else’s head.

What happens outside the tunnel, stays outside the tunnel.

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The Bluest Eye

 

It’s been years since I could keep up with my kids reading. When they first began reading independently, I’d often read (or at least skim) the books they were working on so I could ask questions and talk about it with them. Then for several more years, they would simply tell me about whatever they were reading—often in great detail. Sometimes I’d read it, sometimes not, but we could converse about it given the amount of detail they shared. But eventually they read at a pace much faster than me, and they read more widely, too. Both read way more fantasy than I do. #1 Son reads a lot of history, and Darling Daughter a lot more YA than I manage. These days, it’s often me asking them for books to read.

As they each entered high school I decided to try and read with them on the books they were reading in English class. This is largely a re-reading of the classics for me—I was an English major, after all. And a few more contemporary books, too. I haven’t managed to read every one, but many I have, and been glad I did. None more so than this spring’s Honors English 9 selection: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater is putting on The Bluest Eye this spring, and we had tickets in our season package. Last fall when they came I thought, “Oh, we should read that before we go…..” But I’d lost it in the daily shuffle. I was thrilled when Darling Daughter told me The Bluest Eye was next on the syllabus.

“Toni Morrison!” I said. “I haven’t read The Bluest Eye in ages! I’ll dust my copy off and have a read with you.”

“Mr. W. says it’s pretty…intense,” Darling Daughter said.

“Indeed,” I said, as I scanned the bookshelves. “And beautiful. That’s how Morrison writes.” But The Bluest Eye was not in the M section on my shelf. Nor was it “misfiled” somewhere else—I looked everywhere for it the next few days and finally gave up and bought a copy.

Twenty pages in I realized that I’d probably never read it. I had it all confused with Beloved, I think. It is quite a read. Intense seems like too simple a word to describe it. So heartbreaking. Appalling in too many ways. But such gorgeous writing! And…important. It feels important to read this book. I’m grateful my kid has an English teacher willing to take it on.

Our Guthrie ticket night came and we went and watched the intense, heartbreaking story on stage. I could hardly breathe through much of it. The hard scenes of rape and racism and horror were beautifully handled and I was so grateful to be sitting next to my fourteen year old as we watched. I was plumb full of gratitude, in fact. Grateful for Morrison’s work; grateful for the work of the playwright, Lydia R. Diamond; grateful for the actors who presented it to us with such exquisite artistry.

None of us will forget this book and its play. I’m very glad to have finally read The Bluest Eye, and I’m thrilled to have read and seen it with my kiddo.

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I Need a Grant

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The Funny and the Heart

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Jackie: Recently Phyllis and I read a heart-breaking column in The New York Times, written by author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who wrote many children’s books, and a couple of books for adults.

The column, written as a love-note to her husband from a dying wife, was heartfelt, sad, and funny all at the same time. We both wished we had known Amy Krouse Rosenthal. But it was too late. We looked at a few of her books and found the funny and the heart that characterized that column.

As a way of paying tribute, we want to share just a few of her books with you. And I should add that we both want to do this but Phyllis is out tramping around after Minnesota wildflowers for a book project so I am on my own this month. I will miss my big-hearted friend in writing a column about another writer with heart, but will do my best.

Yes Day!Humor and heart characterize all the Amy Krouse Rosenthal books I have read. A favorite of my grandchildren is Yes Day! Once a year the exuberant child in this book wakes up to a day in which his parents answer all his questions with, “Yes.”

“Can I please have pizza for breakfast?” Turn the page and he is about to enjoy what we know to be, because it’s steaming with flavor, delicious sausage pizza.

“Can I use your hair gel?” Turn the page and the family is posing for a portrait with our hero standing in front with superbly spiked hair.

“Can I clean my room tomorrow?” Yes. Or pick all the cereals?  And we see in the grocery cart Puffed Sugar Cereal, Marshmallow Fluff cereal (“with bits of actual cereal”), Hot Fudge Sundae Flakes (“1 whole oat per serving”).  There are no bad wishes. Mario can come for dinner. Our hero can stay up really late. And on the last two pages we see the Yes Day celebrant lying on the ground,  under the stars with his Dad. “Does this day have to end? We know the answer. But his last words are “See you again next year!”

This picture book is so satisfying. Our granddaughter Ella is seven and enjoys the Harry Potter books, Beverly Cleary books, as well as many graphic novels. But she loved this book, too. And sat through repeated readings, laughing at all the jokes.

ChopsticksElla also loved Chopsticks. This story of the friendship of two chopsticks is loaded with visual and verbal puns. “They go everywhere together. They do everything together.” Until one of them snapped. “Chopstick was quickly whisked away,” carried by a kitchen whisk. “The others all waited quietly. /No one stirred,/ not even Spoon.”

When Chopstick returns from his surgery, he tells his friend to go off, have adventures on his own. One of his hilarious adventures is conducting an orchestra of kitchen implements. The turkey baster plays French horn, a fork plays an oven thermometer that looks like a bassoon. Who could not love this page?

Who could not love this book which ends with the chopsticks playing “Chopsticks” on the piano?

Exclamation PointAmy Krouse Rosenthal had a light touch with serious subjects, too. Exclamation Mark is the story of a punctuation mark that does not fit in. Hilarious already, right?  The text and illustrations appear on what looks like the wide-lined school paper of the early grades. The book begins “He stood out from the very beginning—on the next page we see a row of circle-drawn periods with little faces and one period with a long line above it—the Exclamation Mark. “He tried everything to be more like them./But he just wasn’t like everyone else. [Line of periods.] Period.”  After a while he meets a question mark. Of course it only speaks in questions. “Who are you? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite color? Do you like frogs?” And on and on—until Exclamation Mark says, STOP!” The Question Mark loves it and asks him to do it again. “Hi!” And again, “Howdy!”  And more. “It was like he broke free from a life sentence.” With all its puns and silly phrases, this is at its core a story of finding one’s place in the world. And that is always satisfying

SpI was familiar with only two of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books, Spoon, the story of a spoon who is unhappy with its role in life, envies the other implements. He says of Chopsticks, “Everyone thinks they’re really cool and exotic! No one thinks I’m cool or exotic.” Eventually Spoon realizes a spoon’s work can be cool—and fun. Such a great idea to tell this tale from the point of view of a spoon. We all need to be reminded and reminded that we all have a place in the world. And how light-hearted to let a spoon character do the reminding. And there’s the advantage of giving kids permission to talk to their spoons.  How many kids now have conversations with their spoons when they eat their morning cereal and have Amy Krouse Rosenthal to thank?

from Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustration copyright Scott Magoon

Duck! Rabbit!The second book in my AKR mental library was Duck! Rabbit!, It’s a story told totally in dialogue about two friends who see a creature that could be a rabbit with long ears or a duck with a beak. ”Are you kidding me?/It’s totally a duck./It’s for sure a rabbit./See there’s his bill./What are you talking about?/Those are ears, silly.” It’s a clever turn on two characters who can look at the same picture/event/person and come to completely different conclusions.  Finally one says, “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rabbit.” And the other says, “Thing is, now I’m actually thinking it was a duck.” After this coming together, the story ends with them seeing an anteater/brachiosaurus. And we take off again.

If I were a teacher I’d keep a stash of Amy Krouse Rosenthal books in my bag for those times when kids are antsy, or standing in line to get into the auditorium, or just need a good laugh or a good pun. I’m definitely going to keep a stash for my grandkids. I wish I had said, “Thanks,” when she was still living. The best I can do is pass these books along to readers of all ages who need a smile or actually would like to start the day talking to their spoons—or their chopsticks.

Phyllis:  Thank you, Jackie, for this month’s column.  Like these books and their author, you, too, have an amazing heart and a sense of joy and delight.  Now, back to my book deadline….

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Squashed Fly Cookies

Squashed Fly Cookies
My British mom was fond of making these for us as children. It is a cookie (or “biscuit” if you live in the UK!) she knows from her own childhood. The moniker may suggest an unusual, rather disagreeable ingredient, but in reality, no insects were sacrificed for the dough! Currants (or raisins) are the main attraction to these shortbread-like sweet treats. Creekfinding critters such as frogs or toads or even trout may be disappointed to find no flies in their cookies, but humans seem to enjoy them very much!
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Prep Time
50 min
Cook Time
16 min
Total Time
1 hr 16 min
Prep Time
50 min
Cook Time
16 min
Total Time
1 hr 16 min
Ingredients
  1. 8 oz. (1 stick) of butter, softened
  2. ¾ cup sugar, plus a couple tablespoons for dusting
  3. 2 eggs, separated
  4. finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  5. 1 ¾ cup plain flour, plus extra for work surface
  6. 1tsp baking powder
  7. ¼ tsp salt
  8. 4 oz currants or small raisins
  9. cookie cutter, any simple shape (rectangle, square or circle are traditional)
Instructions
  1. Beat the softened butter in a large bowl or in an electric food mixer to soften a little more, then cream with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat the egg yolks lightly and stir them into the mixture along with the lemon zest.
  2. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt, add the currants and mix to give a smooth dough.
  3. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for 20–30 mins.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350ºC.
  5. Roll the dough out on a floured work surface to a thickness of ¼ inch and stamp out the cookies with the cutters.
  6. Arrange on a couple of large baking sheets and place in the fridge for 10 minutes before baking in the oven for about 12 minutes or until just turning golden.
  7. Meanwhile, lightly beat the egg whites.
  8. Remove the cookies from the oven and brush lightly with the egg whites. Sprinkle with a little sugar and repeat until all are done. Return the biscuits to the oven to bake for a further 4–5 minutes or until golden (this gives a crunchy top).
  9. Remove and leave to cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Bookology Magazine http://www.bookologymagazine.com/
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Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

We are honored to interview the highly respected Richard Jackson, who is on to his next career as a writer. His most recently published book is all ears, all eyes, a lush and irresistible read-aloud book, illustrated by Katherine Tillitson (Simon & Schuster). We thought we’d take the opportunity to talk with him about the progression from his editorial career to his writing career and the four books he has written.

Editorial Career

Will you please tell us a bit about your editorial experience?

After Army service, I graduated from NYC in 1962 with a Master’s degree in education. I worked first at Doubleday, not with children’s books, then at Macmillan and David White.

In 1968, you co-founded Bradbury Press. You moved to Orchard Books in 1986 and then began the nonfiction publishing imprint DK Ink in 1996. Three years later, in 1999, you had your own imprint at Simon & Schuster with the venerated Atheneum Books. Has this journey taken you around unexpected bends in the road?

I’ve never been subjected to a job interview.

As you were gaining experience, which editors do you feel taught you the most?

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmillan.

Do you think most picture book editors are equal parts visual and verbal?

Most likely. For me, as writer, as editor, the words are of first importance.

What did your authors teach you?

Empathy.

While you were an editor, did you always have a yen to write your own books?

No. But retirement—in so much as I am retired; I still work on a few books annually by old publishing friends—suddenly stretched rather blandly before me. I began tinkering with words, with play, with wordplay…

You’re working with an editor now, a colleague. What do you look for from your editor?

Efficiency. A sense of humor. Taste. Candor—i.e., a willingness to see the possibilities of something not yet final.

Considering the Books You’ve Written

Have a Look, Says Book

interior spread for Have a Look, Says Book by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Kevin Hawkes

Have a Look, Says Book

Have a Look, Says Book
illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2016

Kevin Hawkes illustrated this book that is playfully focused on adjectives. The text rhymes but not in a way that feels read-aloud confining. How do you work on the poetry in a picture book?

In my head, often while driving.

Storytime librarians are focusing more than ever on teaching. This book offers an opportunity to talk about the pleasure of books, the love of words. Have you always been fond of words?

A verbal child was I. As opposed to athletic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

The simple but enormous word “touch” has at least two meanings… There are many see, hear books, a few smell and taste books—hardly any about touch. Watching children and grandchildren touch the pages and pictures of a book, I thought…let’s see if I can honor that young-kid impulse: to point out, to make contact with a finger, to search a book for a tactile dimension equal to seeing and hearing.

In Plain Sight

interior spread for In Plain Sight, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Jerry Pinkney

In Plain SightIn Plain Sight
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books
Roaring Brook Press, 2016

The story in this book is universal, a grandfather and granddaughter who enjoy each other’s company. Grandpa, who lives in a bedroom in Sophie’s house, always has something for them to do together, to find something he’s hidden In Plain Sight.

What inspired this universal story of love?

Well, I was the Grandpa, I think. Sophie, a sister who died at four. She always announced her presence with “Here I ahm.” In my imagination, the game element was as important as anything, so it was based upon a game my father played on us, his children, on Christmas night—find objects hidden in unlikely places, such as a dollar bill wrapped around a book’s spine in a bookcase—very tricky!

It’s so important for children who have older generations living with them to see themselves in books, to understand that families extend themselves when needed.

Was it your idea to have Grandpa supported by a wheelchair?

Jerry’s, I think. As was Grandpa’s athletic and military past, as was the cat.

This manuscript was interpreted by the much-admired author and illustrator, Jerry Pinkney. How was he brought into this project?

Neal Porter’s idea, at Roaring Brook. They had not worked together before. I asked Neal, quite casually, I remember, if this family might be black (they weren’t while I was following the conversation which accounts for the story here). Jerry widened and deepened every image; note Sophie’s school clothes, for instance. Or the illustration on the binding of the book—not a repeat of the jacket, but something new and on its own; that’s Grandpa’s nature, don’t you think; there’s always a little more to give.

all ears, all eyes

interior spread, all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Katherine Tillotson

all ears, all eyesall ears, all eyes
illustrated by Katherine Tillotson
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2017

Your text for this book is so evocative of being outdoors at night, particularly in a forested or wild area. Why did you want to share that experience with readers and listeners?

The setting is a bit of woods, across a brook near our house in the country north of New York City. Real country, if you can believe. One night a yodeling fox awoke me and my wife. Moon and mostly darkness. Stillness, except for Mr. Fox. Magical. We got the children up (they are part of my dedication for this book) and, barefoot, we went outside, across the grass, up to the brook’s bank. We listened and without entering the woods, let the woods enter us. I hoped to write a poem to that night, that fox, that family experience.

When you wrote the text for all ears, all eyes, did you have an illustrator in mind? Why?

Yes indeed, the text was for Katherine Tillotson always, once the opening words sprang from my memory. She suggested the project somehow, and inspired it all along, from a very early rendition of a lurking owl. Next came Caitlyn Dlouhy and Ann Bobco (Atheneum’s brilliant art director), and the four of us played for months and months. Until quite close to the “end,” I was fussing with rhymes and line breaks. Such fun.

Many people who want to write books for children have been told that they’ll never work directly with their illustrator. Did you include instructions for how the text might be illustrated? As an editor, does your mind work that way?

I give a little guidance when the artist will need it—the main boy wears glasses, for example. And I break the text into page and page turn units. In my head I’m imaging a movie. But the illustrator is the cameraman (or woman), and often comes up with totally surprising and often just-right new views.

Don’t miss reading our interview with Katherine Tillotson about this book.

interior spread from This Beautiful Day, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Suzy Lee

This Beautiful DayThis Beautiful Day
illustrated by Suzy Lee
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2017

In August of this year, we’ll be treated to another book you wrote, this one filled with humor and whimsy. It begins with a boring, rainy day, but the attitude of the three children and their mother brings out the sun.

With your considerable experience as an editor, do you reflexively envision your text on the page?

Reflexively? I think not. I do imagine page turns—and often, as suggested above, an illustrator will have a better idea and I’ll be tickled.

When you were an editor, did you look forward to the surprise of the illustrator’s rough sketches, their interpretation of the author’s story?

Father Time and the Day BoxesYou bet! I once published a picture book, George Ella Lyon’s and Robert Parker’s Father Time and the Day Boxes (o.p), using the sketches, which were perfect as they were. Had I imagined them as Bob presented them? No way. It’s ideal to be surprising and just right from the get-go.

Now that it’s your manuscript being interpreted, how does that experience differ?

Not much different. I hadn’t imagined a rainy beginning to this day, so was taken aback at first; eventually, I have come to see the wisdom of giving the narrative this “hinge” in mood. What you suggest (that sun is attitude induced) is irresistible—and completely Suzy’s idea.

____________________

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Richard Jackson!

I’ve admired the books he’s edited, some of the finest in the children’s literature canon, so it’s a pleasure to hear from him as he walks his next path as a writer. 

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Just Another Roadside Abstraction

For this week’s writing road trip, I offer you texture.

I aim for an abstract element of a realistic subject and use texture to add interest and suggest depth.

—a quote that to the best of my research abilities I find attributable to artist Margaret Roseman.

I liked the way the above quote spoke to how texture can be used in visual art. But what role does texture play in writing? How can your students use texture to add interest and suggest depth in their written work?

As writers we talk about multiple layers of meaning. That’s a kind of texture. Ask your students, “How many different ways do you hope your piece speaks to an audience? How many layers deep have you gone down into multiple meanings?”

Words themselves have texture for me, especially when read out loud. Remind your students not to overlook the simple trick of speaking out their writing. For instance, does describing a character’s voice as “gravelly” rather than “harsh” add more texture when you say them both out loud? Or is it just a different kind of texture? What does your ear hear?

Words of various lengths, sentences of various lengths, all the way up through paragraphs or stanzas of varying lengths—when effectively piecing together the threads at hand, a writer becomes a fabric artist, weaving together strands that have different heft and weight to create a unique texture that is suited to the piece, to the writer, and to the reader. Encourage your students to play with synonyms, to differ their sentence length to see how doing so creates different effects for their readers.

Remember, we often experience texture through our fingertips—the same part of our anatomy that pounds out words on a keyboard.

For today, that’s my take on “just another roadside abstraction.”

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A Paralyzing Lethargy

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Katherine Tillotson

Katherine Tillotson

Katherine Tillotson

For this interview, we turn to the illustrator of a new book, all ears, all eyes, whose work I’ve long admired. This is a very special book. Open it and you’ll be captivated by the forest at night. Such unusual art! But, then, her prior books have also been distinctive, each in their own way. I hope you enjoy this visit with Katherine as much as I did.

In each of your recent books, Katherine, you’ve used a different illustration style. All the Water in the World is whooshes and swooshes, whirls and swirls, liquid on paper.

All the Water in the World

interior spread from All the Water in the World, by George Ella Lyon, illustration copyright Katherine Tillotson

For Shoe Dog, your pages were light-hearted, full of chaotic energy that portrayed Megan McDonald’s dog who finds shoes irresistible.

Shoe Dog

interior spread from Shoe Dog, by Megan McDonald, illustration copyright Katherine Tillotson

For It’s Picture Day Today!, you assembled familiar home and schoolroom crafting supplies into adorable creatures preparing for picture day. I like to imagine you folding paper and sorting through buttons and peeling glue off your fingers during the making of this book.

It's Picture Day Today!

interior spread from It’s Picture Day Today!, by Megan McDonald, illustration copyright Katherine Tillotson

In your newest book, all ears, all eyes, you’ve accomplished yet another completely different look. Your portrayal of the forest in the dark brings the night to life. The reader is deep inside the forest, seeing it, feeling it, while Richard Jackson’s poetry provides the sound track.

all ears, all eyes

interior spread from all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Katherine Tillotson

I find myself with lots of questions!

When an editor sends you a manuscript, what happens in your mind as you’re reading it?

 I always hope to have my imagination awakened. I usually do not have an idea where I might take a new story with the illustrations but I can perceive an opening for my part of the storytelling. If it is the right manuscript for me, there is a feeling of excited anticipation.

What moves you to agree to a project, knowing it will take you (how long?) to create the illustrations?

I am slow and it is a long time from beginning to end. I can easily slip into being hopelessly overwhelmed or impossibly anxious. It is always best if I think of the process in small steps instead of a distant destination. Collaborators are also invaluable. Many a time, my editor or art director has helped me through a bumpy bit along the way. And I belong to a most wonderful critique group. Together we cheer and help each other move the books forward.

How do you begin a new book?

I love to sit down in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee, the manuscript, and a big pile of books. The books are often on artists but I also have a large collection of Bologna Annuals. I keep a sketchbook nearby and let my mind and my pencil wander.

all ears, all eyesFor all ears, all eyes, the title page reveals that you combined watercolor and digital techniques. Could you tell us more about this process?

I struggled a lot with technique for this book. Early on, I experimented with acrylic and oil. Neither worked. I really wanted to use watercolor and I even had a few lessons from my friend, Julie Downing, a very accomplished watercolor illustrator, I longed to lay down the paint with the confidence of a master, yet I did not have time to master the technique. Watercolor involves a lot of layering (Julie tells me she can have fifty to eighty layers on a painting). Yet I found the more layers I added to a painting, the more I was afraid I would mess up. With each new layer, my rendering became stiffer and stiffer. In mulling over the problem, I thought I might paint more expressively if I knew I could layer in Photoshop, thus discarding any layers I did not like and keeping only those I did. This technique gave me the freedom I craved.

Do you make a conscious effort to make each book quite different? Why?

No, it really isn’t a conscious or intellectual choice. There are so many ways to make marks. Shoe Dog was originally going to be rendered in oil. When he developed into a scribble, it just felt right.

Well and then there is the fact that I love art supplies so much. I could spend almost as many hours in an art supply store as in a bookstore.

Do you study other illustrators’ work? What do you see when you do?

Oh, yes! Definitely! There are wonderful illustrators—from all over the world. I have so many favorites. My shelves are overflowing with their picture books. I try to use the library or my book buying habit could easily spin out of control.

Most of all, I love how illustrators extend and enhance the storytelling, stretching beyond the words. An example would be Migrant, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Well, and then there is Chris Raschka. I love the expressive power of his work. Something I am always aspiring to. I could keep going and going… I find so much to admire and inspire in my fellow illustrators’ work.

For all ears, all eyes, you illustrated a Richard Jackson manuscript. He has been your editor for 15 years. Now he’s the author. It is typical in the publishing process that author and illustrator don’t communicate directly, but rather indirectly through their editor. How did that work for this book?

When we began, Dick was very involved in both authoring and editing the book. As the process continued, he began to focus more on his writing life. My communication continued with my new editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, and my art director, Ann Bobco.

I miss Dick as my editor. He is really the one who taught me how to think about picture books, but I was losing my vision of the book and trying to please everyone. My process was becoming scattered and disconnected. When we returned to a conventional communication model, the book resumed taking shape.

all ears, all eyes

interior spread from all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jackson, copyright Katherine Tilltson

There is nothing about the illustrations in this book that whispers “digital” to me and yet the copyright page says “a combination of watercolor and digital techniques.” Would you share with us how your digital skills have evolved?

Thank you! I use very few of the functions available in Photoshop. Most of my computer time has to do with scanning and placing the layers (and there are lots of layers). I am constantly trying to find ways to minimize my time on the computer and spend most of my time sketching and painting. I believe that the drawing board is where I can find the looseness and emotion I want.

When you went to art school, what was your vision of your artistic future?

I graduated from the University of Colorado with an art major with an education minor. I have always loved making art, but I did not have a clear vision of how to find a career that incorporated art making. I took night classes to develop new art-related skills and through happy coincidence met a fellow student who introduced me to Harcourt in San Francisco. For many years, I designed educational books during the day and worked on illustration samples at night and weekends. It wasn’t until I painted this little guy (an early version of what evolved into Shoe Dog) that doors began to open. Dick Jackson saw the piece and took a chance on me.

"If

What is your vision of that future now?

I would love to write and illustrate a story. I have a couple ideas that I am thinking about and a few characters rattling around in my head. Now if I could just get them to come out and play….

Don’t miss Bookology‘s interview with the author of all ears, all eyes, Richard Jackson.

______________________

Thank you, Katherine, for letting us peek inside your process, your work, and your passion as an illustrator. We always look forward to the next book you’re creating.

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No Trout Tomato Soup for Two

No Trout Tomato Soup for Two
Serves 1
After a day tromping through the restored prairie, enjoy this delicious soup!
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Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
5 min
Total Time
15 min
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
5 min
Total Time
15 min
Ingredients
  1. 2 fresh tomatoes (at least one cup of diced tomatoes)
  2. Salt and pepper to taste
  3. 1 cup milk
  4. 1 Tbsp flour
Instructions
  1. Cut up one or two good-sized fresh tomatoes—at least one cup of cut tomato.
  2. Put it in a pot and cook slowly for twenty minutes.
  3. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Put the cooked tomato through a food mill
  5. or get someone to help you put it in a food processor.
  6. Stir in one cup of milk blended with one Tablespoon of flour.
  7. Simmer for 5 minutes, or until soup has thickened. Pour into 2 cups—one for you, one for a friend. Enjoy.
Bookology Magazine http://www.bookologymagazine.com/
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Some Writer!

I had the wonderful good fortune of hearing Melissa Sweet talk about her work last week. It was a fascinating presentation about her process, her research, her art. I left inspired, and with a hankering to find scissors and a glue stick and do some collage myself. (Let’s be clear, things would not turn out at all like Sweet’s gorgeous works of art….)

I’ve been carrying around her book, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, in my purse ever since. It’s signed now, which gives me an extra “zing” of joy every time I pull it out. I’ve read it several times. I’m to the point now, as I’ve been with Charlotte’s Web since I was a child, that I just open it wherever and start reading.

Which is what I did in one of the dreariest waiting rooms known to humanity a few days ago. Before I’d finished reading the quote that begins chapter five, the whining child across from me stopped pestering his mother for two seconds and called out to me.

“Hey! Is that a kid book or an adult book?” His tone was challenging. 

“Well, technically, it’s a biography written for kids—” I said, and before I could add that anyone could read and enjoy it he interrupted.

“Then why are you reading it?”

“It’s a really good book,” I said.

“Do you read other kids’ books?” he demanded. His mother tried to hush him.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”

Why?”

“They often tell the best stories,” I said as his mother tried to shush him again.

And then I took a chance…. “Would you like to look at it with me?” I asked.

“Naw, I don’t like books,” he said, and he sat back in his chair in a huff.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry about that.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t going to burden this grumpy waiting child with any didacticisms about how important and joyful reading is, and how perhaps he might not have found the right book yet etc. So I went back to reading.

But the questions continued.

“Is that a man or a teenager petting that pig?” he asked squinting at the cover from where his Mom held him to his chair. So I told him it was E.B. White—pointing to White’s name—as a young man, and before I could tell him who E.B. White was he said, “That’s not a name—E.B.! Those are just…letters. What’s his real name?”

“Elwyn,” I said.

He laughed uproariously. I went back to reading. But it wasn’t long before he managed to cross the waiting room aisle and sit beside me, all nonchalant-like. I opened the book wider, rested it on my right leg, closer to him, and started a game of I-Spy.

“I spy a ruler,” I said. He found it immediately. He also found the birchbark canoe and the small box of paperclips. Sweet’s collaged illustrations are packed with various and sundry things.

He spied a mouse. I told him about Stuart Little. We turned the page. I read him the letter White wrote to his editor Ursula Nordstrom. He commented that “E.B.’s” writing wasn’t very neat and confessed his wasn’t either. We laughed about eating 100,000 stalks of celery and 100,000 olives, which is what White suggested as a celebration for the 100,000 copies of Stuart Little that had sold—and which my young friend declared “nasty.” So we thought of better things to eat in celebration and agreed that 100,000 of most anything was too much.

We continued looking through the book. I didn’t read it to him so much as we enjoyed the illustrations together. He loved the rough sketches of Charlotte done by Garth Williams. I told him a little about Melissa Sweet and her art studio. He declared this information “cool,” so I was glad I had it.

Eventually, the boy and his mother were called in, and then I was, too. When I came back out, the waiting room was empty.

I think there’s a decent chance my young friend will check into Stuart Little if he remembers the title. I’m sure he’ll remember that the author’s first name was “E.B.”, and any librarian or bookseller worth her or his salt should be able to help him out.

I do hope so.

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Spring Break 2017

I’m still relishing the memory of spring break. Surrounded by mountains and plenty of sunshine, I stumbled upon a literacy oasis that up until then, I had only visited in my dreams. Almost a month later, I am still intrigued and inspired by what I experienced. I knew instantly that this magical place would be the topic of my next Bookology contribution. In fact, I believe I have enough material for a year’s worth of articles about this very special sanctuary of learning. I invite my readers to relive the day with me, now and in the coming months, as I share my take-aways from Zaharis Elementary School, a place where people “clamor to bring their children… because of [a] unique approach to teaching and learning.”  

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome

Thanks to the wonderful world of Facebook, I seized an opportunity that I knew I couldn’t pass up. A few days before I was scheduled to kick off spring break by boarding a flight to Arizona, Donalyn Miller posted that she was also heading to the desert to present at the Zaharis Literacy Conference, Echoes of Learning, in Mesa, Arizona. Those of us who have read The Book Whisperer or Reading in the Wild or are Nerdy Book Club members knew that this would be worth investigating! I looked up the school’s website and quickly discovered that for just $50 I could attend the one-day conference that featured Donalyn along with keynote addresses from Pam Muñoz Ryan and Dr. Frank Serafini. I’ve had the privilege of seeing all three of these highly respected literacy gurus in the past and knew that I couldn’t go wrong. Spring break or not, I would be going back to school on my first day of vacation. If the conference had consisted of just these three exceptional people it would have been enough. I had no idea that so much more awaited me.

From the moment I strolled through the front doors and scanned the hallways, I could tell that Zaharis Elementary was not your average, run-of-the-mill kind of school. Throughout the day, literacy conference attendees were encouraged to take tours, visit classrooms, and meander through the hallways to get a closer look at the school and how it operates.

The very first thing I noticed was a beautiful mural of two kids reading while sitting on a pile of books. A plethora of author’s autographs filled the spines and covers of the painted books; Jack Gantos, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Patricia Polacco, Grace Lin, Mary Amato, Michael Buckley, and more than a dozen others. Clearly, I had discovered a place where literacy was alive and well.

I rounded the corner and spotted a huge wall filled with framed 8 X 10 photos of Zaharis staff members. Maybe not such an unusual display, until you consider the large heading painted above the frames: Our Legacy – A Love for Literature. Every staff member was holding their very favorite book in their school picture. “Huh!” I thought to myself, “What a simple and inexpensive way to promote a love of reading.” There is a reason Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine selected this school as one of the “25 Coolest Schools in America.” 

Our Legacy Zaharis Elementary School

Once I signed in for the day and met Nancy, one of the friendliest secretaries ever (she hails from the Midwest, having lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota), I wandered from room to room and visited with several extraordinary teachers. I learned quite a bit about this amazing school and realized that my first impression was accurate… this was truly a place where promoting a love of literacy gets top billing. I have to admit, it didn’t take long for me to think about polishing up my résumé and moving south!

Another notable display worth mentioning was a wall filled with framed book covers. Captioned Our Mentors, this sizable collection of professional learning titles showcases the commitment Zaharis staff makes to honing their craft as teachers and learners. Since opening their classroom doors for business in 2002, teachers at Zaharis have engaged in book studies with nearly three dozen mentor texts. Included are such gems as On Solid Ground by Sharon Taberski, In the Middle by Nancy Atwell, Going Public by Shelley Harwayne, Teaching with Intention by Debbie Miller, About the Authors: Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers by Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleaveland, and of course, Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller.

Our Mentors - Zaharis Elementary School

In between breakout sessions that were led by classroom teachers, I took part in a guided tour of Zaharis led by school principal, Mike Oliver.  Mr. Oliver’s unparalleled passion and expertise easily qualify him as one of the most solid literacy leaders I’ve ever encountered. His refreshing approach to teaching and literacy learning tugged at my heartstrings as I wish every educator and every child could benefit from this type of mindset. His words resonated so strongly with my personal beliefs:

“What is a reader? What does it mean to be a reader? That’s a question that we ask all the time. The reason that question is so important and our response to it, is it largely determines who our children become as readers, whether or not they pick up a book of their own choosing and how successful they are, really resides in our response to ‘What does it mean to be a reader?’ You look at schools across the country and in so many of them, they drown in a sea of worksheets… 5-6 per day is over 1,000 worksheets a year. Yet there’s no research that shows that there’s a correlation between how many worksheets kids do and how successful they are as readers.” 

I was also quite enthused about Mr. Oliver’s philosophy of how to recruit and hire top-notch teaching talent. As we paused in front of the Our Mentors wall display, he explained that the first several interview questions always center on reading. Candidates are asked to share what they are reading for personal pleasure and for professional growth. If unable to respond easily and fully, the interview is, quite frankly, over (though the remaining questions are still shared out of respect). As Mr. Oliver pointed out, how can we expect someone who doesn’t appear to value reading to be responsible for instilling a love of literacy in children?

Mr. Oliver's Office

Mr. Oliver’s Office

Oversized classrooms that look more like furniture showrooms, complete with sectional sofas, cozy reading nooks and floor to ceiling book displays would make any kid or teacher swoon. As much as I love the idea of relaxed, homey learning environments like those at Zaharis, it might be a tall order to transform most traditional classrooms into such well-appointed spaces.

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

However, the real heart of the learning that happens in this literacy oasis located in the Arizona desert, comes from the careful integration of kids and books, skillfully woven together by the teachers, not from a scripted program or pre-selected curriculum. Please check back next month for the next installment on Zaharis Elementary, a feature on using picture books with first graders to teach a civil rights timeline and an innovative approach called “Mystery Readers” to help 2nd through 5th graders learn how to analyze oral reading.

I’ll close with the words that comprise the Zaharis mission and values, every bit as eloquent and uplifting as it is child- and learning-centered! 

 Our Mission

Learning, caring, rejoicing and working together to create a more just, compassionate, insightful world.

At Zaharis…

Our school is a family. We care for one another and value each other’s voice.

We are all learners and our passions are contagious. We unite as we celebrate each other’s growth, achievements and successes.

It is important to share our stories. This is one way we merge heart and intellect.

We value children’s brilliance. Their feelings, ideas, gifts and talents are respected and shared.

Smiles and laughter make everything easier. Love serves as a motivator until desire to learn is cultivated.

 We understand that when learning travels through the heart, it inspires greater meaning and purpose.

Learning is a social experience. We make meaning together through collaborative dialogue.

We learn through inquiry. The learning in our classrooms mirrors the work that readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and social scientists do.

Students and teachers have time – time to think, time to wonder, time to explore, and time to share their findings—together.

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Chef Roy Choi’s Story

Chef Roy ChoiEvery time I re-read this book, it makes me happier. I’ve grown quite fond of the books being published by Readers to Eaters and I eagerly anticipate each new book.

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix is another food artisan biography from Jacqueline Briggs Martin, this time co-written with June Jo Lee. Jackie writes the flavorful essence of the artist in an irresistible recipe of words. June Jo is a food ethnographer, “studying how America eats,” and the co-founder of Readers to Eaters. As a kid-at-heart, I want a biography written about her next. Studying food?

But this book is about a boy born in South Korea who travels to America at age two with his family and attends school in California. His mother is a talented cook, specializing in kimchee, a Korean food staple. Her cooking is so good that she and her husband open a restaurant. And Roy is fascinated by what happens there.

He becomes a chef. The authors relate his journey in a way that every kid will understand. Eventually, Chef Roy Choi launches the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck with a mixture of Korean and Mexican food. He prepares ingredients by hand, with love, to share with his community. Healthy fast food is a rare thing in his neighborhood and Kogi is a hit.

One of the main ingredients for this LA-connected book is street art turned into book art by Man One. Don’t miss the authors’ and illustrator’s notes in this book. They will have your students wanting to know more about these talented book creators. The art in this book (I’m paraphrasing from his Note) started with spray-painting the backgrounds on large canvases, photographing them, and then working with them digitally, adding pencil and Sharpie to create truly unique picture book art. He includes many scenes from his community—you can sense the love imbuing these pages. His palette, the textures … they’re yummy.

This is a book filled with so much respect for readers, eaters, and kids with aspirations … it’s completely satisfying.

Don’t miss this for your inspirational school and classroom library!

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix
written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee
illustrated by Man One
Readers to Eaters, 2017.

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Skinny Dip with Gary Mlodzik

This time around, we’re Skinny Dippin’ with Gary Mlodzik, founder of the Grow Your Library initiative within the national literacy foundation Kids Need to Read.

Gary and Tina Mlodzik in Argentina

Gary Mlodzik and his daughter Kody in Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

Lee Child. I love his writing! I have read every one of the Jack Reacher books and love his storytelling style. Lee let’s your imagination fill in the blanks. A Joe Friday approach to writing, “Just the facts, ma’am.” No more than needed to capture the essence of the story, no less than required for a thrilling adventure. I have heard him speak at a book signing and he has a great sense of humor and he’s very engaging.

Favorite city to visit?

San Diego. When you live in the Arizona desert, the ocean is a welcome reprieve from the summertime heat. San Diego is a six-hour drive and brings a welcome change of scenery. Great food, fun attractions, recreational opportunities, and an opportunity to relax by the gentle waves make for a great getaway.

What’s your dream vacation?

Iceland! God’s beauty in so many forms, all in one country! The Aurora Borealis, beautiful coasts, wildlife, caves, glaciers, waterfalls and hot springs are waiting to explore and enjoy.

Morning person? Night person?

Definitely a morning person! Get up and get ‘er done! I have a list ready and hit it hard. Once evening comes, productivity declines rapidly.

Best tip for living a contented life?

Discover who you are as a person, accept who you are, build your life into the best you that you can be.

Kids Need to ReadGary shares his passion for literacy by volunteering!

I volunteer with the national literacy foundation Kids Need to Read (KNTR). I am honored to serve on their board of directors. In 2015, I developed the Grow Your Library program for KNTR. For this program, KNTR provides 200 books to four carefully selected, economically challenged libraries throughout the USA per year. Along with the book donation, my wife, Tina, and I visit the library, conduct a story time and explain how the kids can “donate” more books to the library just by emailing KNTR with a short note regarding what they like about reading or what they like to read. Then, Tina and I donate a book to the library with the child’s name on a book plate inside the cover! It’s the child’s gift to the library! Each child in attendance also gets a book to keep and a Highlights for Children magazine to take home. Sometimes the kids are in awe that the book is really theirs for life.

I have been blessed with support and encouragement from many sources. I am humbled by the number of people who, like me, believe that public libraries need our support to provide services for future generations. If readers would like to support this endeavor, please make a financial donation. Or if they have a favorite children’s book they would like us to include in our program, they can send the books right from their favorite bookseller directly to:

Kids Need To Read, Grow Your Library
Attn: Gary Mlodzik
2450 W. Broadway, Suite 110
Mesa, AZ 85202

Multiples of four books per title are usually best so we can send one to each library.

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Racing to Catch a Plane

Photo By Nino Andonis

Photo By Nino Andonis

I was working the last day of a book conference in Chicago when I came down with a horrible case of what I later learned was strep throat. My one clear memory of that day is blinking alert long enough to recognize that I was seated in the front seat of a cab that was being driven down the shoulder of a Chicago highway at 70 MPH so that we could make it to the airport on time.

I’ve had other work experiences from the dark side, but that day ranks high on the list of “please, just let it be over” times.

We can experience an urgency around reaching the endpoint when we’re on a trip that’s going badly, or we can experience it when we’re writing—even if the writing is going well. It’s something that I see over and over again, in fact, when I review student writing. I’ll be reading along, feeling like the student’s story is well-paced and engaging, and then suddenly the writing changes. It begins racing towards the finish line, as if the writer has suddenly remembered that they have a plane to catch. Sometimes very young writers I work with literally stop the story mid-thought and write “The End.”

If you ask, they’ll probably tell you that they’ve run out of ideas. But the truth is, they’ve probably run out of creative energy. I find that my own writing is very energy-based; when the energy is gone, the writing stops cold. When this happens, your best bet is to allow your students to take a short break. For a shorter classroom writing setting, that might be as simple as a jumping jacks interruption. For a longer piece of writing, I find I sometimes need to put the project in a drawer for a week or more, to allow new energy to generate.

When the break is over, I sit down with the student (or myself), and find the point in the story where it’s clear that the writer switched over to a mentality of “racing to catch a plane.” I read the paragraph before that, and then I ask a simple question: “What happens next?”

More often than not, the break will have done the trick. Erasers get busy and rub out “The End.” The writer has discovered that after all, “the story must go on.”

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Bookstorm™: Creekfinding

Creekfinding Bookstorm

CreekfindingWe were very excited to read Creekfinding: a True Story because it tells the story of restoring a long-ago creek in an Iowa prairie setting. Just imagine: bringing back the burbling waters, the fish, the insects, the grasses … everything that makes up the health and character of the land. It took bulldozers and determination, partners and imagination, but it was a project that brought ecological success!

Our Bookstorm will take you into further exploration, studying ecosystems, water conservation, community action, fish, and more.

We trust you will find inspiration and resources aplenty within the Bookstorm to accompany your study of Creekfinding: a True Story. We know you’ll share our appreciation for Dr. Michael Osterholm, who conceived of the project, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, the author, Claudia McGehee, the illustrator, and the University of Minnesota Press, which understood how much readers and innovative thinkers need this book.

Downloadable

Bookology interviewed the author, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and the illustrator, Claudia McGehee, about their work on this book.

You’ll find more information about Jacqueline Briggs Martin on her website. And read about illustrator Claudia McGehee on her website.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm (who conceived of the Creekfinding project)
  • driftless region
  • ecosystems
  • fiction
  • fish
  • prairies
  • preserving and restoring our natural world
  • think globally, act locally
  • urban farming, restoring greenery and growth to the city
  • water

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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Creekfinding with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

A stewardship for our one and only Earth are an abiding concern for many of our planet’s inhabitants. When an author finds an opportunity to share with the world of readers her own passion for conserving our ecosystems, the book Creekfinding: A True Story is created. We hope you’ll find inspiration for your own exploration and conservation in this interview with Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Don’t miss reading the book … it’s a treasure.

Do you remember when you first had the idea to write this story?

I had been wanting to collaborate on a story with Claudia because I love her art so much. So, I was noodling about what we might do. On November 30, 2011, the Cedar Rapids Gazette published a story on Mike Osterholm’s creek restoration project. As soon as I read it I knew that was the story I wanted to tell and I hoped Claudia would want to do the illustrations.

Have you met Dr. Michael Osterholm? How did that meeting add to your story?

Shortly after reading the article I contacted the reporter, Orlan Love. He said I should talk with Mike and gave me his email address. I emailed him. Within a half hour I received an answer, “Call me. Mike.” That was the first of many conversations. About a month after that conversation my husband and I drove to Northfield, Minnesota to St. Olaf College where Mike was giving a talk on creek restoration.

The Creekfinding team

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Jacqueline Briggs Martin,
and Claudia McGehee, the Creekfinding team

Have you visited Brook Creek?

I have now visited Brook Creek. When I was writing the story, I read many articles about Mike’s restoration project and watched several videos. I visited Brook Creek in my imagination.

Your word choices are often evocative in a way another word would not be.

“Years later, a man named Mike
bought that field and the hillside.
Mike wanted to grow a prairie in
the old cornfield,
to partner with the sun and soil,
grow tall grasses and flowers.

The word “partner” evokes a sense of working with the land, as though the land were a conscious entity. Do words like this come naturally from your mind or do you find yourself hunting for them? 

Author Jacqueline Briggs Martin getting to know Brook Creek

Mike had told me a story about the oak savannah that he also restored: once they cleaned out the weed trees so sunlight could get down to the forest floor, seeds germinated that had been waiting for a hundred years. It just seemed like he was partnering with the earth. And that word came to me as I was thinking about his work on the prairie.

There are ribbons of text woven into the illustrations, often highlighting a factual statement. Were these statements an original part of your manuscript?

The statements were originally just sidebars. It was Claudia’s decision to include them on a blade of grass or a ripple in the trout stream and I love the way the information looks and works. It’s there if readers want to find it, but it’s unobtrusive if they just want to read the text.

illustration from Creekfinding: A True Story
by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by and copyright Claudia McGehee

Did you discuss the illustrations for the book with Claudia McGehee, the illustrator?

Claudia lives only 19 miles from me so we talked together with an Iowa geologist about the Driftless. Claudia showed me her early sketches (and I loved them). And I went to her house to see her later sketches arranged on her dining room table. Once I saw them I realized I needed to do some editing—so that was a great part about working so closely. We even removed a sidebar or two that were just getting in the way of the story.

CreekfindingThere are a number of joyful words in this book, “laughter” and “chuckle.” Why did you choose these words?

The sound of water has always been joyous to me. When I was growing up there was a seasonal “stream,” maybe a ditch, across the street from our house. I loved waiting next to that stream for the schoolbus. Also, this is a joyful story of restoration. There is also a hint of anthropomorphizing in the notion of “partnering” with the earth. I guess in my head it seemed as if the natural world can be a partner maybe it can also have or express joy.

In recent years, you’ve been working on books about people who are changing our world. Will Allen, Alice Waters, Dr. Michael Osterholm, and your newest book about Chef Roy Choi. Are these stories you feel compelled to tell? 

I do. I love these stories of people who act out of passion (and that goes back to Wilson Bentley), do what they must do to make our world whole—restore creeks, grow good food in school yards or urban lots, serve good food in food deserts. I think I do this for myself, to remind myself that, though we have many problems in our world, many things to be worried about, there are people who are working out of love and conviction to make a better world for all.

As a writer, how do you see your role in creating a better world?

I want to write books that children will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I will never know if I succeed. But if one of my stories remained with children as part of “the furniture of their minds” I would feel good. I hope children will mix that memory with whatever else they have stored up and do something for this world that I cannot even imagine.

Don’t miss the companion interview with illustrator Claudia McGehee or the Bookstorm for Creekfinding: A True Story offering companion books and websites for further exploration or incorporation into lesson plans.

The restored Brook Creek

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Creekfinding with illustrator Claudia McGehee

Claudia McGehee

Claudia McGehee (photo: Thomas Langdon)

While taking a closer look at Creekfinding: A True Story, it is impossible to separate the narrative and the illustrations because together they make the book whole. And yet two different artists created the words and the illustrations that guide the reader toward an understanding of the Brook Creek restoration project. Claudia McGehee notices the details, the encompassing emotions and the nuances of the landscape that encourage to walk alongside Team Brook Creek while they explore this restored ecosystem. Do add this book to your bookshelves. You’ll want to read it and soak in the art whenever you need reassurance that we can be good stewards of this Earth..

When you begin work on a new book, what is the first thing that you do?

I find a quiet place to read the manuscript several times, close my eyes, and imagine the “scenes” the words bring forth to me, keeping a sketchbook handy to get these “first blinks” of inspiration. This goes for when I have authored the book as well; I don’t start illustrating until the manuscript is complete.

Claudia McGehee at workIn the Illustrator’s Note, you state, “I made the ripply, sturdy lines of earth, water, and sky in scratchboard and painted the prairie greens, creek blues, and everything in between with watercolors and dyes.” Can you tell us a bit about the tools you use for scratchboard?

I use a sharp skinny X-acto blade (a number 16, with a beveled end) to carve into the scratchboard surface, revealing the white chalky layer below. I scratch out what I want to be white or colored, and leave an outline and detail in black. When all the line-work is complete, I scan the image into my Mac and print it onto watercolor paper. From here I use watercolor and dyes and paint traditionally at my board.

Claudia McGehee scratchboard artFor readers who would like to work with scratchboard, what type of paper do you use? What do you mean by dyes? How do you apply them to the paper? And why do you use them?

I use Essdee brand scratchboard. It is robust enough to be scratched, inked again if I want to make a correction and reworked. There is also a thinner grade of scratchboard (the company Melissa and Doug makes this kind) that younger people can scratch with wooden stylus, much less sharp than an X-acto blade.

Claudia McGehee applying the dyesThe dyes go by the brand name Dr. Ph. Martin’s. They’ve been around forever. They are essentially watercolor, known for their vivid, almost fluorescent quality. I apply them just as I do watercolors, with a brush. They work very well for prairie and creekside flowers and critters.  I am very partial to the Doc Martin chartreuse (frog green!). The dyes do tend to fade in the sunlight, so I keep my originals in dark file drawers to preserve the color.

How do you preserve and store scratchboard artwork?

I have a large, older, flat file where a lot of work goes. I also archive in big plastic bins, separating the artwork by each individual book project.

Claudia McGehee painting with dyesAt what point in the making of the book do you create the endpapers?

A highlight for me is to behold a picture book’s end-sheets. Good ones will give an indication of the book’s overall message or spirit. Sometimes they tell a story as well. I savor making my own end-sheets, usually treating myself to making them at the very last of a book project. The Creekfinding end-sheets are something I’ve wanted to try for a while, using them to suggest a passage of time. The opening of the book is a sunrise on the creek, complete with red-winged black bird, and the back sheet is a sunset.

Claudia McGehee using crayonsYou visited Prairie Song Farm, which is where the creek in this book was restored. As an artist, how do you look at a new location that you will make the focus of a new book?

I simply try to observe and be in the moment when I visit a book setting’s location. I want the place to speak to me and I have to be quiet to hear it. My work relies on small details that make the setting unique. Hopefully, my impressions will pass on successfully to my illustrations later in the studio.

You have a degree in archaeology. What does the knowledge you studied bring to the work you do now?

In a practical sense, my archaeology background helped me hone my research skills, as important to an illustrator as they are to a writer. There is also a level of basic curiosity in the archaeologist, a love for the “what comes next?” that is similar in the process of making a nonfiction-based picture book.

Illustrations from Creekfinding: A True Story, copyright Claudia McGehee

The humans, birds, fish, and insects in this book all look joyful. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

I may never work for National Geographic, but I believe that all animals are capable of “smiling” and showing happiness like humans do and I naturally want to show this. After all, I would be happy if I were a brook trout in Mike’s creek! I don’t want them to look too sweet or whimsical however, but I do hope my birds and fish et al express a sense of joy in living that all creatures feel.

CreekfindingThe art in this book is gorgeous, sumptuous, an invitation to revel in our natural landscapes. What do you feel while you’re working on a book like this? And once it’s printed and in your hands?

Thank you! I really am taken by our natural world’s beauty. It sustains me. My personal art mission is for my work to entice readers outdoors after a good read to experience nature themselves.

Actually making book art is not as magical a time as some imagine! It is hard physical and mental work. Publishing deadlines are critical to make, so at times I feel I am a marathon runner, pacing herself through a long race. There are certainly points of joy, like the completion of thumbnails or sketches. I will laugh out loud if I feel I have really nailed a spread. But there are also frustrations when I just can’t get a page to come together.

The best part of making Creekfinding is that Jackie and I live quite close and are friends and we regularly connected to share the progress of the book. I looked at early versions of her manuscript and she looked at the artwork in progress.  It was nice to have this camaraderie, and what we later called “Team Brook Creek,” which includes Mike Osterholm, the book’s subject. It was truly a unique project to be part of.

Thank you, Claudia for sharing with us an inside look at the incredible work you do.

Don’t miss the companion interview with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin or the Bookstorm for Creekfinding: A True Story offering companion books and websites for further exploration or incorporation into lesson plans.

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Read Out Loud for Easter

As you prepare to celebrate Easter, we encourage you to include books in your celebration. A tradition of reading out loud before Easter dinner, after Easter dinner, as you awaken on Easter morning … perhaps each day during Holy Week? Here are a few gems we believe you and your family will treasure. Happy Easter!

At Jerusalem's Gate  

At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter
written by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by David Frampton
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2005

There are twenty-two free-form poems in this book, each from the point of view of a witness to the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each poem could be read by a different family member or the poems could be read separately throughout the Easter weekend. The woodcut illustrations will engender conversations about the style, technique, and details.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

 

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
written by Du Bose Heyward, illustrated by Marjorie Flack
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1939

Little Cottontail Mother is raising 21 children, but it’s her dream to become the Easter Bunny. As she assigns her children chores and teaches them life’s lessons, she gains confidence to audition for the job of one of the five Easter Bunnies who deliver eggs and baskets on Easter Sunday. It’s a sweet story still, nearly 80 years after it was first published. The brightly colored illustrations are memory-making for new generations of readers.

The Easter Story  

The Easter Story
written and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith
Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

The events of Holy Week, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection, are recounted through the eyes of the little donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. With Wildsmith’s distinctive illustrations, this book has been published in many editions and many languages. A good read-aloud book to add to your Easter bookshelf.

Egg  

Egg
written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow Books, 2017

Four eggs, each a different color, hatch (one doesn’t) and the chicks set off—and return for the unhatched egg. When the egg hatches, there’s a surprise! When the book ends, there’s another surprise! This is a book about friendship and growing up, just right for reading out loud and for emerging readers to read on their own. With simple lines and appealing colors, the illustrations are irresistible.

The Golden Egg Book  

The Golden Egg Book
written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard
Golden Books, 1947

A true classic among Easter books, a small bunny finds a blue egg. He can hear something moving around inside so he conjectures what it might be. As the bunny tries to open the egg, he wears out and falls asleep. Only then does the young duckling emerge from the egg. With richly colored illustrations from the masterful Leonard Weisgard, this is a treasured book for many children and families.

Simon of Cyrene and the Legend of the Easter Egg  

Simon of Cyrene and the Legend of the Easter Egg
written by Terri DeGezelle, illustrated by Gabhor Utomo
Pauline Books & Media, 2017

Based on a few lines about the legend of Simon of Cyrene that the author found while researching, this book brings to life the experience of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as told through the perspective of Simon. He takes eggs to Jerusalem to sell for Passover when he becomes caught up in the procession following Jesus as he carries his cross to Calvary. As Jesus stumbles and falls, a Roman soldier forces Simon to bear the cross instead. Told with a lively narrative and brightly colored, satisfying illustrations, this is a good story to choose for read-alouds, opening up an opportunity to discuss the many aspects of the Easter story.

Story of Easter  

Story of Easter
written by Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Stefano Vitale
HarperCollins, 1997

With an informative text and glorious illustrations, this book explains both how and why people all over the world celebrate Easter. It tells the biblical story of Jesus’ Resurrection and then describes how people honor this day and the origins of these traditions. Hands-on activities help draw children into the spirit of this joyous celebration of rebirth.

Story of the Easter Bunny  

Story of the Easter Bunny
written by Katherine Tegen, illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert HarperCollins, 2005

Most people know about the Easter Bunny, but how did the Easter Bunny get his job and how does he accomplish the distribution of so many colorful eggs each Easter? It all began in a small cottage with an old couple who dye the eggs and weave the baskets. One Easter, they sleep in and it’s their pet white rabbit’s decision to deliver the eggs and chocolate, thereby starting a tradition. Told in a matter-of-fact style with appealing, detailed illustrations, this is a good addition to your Easter tradition.

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Behind the Poem, “What She Asked”

one of Virginia’s many popular books for upper middle grade and teen readers

Listen to Virginia’s poem, “What She Asked,” on Poetry Mosaic, the April 7th entry, and then read her description of the real-life event behind the poem.

In a rural Oregon high school where I taught English more than 20 years ago, we had big teaching areas separated by screen-wall things, but they came nowhere near reaching the high ceiling, because a few years earlier the design of the school had been to have a giant Resource Center and Library, and teachers and groups of students would ideally meet in sections of the massive room, and that would be school. Didn’t turn out that way (of course): Acoustics were the main problem, but also the continuous human traffic through, coming and going in the Library section. So the dividers arrived, and we had somewhat discrete class areas, but not really. If the neighboring class area was noisy, focus and concentration were difficult. In one or two periods of the day, my area’s nearest neighbor was Human Health and Sexuality, and we who were studying fiction heard “and the condoms don’t always work,” etc.

“What She Asked,” is including in this poetry anthology, published by Pomelo Books, 2016

There were the occasional paper airplanes. One or two per week, maybe. 

One afternoon, in the sleepy after-lunch period, I whisperingly asked my class (high school juniors, maybe some sophomores) to make paper airplanes and we would send them, on signal, over the wall to Human Health and Sexuality.

“Can we make more than one?” “Sure! As many as you can fly all at once,” said I. I insisted that they understand that only at my signal would the fleet of airplanes have the desired effect of simultaneity. I, too, made one paper airplane.

On my own personal count of 3, it worked. I think we must have sent over 40+ airplanes into the next class. Great fun. The teacher had a fine sense of humor (her fields were Biology and Ski Coaching) and she liked the dramatic moment of it. Of course Human Health and Sexuality sent the planes back, but I suppose we won because we had done it first. And simultaneously.

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This Is Just To Say

April is National Poetry Month, which is as good an excuse as any to take some poetry books off the shelf and have a read. I’m quite methodical in April—it’s the hint of spring in the air, I suppose. I clean my office and then I build a stack of wonderful poetry books—some Billy Collins, a little Emily Dickinson, a tome of Robert Frost, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Mary Oliver, naturally…..

On top of this fine stack I put my collection of Joyce Sidman books. This means, to be honest, that I seldom make it down to the “grown-up” poets. Which is fine—I’m quite perfectly happy wandering in Joyce’s books for the entire month. The others can be read…whenever. Joyce’s books have pictures. In the words and on the pages. I think all poets should be illustrated.

I say “Joyce,” all familiar like, because I know her. Which seems too fantastic to be true—I know none of those other poets, except through their work. But Joyce I know—I saw her this past weekend, in fact. I hear her voice in her poems—even when it’s not her voice speaking. (I hear Billy Collins in his poems, too, but Joyce’s voice is not so deadpan.)

We’re several days into April and I’ve yet to make it past the book that is possibly my favorite in my Joyce Sidman collection: This is Just To Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. It’s a slim volume—paperback. Sometimes it gets shoved back on my bookcase and I panic when I look up and don’t see it right away. It’s illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, an artist whose website I sometimes visit just to browse and mutter her last name over and over again like its own poem. She has illustrated a few of Joyce’s books. They are an inspired pair, I think.

I bought this book as soon as I saw that the very first poem was, as I suspected, William Carlos William’s “This Is Just To Say,” one of my most favorite poems. Another of his poems “The Red Wheel Barrow” is one of the only poems I’ve managed to keep memorized since college. I recite it when walking sometimes still.

Joyce uses William’s poem, “This is Just To Say,” as a model when she teaches, so says her website. And it is the model for this brilliant book of poetry: a story—or perhaps I should say stories—told through poems of apology and forgiveness.

I’m embarrassed to say that I did not realize this book told stories until I read some of the poems aloud to a group of pre-schoolers. An astute 4-year-old pointed out to me that one poem went with another, which is when I realized the poems were in pairs. (We’ll just focus on the brilliance of the 4-year-old and not my sloppy reading.) Ever since, when I read this book, I read the apology poem and then the “follow-up poem,” which is often a forgiveness poem, but sometimes just an explanation—and therein lie the stories. And these stories—my heart!—they run the gamut of the lives of children. From dodge ball games to mean things said…from things breaking to breaking hearts…from secrets kept to confessions made….from crushes to honest-to-goodness love…from frightened kids to despairing parents.

It’s the best of poetry, truly. Accessible, meaningful, rich. I’ll just spend this April here, thank you very much.

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March Shorts

Oooo! Here in Minnesota, shorts in March mean chills. These books will give you chills–in a good way!

Cat Goes Fiddle-I-FeeCat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee
Adapted and illustrated by Paul Galdone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985
(reissued in April 2017)

I recognized the title immediately as I song I know well, sung as “I Had a Rooster” by Pete Seeger on Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Little Fishes in 1968. Turns out, I remember the rhyme more than the words. Galdone wrote a different adaptation of this folk tale, one that is irresistible for reading out loud. In fact, even if you’re sitting alone in a room by yourself, you’re going to want to read this out loud. The words and the rhyme scheme are fun. Kids at storytime and kids in a classroom and kids sitting on your lap will want to sing along … and quite possibly dance. In this new edition, Galdone’s illustrations are friendly. Find the snail. Who shares the page with the dog? There are many animals to examine and they don’t always make the expected sounds: “Hen goes chimmy-chuck, chimmy-chuck.” As the tale builds cumulatively, it’s a good exercise in memory and repetition, and just plain fun. Turns out it’s a different story than Seeger’s so both of them could be used. 

Hoot & Honk Just Can't SleepHoot & Honk Just Can’t Sleep
written and illustrated by Leslie Helakoski
Sterling Children’s Books, 2017

Two eggs, one from an owl’s nest and one from a goose’s nest, tumble to the ground during a wind storm. When the mamas take home the wrong eggs, the hatchlings are confused. The owlet doesn’t like the food the other goslings like and the gosling doesn’t want what the owlets are hungry for. And their sleep patterns are quite different. A wonderful way to open up the discussion about different birds with young listeners, this is a gorgeous book with a happy-go-lucky spirit. Illustrated by Helakoski with pastels on sanded paper, the color is sumptuous, the views have depth, and everyone’s going to want to touch the bird’s feathers. And who can resist the main characters’ names? Hoot. Honk. Hoot and Honk. 

Charlotte the Scientist is SquishedCharlotte the Scientist is Squished
written by Camille Andros
illustrated by Brianne Farley
Clarion Books, 2017

I squealed after I read this book. This is exactly the book I would have read and re-read when I was a kid. The fly papers are diagrams of the inside of a rocket, labeled carefully so there’s much to ponder. Charlotte is a bunny rabbit with a problem. She is a serious scientist with no room to conduct her work. She has a large family, as some bunnies do, and they’re always underfoot. So Charlotte employs the Scientific Method to solve her problem. She creates a hypothesis and tried her experiment and draws a conclusion. And all of this is done with a great amount of humor supplied by the author and the illustrator, a seamless story. That carrot-shaped rocket is delightful and so is the bunny in the fishbowl. At the end of the book, there’s a feature “In the lab with Charlotte,” that uses Charlotte’s experiments for a discussion of the scientific method. Highly recommended.

Anywhere FarmAnywhere Farm
written by Phyllis Root
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Candlewick Press, 2017

Where can you farm? Anywhere! Together, Root and Karas present convincing arguments for growing your own food wherever and however you can. “For an anywhere farm, here’s all that you need: soil and sunshine, some water, a seed.”With soft vignettes that look closely at ways and means to plant seeds, “Kale in a pail, corn in a horn,” to circular depictions of neighbors tending their small-scale farms, to two-page spreads that show an urban community involved in gardening, the blend of poetry and illustrations make this book an appealing invitation to try your hand at farming … anywhere. Readers will have fun detecting all the places growing plants can be supported. As kids and adults of all ages and abilities work together, the lush end to this book is a satisfying one. Excuse me, won’t you? I’m off to germinate my seeds!

Peggy
written and illustrated by Anna Walker
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017 paperback

I pronounce this a Picture-Book-of-the-Absurd, delightfully so. “Peggy lived in a small house on a quiet street.” Her chicken coop in the backyard of a suburban house has a trampoline outside. “Every day, rain or shine, Peggy ate breakfast, played in her yard, and watched the pigeons.” In a series of nine “slides” (do you remember slides?) on each page, we observe Peggy doing just these things … with joy and When Peggy is blown off her trampoline by a strong wind into the unfamiliar environment of downtown, does she panic? No. She takes the opportunity to explore. In vignettes, Peggy eats spaghetti, she rides an escalator, and she shops for bargains. The soft, muted watercolor palette of the book is punctuated by Peggy’s black feathers, making her easy to follow as she ultimately decides she’d rather be at home. But how will she get there? Clues planted earlier in the story give her ideas and ultimately she finds her way back to her chicken coop with new-found friends. This is an ideal book for sharing one-on-one, examining the humor on every page as the intrepid Peggy shares her story.

RoundRound
written by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Do any of us spend enough time noticing the natural world around us? Do we look at the shape of things? Do we wonder enough about why they are in the shapes they are? What about all of the round things in the world? The moon. water, lily pads, rocks … so many specific things to notice, observe, and appreciate. Joyce Sidman’s poem leads the listener into this exploration: “I love to watch round things move. They are so good at it!” Yoo’s illustrations find things to show us that are not in the text … words and illustrations blending together into a book that is more than its parts. Colorful and charming, the book’s design gets everything right. Even the author’s bios on the back jacket flap are presented in round shapes! Two pages in back ask “Why are so many things in nature round?” Short paragraphs from the author will broaden your vision, leading to discussions and noticing more each time you walk outside.

If You Were the MoonIf You Were the Moon
written by Laura Purdie Salas
illustrated by Jaime Kim
Millbrook Press, 2017

From the glossy cover to the moon’s expressive face to the bracketed, you-didn’t-know-that facts, everything about this book is appealing. Salas has a way of looking at something as familiar as the moon while encouraging us to think about it in fresh ways, poetically observant, waking-you-up ways. The moon as a ballerina? Of course, and for very good reason. In brackets, the facts: “The moon spins on its invisible axis, making a full turn every twenty-seven days.” Kim illustrates this spread with a contented, ballet-dancing moon that can’t help but make the reader smile. “Weave a spell over wonderers.”? The bracket inspires us with “Claire de Lune” and “The Moon is Distant from the Sea.” The illustration shows the Baule people of the Ivory Coast in festival masks. All of this is set in the vibrant colors of a moonlit night. It’s an inspiring book presented with the right balance for kids who love a poetic presentation as well as factual information.

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Skinny Dip with Loni Niles

Loni Niles

Loni Niles

We interviewed Loni Niles, K-12 media specialist in the Wadena-Deer Creek public schools in west central Minnesota. She shared her thoughts about books and life.

What is your favorite late-night snack?

I love popcorn and can eat it any time during the day, even for breakfast!

Favorite city to visit?

Chicago. Even though we moved from there when I was just a baby, I still take some pride that I was born there!  Now I love to visit there because my stepdaughter and her husband are such wonderful hosts—they show us all kinds of wonderful things the city has to offer.  Oh yeah, and there’s that grandson there, too! He definitely is a draw for me to visit this wonderful city!

First date?

My husband and I do not really agree on when our first date was. Fortunately, we agree on some of the more important things in life!

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

I find myself passionately recommending the novels The Lottery Rose by Irene Hunt and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Miss Steimle, my fifth grade teacher, read both of these out loud to my class in the 1970s, but today’s kids love them, too!

The Lottery Rose, A Wrinkle in Time

This is NOT a Cat!Illustrator’s work you most admire?

Mike Wohnoutka. My favorite book of his work is written by one of my favorite authors, David LaRochelle. It’s a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards this year and called This is NOT a Cat! Check it out! 

Tea? Coffee? Milk? Soda? What’s your favorite go-to drink?

Gotta have my coffee in the morning!

Favorite season of the year?

Although I love them all, it’s winter! Minnesota is the perfect place for me!  We typically get a real winter here and we definitely get four seasons!  At age 48, I started to downhill ski.  But I love to watch high school hockey, go snowmobilng and sledding, and when my sons were younger we used to love playing in the snow!

Marathon candy barFavorite candy as a kid?

Anyone remember the Marathon candy bar?! A yummy caramel braid covered in chocolate.

Brothers and sisters or an only child? How did that shape your life?

I’m in the middle of two brothers. I always told my two sons that I’m the best mom for them because I know what it’s like to have that big brother pounding on you and that little brother picking at you!  I used to lament not having sisters, but I have been surrounded by wonderful women (and girls, too—I have three granddaughters) in my life—so it’s not so much an issue anymore. 

Loni Niles and her brothers

Best tip for living a contented life?

I do live a very contented life, but I don’t really have a tip on how to do it. Seeing the good in things and people comes pretty naturally to me.  I try to remember my mom’s advice to always assume the best. This is the same woman who once told me as a teenager complaining about my acne that I should just be happy I have a face. That still makes me chuckle! 

Hope for the world?

My hope for the world is that we begin to recognize each others’ talents (and our own!) and appreciate each other—even our differences.

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Destination

Copyright Adobe Stock. Rome Map Detail; selective focus By Jules_KitanoIn college I was fortunate enough to travel with a school-sponsored group to Europe. I saw many amazing things, but Rome was the place I couldn’t stop talking about afterwards.

When I described my love for Rome to my parents, I focused on one particular episode: Wanting to escape the afternoon heat, a group of us ducked inside one of the churches that crop up everywhere in that city. Inside this unremarkable building, I discovered the original of a painting that had been my favorite out of my entire art history textbook. It was just hanging there on the wall, not even worthy of a locked door in a city that is crammed full of exquisite artworks.

I used a different anecdote when talking to my friends. I described the multi-hour dinner a group of us enjoyed, complete with a different wine for every course, and how we followed it up with a long midnight stroll through what seemed like the entire city of Rome, becoming completely lost, and probably by pure luck managing to eventually make it back to our hotel in one piece.

Here’s an important reminder for your writing students: when they are telling a story using a character speaking in first-person voice (the “I” voice), the character/narrator’s intended audience will play a key role. In other words, at some point the writer should ask, “What ‘audience destination’ does the narrator intend? Who does my character imagine will read their story?” That awareness of audience will shape many things, particularly how honest the narrator chooses to be, and what kind of private details they choose to share.

Do they imagine that there will be no outside readers (such as in a “Dear Diary” format)? Or does the narrator imagine they are telling their story to complete strangers? Knowing the answer to that question, in combination with the personality the writer has established for the narrator, will affect how the story is told.

Case in point: when I knew my parents were the audience, I chose a Rome story set at midday, in a church, featuring a Great Work of Art. I DIDN’T choose the Rome story set at midnight, on dark streets, featuring a group of wine-sloppy college students.

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Convincing Details!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Pop-up Books

Our household’s fascination with pop-up books came as a surprise to me. As a child I didn’t like them much. We had a few—one was Sleeping Beauty, I think. But they popped with boring modesty and they always had these tabs that you pulled to make things move, only my brother pulled them too hard and so they didn’t do anything besides pull in and out. Distinctly disappointing.

But #1 Son received Robert Sabuda’s The Christmas Alphabet for his first Christmas. He was ten months old. We were still at the stage where I was singing cheerfully, “Books are for reading, not for eating!” every time we sat down to read. He loved books…with all his senses. But when I opened The Christmas Alphabet he sat back on the couch in amazement—his mouth opened in surprise, but not because he wanted to eat the pop-ups. When he managed to tear his eyes away from the fantastic paper creations that stood up on each page, he looked at me as if to say, “What have we been doing all this time with those tasty two-dimensional books?!”

I taught him how to use one gentle finger to lift the flaps, open the doors, turn the pages….. I think this might’ve been instrumental in him becoming such a gentle giant, actually. (He’s 6’6”+ these days!) Our pop-ups remain in stellar condition.

Over the years we added to our collection. More Robert Sabuda, of course—Cookie Count, A Tasty Pop-up became our all-time favorite, I’d say—the gingerbread house can be enjoyed from all sides! But we also procured many of the classics—Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Mother Goose Rhymes—and some general learning ones, too, like an atlas, something about dinosaurs or dragons (I can’t remember which, and I can’t find it—maybe #1 Son took it to college?), and several more holiday books.

In short, we are fans. Darling Daughter once spent most of a spring break making pop-ups off of the plans on Sabuda’s website. Part engineering, part origami, part art, pop-ups are endlessly fascinating. She’d probably do it on her spring break next week if I left the tab open on the computer.

It’s hard to have pop-ups at the library, of course. There’s always the child who pulls too hard, turns the page too fast and refolds the folds or breaks the spine. If they weren’t so expensive I’d say we should just let them get trashed and replace them…but I get budgets. However, it’d make a great special event at the library—an afternoon of making pop-ups, reading them, then sharing them with friends…. I’d sign up and go myself! Now that I’ve pulled all of ours out though…I might still be busy here!

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Skinny Dip with Mike Wohnoutka

Mike Wohnoutka

Mike Wohnoutka

We interviewed Mike Wohnoutka, children’s book illustrator, widely known for his books Dad’s First Day, Moo!, and Little Puppy and the Big Green Monster. (Mike’s last name is pronounced wuh-noot-kuh.)

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

Picture books in general. I often hear parents say their children are too old for picture books. Recently a parent told me her first grader had “moved on” from picture books.  This absolutely drives me crazy. You are never too old for picture books.  They are second to none when it comes to art, storytelling, and language.

picture books

Favorite city to visit?

New York. I love the museums, comedy clubs, book stores, and theaters. It’s also nice to go to lunch with my editors since most of the publishers I work with are in New York.

Most cherished childhood memory?

Playing Kick the Can with all the kids in our neighborhood.

Mike Wohnoutka and David ShannonIllustrator’s work you most admire?

David Shannon. David is the reason I became an illustrator. After seeing his presentation, when I was in college, about how he illustrated his first children’s book, How Many Spots Does A Leopard Have?,  I thought “THAT is what I want to do!” His paintings are technically stunning and his stories are so funny.

When I visit schools I tell students about David being such an influence on me. It’s amazing how excited the students get when I show the cover of No David! and it’s incredible that every student is familiar with that series. He obviously has struck a chord with children.

A couple years ago, David and I both presented at the Mazza Museum summer conference. It was wonderful to meet him. He  is the nicest guy and it was fun to let him know how much of an inspiration he has been to me.

Go-to drink?

Coffee, especially in the morning as I write or paint.

Mike Wohnoutka

Copyright Mike Wohnoutka

Favorite season?

Fall. Leaves changing colors, cooler weather, the World Series, and Halloween are a few of the many things I love about fall.

Dream vacation?

Prague

What gives you shivers?

Mice

Strangest tourist attraction?

Mike Wohnoutka's family at the Wizarding World of Harry PotterOur family recently took a trip to Universal Studios in Orlando, mainly to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was such a fun vacation. The attention to detail in creating Diagon Alley, Hogwarts Express, and Hogsmeade was awe-inspiring.

My wife and I got teary-eyed when we first entered Diagon Alley. 

Also, the rides throughout Universal and Islands of Adventure were a blast. Of course our kids loved it all, but the strange thing about this tourist attraction is how much my wife and I truly enjoyed everything, too. We can’t wait to go back.

Brothers or sisters? How did they shape your life?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved to draw. Having three older brothers who were all really good at drawing had a big influence on me. I remember being so impressed with the simplest sketch they would do and I was determined to be as good as they were.

Best tip for living a contented life?

I have found meditation and yoga very helpful. I start every day with a 20 minute meditation (before the coffee).

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Isn’t It Time to Listen to the Teachers?

Recent headlines are sounding the alarm:

Star Tribune articleMore Minnesota teachers leaving jobs, new state report shows
One-fourth of new teachers leave within first three years, according to a new state report. 

The statewide teacher shortage described as an “epidemic” has Minnesota school districts searching for strategies that will increase teacher retention. A February, 2017, Star Tribune article offers a startling statistic that should be stopping school boards, administrators, legislators and most importantly parents in their tracks:

“The 2017 version of the Minnesota Teacher Supply and Demand report issued Wednesday found a 46 percent increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession since 2008.”

While I believe a number of other issues also deserve our attention (increasing the number of teachers of color, improving teacher training, and closing the achievement gap), we cannot ignore the fact that the future of education is uncertain at best. Some might even say the future is bleak.

However, as a self-professed champion of positivity and on behalf of the hundreds of colleagues I have worked with over the past 26 years, I have compiled a short list of requests. Investing in these five straightforward conditions would send a strong message that we are serious about addressing the need to attract and retain high-quality teachers for our children.

Isn’t it time to listen to the teachers when we ask for the following? 

#1. High quality training in classroom management and engagement

Ask any first year educator what he/she learned about these essential components of teaching in their undergraduate courses and the answer will likely be “Little, if anything.” The sad truth is that our colleges and universities are not doing an exceptional job of preparing new teachers for the challenges they will face when it comes to creating classroom environments that are conducive to learning. We must do better. Before the degrees are granted, as well as once new teachers are standing in front a classroom full of kids, learning how to establish a climate where kids can and want to learn is essential. 

#2. Reasonable class sizes

And speaking of that classroom full of kids… Despite the studies that insist class size doesn’t really matter all that much, 99.9% of teachers will tell you, CLASS SIZE MATTERS! A lot! Last year I taught two sections of Language Arts. My first section had 31 students, my second section just 22 students. The amount of time I could devote to small group reading with students in the second section was obviously much greater than with students in the first section. Excellent teachers strive to create meaningful relationships with students, they believe in providing relevant feedback, and they understand the importance of connecting with parents. Accomplishing these goals is possible with 22 students. Making it happen consistently with 31 students is a feat that most teachers find overwhelming.

#3. Ample classroom library and supply budgets

There is a joke often shared on social media that teaching is the only profession where you steal from home and take things to work. Surveys have shown that the average teacher spends at least $500 out of their pocket for everything from Kleenex to snow boots to graham crackers. We not only worry about keeping students healthy, warm, and fed, but we also invest heavily in putting books on our shelves year after year. Many teachers I know dream of winning the lottery in order to stock his/her classroom with the basic essentials. Rather than make us wait for our lucky numbers to hit, how about if the school boards, administrators, and school finance gurus help us meet the needs of students today! We’re not asking for millions, but $500-$1,000 per year would help a great deal.

#4. Time in our classrooms during “back to school workshop” days

Every August it’s the same old story. Teachers sit through hour after hour, day after day of meetings and workshops that are supposed to help us become the best teachers we can be. The intentions are honorable. Most of us realize this. But here’s the thing, our minds are elsewhere during this crucial time period. It is tough to get or stay engaged in talk about interventions, effective math routines or even worse, new rules for using the laminator, when more than two dozen little people and their families will be walking through the door for open house in 48-72 hours. Give us the time we need to get our classrooms ready. Make it a priority to limit those August workshop sessions in favor of supporting us in a substantial way – with adequate time to be in our classrooms preparing for our learners and the adventures that lie ahead. 

(l. to r.) Maurna Rome, Meghan Malone, Lynn Searle, Ashley Hall, Kali Gardner, all second grade teachers at Peter Hobart Elementary in St. Louis Park, MN. Team members not available for photo: Suzanne Knauf and Molly Borg

#5. Ongoing, job-embedded, teacher-driven professional development

The benefits of “one and you’re done” or “sit and git” workshop training days are minimal. Oftentimes there is little change in beliefs or behaviors after attending this type of PD. As an instructional coach, I am privileged to be in a district that values investing in teacher development and growth. I have worked in several other districts that have not approached professional development in the same way. Honoring teacher voices in this process is the way to foster systemic change and sustain improvements. Recently I joined a group of teachers as they collaborated on creating a teacher-friendly guided reading lesson plan format. It was so impressive to see how they bounced ideas off of one another, discussed their rationale and insights, or offered differing opinions on how to approach the plan. There was a lovely mix of synergy, respect, and affirmation. They knew what they were doing and they were doing it well. The next day, they decided to put in a request for half-day subs so everyone on the team could dig even deeper into their understanding and implementation of the new approach to guided reading. This is the type of professional development we need. No one at the district office or State Department of Education could do a better job of prescribing or designing effective training.

Ask the teachers. And most importantly, listen to them. They know. Trust me. They know. Trust them. They really know.

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Guess What’s in My Glove Compartment?

stuffed duckLet’s play a little game. I’ll tell you some things about the inside of my car, and you tell me what you can discern about me from those details.

There’s an ice scraper on the floor and a foldable camp chair in the back.

There’s a copy of a 200-page unpublished novel with my name listed as the author.

CD selections range from the Carpenters to Queen Latifah to the soundtrack from “Shrek.” The backseat carpet is heavily stained. The backseat itself is covered in scuff marks.

There’s a brightly colored, handmade God’s eye hanging off the gear shift. There’s a stuffed duck dressed in a sailor’s outfit in the map pocket.

The glove compartment holds binoculars, mints, a prescription bottle full of quarters, and fast food coupons.

Okay, you get the picture.  My guess is that while you might misinterpret some of those details, there are actually several things you’d guess correctly about me based on knowing them.

You can turn this game into a fun character-building activity for student writers.  Ask them to describe one of the following settings connected to one of their own story characters: their character’s bedroom, locker at school, closet, or (for older characters), their car. Once they’ve created the description, have them trade with another student. Then the other student will try to guess something about the personality of their partner’s character, based on the description of that personal space. That tells the writer which details best reveal their character’s personality and circumstances, and therefore would make the best details to include in their actual story.

Students could also do this as a compare/contrast activity by describing the bedroom or locker of two or more key characters in their story.

Young writers will find that they can convey a whole lot about a character by giving readers a chance to peek into their characters’ personal spaces.

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What’s Best for the Story?

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I’ve Been Enchanted

The Hotel CatThis is a rare admission from me because it’s about a book whose main characters are animals. I’ve stated before in this column that animal books have never been a favorite of mine, even as a child. Surely there are others of you out there who are too shy to admit the same thing?

In my determination to read older children’s books that I haven’t read before, I’ve just finished a book that has shown me I can adore books about animals: The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill, a Jenny’s Cat Club book. First published in 1969, this is the penultimate book in Averill’s 13-book series that begins with The Cat Club, published in 1944.

I liked this one so well that I’m going to track down all of the other books that come before it and some of Averill’s other books as well.

Her cats are always cats. Even though they speak cat talk, and at least in The Hotel Cat they can talk with a human who understands cat talk, their thoughts and dialogue and actions always seem cat-like.

Tom, the stray who wanders into the Royal Hotel, an older but genteel 300-room hotel in Greenwich Village, is welcomed by Fred, the janitor, and given a place to stay. Tom eventually explores the hotel, staying out of sight of the humans, until kind and thoughtful Mrs. Wilkins, a long-term resident of the hotel, discovers him in the ballroom. The two become tender-hearted friends because Mrs. Wilkins is that character who understands cat talk. She meets Tom late each night for a conversation, always remembering to bring Tom a treat.

It’s the winter of the Big Freeze, and neighboring residents are moving to the hotel with their cats because their boilers are bursting. Tom is very protective of his hotel until Mrs. Wilkins encourages him to be friendly, an accommodating and compassionate host. Three of the new hotel guests are Jenny Linsky and her brothers Edward and Checkers.

Esther Averill

illustration copyright Esther Averill

It’s a book about making friends and sharing and learning how to talk in a kind and thoughtful way. Tom worries about losing his new friends when all the boilers are fixed. He learns about the Cat Club and tries hard not to feel left out. These are all feelings every child knows well.

Because Averill’s writing is so spare, with words appropriately evocative, this book (and presumably the others) would make a great read-aloud for classrooms and families. What fun it is to read the cat talk out loud!

Esther AverillAnd now that I’ve fallen in love with her writing, I had to know more about the author and illustrator. I’ll keep looking for more information about Esther Averill but I’m already fascinated by what I’ve found.

She graduated from Vassar College, wrote for Women’s Wear Daily, then moved to Paris. There, she founded Domino Press to publish children’s books with European illustrators. She paid as much attention to book design and production as she did to content and illustration—the books were topnotch. When Nazis threatened to overtake Paris, Averill returned to the United States and once again published books through Domino Press. She went to work at the New York Public Library and then began writing and illustrating her own books. Don’t you want to invite her to lunch?

Here’s an article that Ms. Averill wrote for The Horn Book in 1957. If you wonder about the distinction between picture books, illustrated books, and picture storybooks, this article will enlighten you. In it, she critically reviewed the Caldecott winners from 1938 to 1957. 

I enjoyed this article by Anita Silvey about Jenny and the Cat Club for Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac

You can research Esther Averill’s work, including The Hotel Cat, at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota and at the DeGrummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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The Hotel Cat 
written and illustrated by Esther Averill
The New York Review of Books, 2005
originally published in 1969

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