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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Articles Archive

The Grinch

I’m just going to say it. Go on the record.

I do not like The Grinch. I do not like the book. I do not like the character. I do not like the story of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I do not like the brilliant theater productions of the story (though I acknowledge the brilliance.) I do not like the TV special, which I grew up watching, and which I did not let my kids watch. I do not like the movie or the song. I do not like any of it, Sam-I-Am.

Lest you think I’m simply grinchy about all things Grinch, I will tip my hand here at the beginning and say that I love the name “Grinch.” It’s perfect. As perfect as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s name, and let’s be honest, How The Grinch Stole Christmas is really just a knock-off of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. It’s just not as well done. It lacks…subtlety, among other things.

Scrooge is afflicted with his own personal bah humbugness, but you suspect even before all of the Christmas Ghosts visit that he could be a different man with a little therapy and some homemade Christmas cookies. But the Grinch is just mean. He’s not all “Bah humbug!” when Christmas frivolities get on his nerves—he’s all “I MUST stop this Christmas from coming.”

Dude. Take your two-sizes-too-small heart and get back to your cave.

I’m tired of making excuses for the grinches of the world. He takes the stockings and presents, the treats and the feast of the wee Whos! He takes the last can of Who-hash, for heaven’s sake! And then The Tree—he shoves the Whos’ Christmas tree up the chimney! Who does that?!

It’s CindyLou Who and her sweet trusting nature that just undoes me. 

“Santy Claus, why…Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?”

The Grinch poses as Santa Claus—can we agree this is an abomination?

He tells her there’s a light that won’t light, and so he’s taking it back to his workshop to fix. Sweet CindyLou believes him—she trots back to bed with her cold cup of water. My heart! And the Grinch takes the very log for the fire; then goes up the chimney, himself, the old liar.

We did not have this book growing up. We watched the TV special but I’d never read it until I babysat a family who had it. They had three boys, ages nine, six, and three. They were wild. Difficult. Not kind to each other. And they were exhausting to put to bed. I think this is why their parents went out.

I suggested a few books to wind down one summer night, and the six-year-old demanded that I read How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

“YEAH!” said the nine-year-old. “It makes babies cry!” And as if on cue, the three-year-old started to whimper. I said we weren’t going to read a book that made anyone cry. And besides, it wasn’t even Christmas.

But two hours later, after the older two had passed out, the three-year-old brought How The Grinch Stole Christmas down to me and asked me to read it. His eyes were huge. His thumb was in his mouth. He said he had to go potty first. Then he needed a cold cup of water—just like CindyLou Who.

When we finally sat down to read the book, we did not get past the first page before huge tears welled in his eyes. I told him I could not in good conscience read him a book that made him so sad. He suggested we just look at the pictures. And so we did. We talked through the pictures, and he trembled as we did. He obviously knew the story.

And it did not matter one bit that The Grinch could not finally take away Christmas—that Christmas came in fine style even without all the trappings he’d stolen. It did not matter that The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes in the end and that he himself carved the roast beef. This, I suppose, is meant to be the “lesson,” the take-away that makes the rest of it all okay. Too little too late, I say.

I had a three-year-old on my lap trying so hard to brave, trying not to be The Baby his brothers told him he was. His little heart hammered as we turned those pages and by the time we were done, I was done with The Grinch.

So there.

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Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award Committee

Sigurd Olson Children's and Young Adult Literature ConferenceWe’re in the midst of award season, when best of the year lists and speculation about award winners proliferate on the social media platforms swirling around children’s and teen books. In November, we attended the award ceremony at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s Children and Young Adult Literature Conference, which takes place at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin (on the awe-inspiring south shore of Lake Superior). Inspired by the authors, naturalists, and librarians who speak at this conference, we interviewed the dedicated committee who select this important award each year.

How do you select the awarded books?

We have a committee of eight members who all have an interest in promoting both the natural world and high quality literature for children. Because committee members remain on the committee from year to year we have a dedicated, knowledgeable group of professionals. Each member first ranks books and then those results are tallied. The top ranked books becomes the focus of a committee meeting. A final vote is taken with numerical rankings following that in-depth discussion.

What are the criteria for this award?

The Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award for Children’s Literature is given to a published children’s book of literary nature writing (nonfiction or fiction) that captures the spirit of the human relationship with nature, and promotes the awareness, preservation, appreciation, or restoration of the natural world for future generations. (Here’s a full list of SONWA books since 1991.)

How do you gather the books?

Since most, if not all, publishers are on Twitter, we established a SONWA Awards Twitter account two years ago (@sonwa_awards). For the past two years, we’ve promoted the awards through our feed and by directly tweeting to publishers. We also post to the SOEI (Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute) Facebook feed periodically.

We actively ask publishers to submit books that fit the criteria. Since we’re one of the few nature writing awards for young adult and children’s literature, the publishers of this type of book are aware of us.

What selection criteria do you apply?

First of all, as the name of the award suggests, the book has to be about some aspect of nature and written for children appropriate to the age group. In addition, it has to be written in the year prior to the year the award is received.

After that, we look at:

  • Human Relationships with Natural World: Does the book capture the spirit of the human relationship with nature?
  • Literary Value: Does the book take on elements such as character development, metaphor, climax, allusion, theme, motif, etc?
  • Values: Does the book promote the values for nature this award seeks to promote for future generations: awareness, preservation, appreciation, restoration?
  • Illustrations: When books meet all the above criteria, then illustrations and the artwork are considered.

What is the impetus you feel for donating your time to this award process?

Living in the Northwoods, whether an outdoor person or not, creates a strong connection to the earth and concern for its future. Our committee is also well aware of how literacy can impact our humanity. This award process allows us to commit to two efforts that are important to us. We hope the chain from writers to publishers will be validated for their efforts. And we hope the reader will be enriched in multiple ways.

You are housed within, and sponsored by, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Why is this a good fit for a nature-writing award?

The mission of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute is to promote experiences of wildness and wonder, while also working to protect wildlands for future generations. Literary depictions and accounts of wild nature and the wonder it evokes in people often inspire readers to seek similar experiences, or, if they’ve already had those experiences, the literary works help to further affirm the value of those experiences.

Sigurd F. Olson’s writing is one of the richest and most influential parts of his legacy, and the nature writing award is one of the ways that we carry that legacy forward.

Northland College

You’ll find the Sigurd F. Olson Environmental Institute on the campus of Northland College, Ashland, Wisconson (in the foreground of this photo). That’s Lake Superior in the background.

Your focus was initially regionally written adult books. Why did you develop a specific award for children’s books?

In part this was a circumstantial decision: each year publishers were submitting children’s books, even though they didn’t meet the criteria we had established for the original adult award. Although we could not consider these submissions for the adult award, we were impressed by their quality and wanted to recognize and promote the work of the authors and illustrators of the children’s books.

Of course, we also recognize how important it is to capture the imaginations of children and the role that stories can play in shaping their values and visions for themselves and their future. We want children to grow up having and valuing experiences of wildness and wonder in their lives, and the children’s nature writing award, as well as our children’s literature conference, help us to realize this goal.

Having read so many nature-themed children’s books, what trends are you noticing?

We do see topic trends from time to time. A few years ago it was whales and then water the next year. Just like publishing in other areas, the trends tend to follow what is going on in the world. This year we have a few hurricane books. Often times, grandparents are depicted as nurturer, guardian, or storyteller of nature.

 We are seeing more diversity and inclusion. There are more picture books with more white space but with detailed author notes or supplemental added value. In recent year, nonfiction books for older readers will have side bars, graphics, captioned photos, and more alongside the main body. This can be either an enhancement or a distraction.

What themes or topics do you wish were being addressed in children’s books?

We are always looking for books that have a strong relationship to human interaction with the natural world. Books for older children with this aspect are not as readily available. There are always some that stand out in this area but we would happily welcome more.

___________________

Thank you for your commitment to reading and recommending the very best in nature writing for children and teens. Your focus on human interaction with the natural world is critical to the lives of our children and our planet. Important work you’re doing!

[The submission deadline for 2018 award consideration is December 31, 2017. Learn more.]

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Stopping by the Diner

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Stopping by the DinerMy dad has a passionate hatred of olives on, in, or even in the general vicinity of his food. He’s convinced their mere presence contaminates anything else on his plate. So when he eats at his favorite small-town diner, he’s always careful to tell the server that he wants his dinner salad without the black olives they usually include. Except this time the brand-new teenage server plopped it down in front of him complete with a generous helping of his much-loathed food.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I asked for the salad without olives.”

She thought a moment, said, “No problem,” reached out to scoop the olives out with her bare hand, and walked away holding them.

Here are the answers to the three questions you’re now asking: No, he didn’t eat the salad.

No, we haven’t stopped laughing yet.

No, he didn’t call over the manager to rat her out. But the next time he went in, he pulled aside one of the more seasoned servers and asked her to make sure the young woman understood there might be a different way to handle the situation.

There are different ways to handle a writing revision as well. Revision is the least favorite part of the writing process for most young writers. So having different approaches on hand is a good way to keep students coming back to this all-important process.

The common approach is to simply work one’s way through the first draft, making corrections and taking out the “olives” as you go. But this isn’t always the best tactic. Some seasoned writers recommend that for a second draft, you go back and start fresh, rather than merely fix what’s already on paper. It sounds counter-intuitive—don’t you lose what was good about the original, along with what wasn’t working? But the truth is, this more radical approach can give young writers permission to “color outside the lines” of their original drafts. Having writt‚en the first draft still informs the new version in an important way, but it doesn’t limit it. Sometimes this approach can elevate the writing to a whole new level.

As my dad might say, once his food has been touched by olives (not to mention someone else’s fingers), he simply can’t eat it. The only answer is to start with a whole new salad.

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True Story

Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.

At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty. My pen slowed. Something about those words bothered me. The crux of his speech was that as writers for children, we are tasked to be honest and not withhold the truth.

After the applause pattered away, the air in the ballroom seemed charged. Everyone was eager to march, unfurling the banner of truth for young readers! If we had been given paper, we would have started brilliant, authentic novels on the spot.

The keynote’s message carried over into break-out sessions. Panelists admitted to craving the truth when they were kids, things parents wouldn’t tell them. Participants agreed. We should show kids the world as it really is! The implication being that children leading “normal” lives should be aware of harsher realities and develop empathy. Kids living outside the pale would find themselves, maybe learn how to cope with their situations.

I stopped taking notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a broken world. By age four, I’d experienced scores of harsher realities. At seven, I learned the hardest truth of all: that parents aren’t required to want or love their children. I spent most of my childhood fielding one real-world challenge after the other. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alcoholism, homelessness, and domestic violence.

Christmas Day when I was 11 with my sister and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delving into stories where the character’s biggest challenge was finding grandmother’s hidden jewels, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek normal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane families weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Henry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tumbled from her spaceship, lived a normal life with her family on Asra, climbing trees on that faraway planet like I did on Earth.

In a family of non-readers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read constantly, but decided to be a writer at an early age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried treasure, not things I had to keep quiet about; books where kids felt protected enough to embark on adventures.

My mother and stepfather regarded me with odd respect, as if unsure what planet this kid had come from. So long as “story-writing” didn’t interfere with schoolwork (it did), my mother excused me from chores. Only once did she declare reading material inappropriate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Story magazine and was deep into story about an abused boy when my mother caught me. She thought I was learning about sex. I was outraged by the injustice: punished for reading about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fiction was light and humorous. Yet some brave writers tackled serious subjects. My colleague Brenda Seabrooke wrote a slender, elegant verse novel called Judy Scuppernong. This coming-of-age story touches on family secrets and alcoholism. The format was perfect for navigating difficult subjects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More followed, until I’d told my own story. My agent submitted my book Nobody’s Child. One editor asked me to rewrite it as a YA novel. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some people said that by telling my story, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I never will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I wanted to know why. But by then everyone involved was gone, taking their reasons with them. If I were to fictionalize my story to help another child in the same situation, I couldn’t make the ending turn out any better.

In the fantasies and mysteries and books about animals I read as a kid, I figured out I’d probably be okay. When I looked up from whatever library book I was reading, or whatever story I was writing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was broken. There were woods and gardens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, people who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror …one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writers will flash the great mirror of truth in bolder works than mine. I’m content to shine my little pocket mirror at small truths, no bigger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.

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Big Surprise!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Skinny Dip with Sarah Aronson

Sarah AronsonSarah Aronson’s most recent books, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (The Wish List #1, Beach Lane Books) and Keep Calm and Sparkle On! (The Wish List #2) are at once lighthearted and serious—stories that are fun to read and encourage working for causes that matter to the world. Sarah is widely known in the children’s book writing community as an enthusiastic and effective writing instructor. Thanks, Sarah, for taking a Skinny Dip with us in December!

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

This is an easy one! My favorite and most influential teacher during those first years of school was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Dan Sigley.  

It was a year that began with mixed emotions. At that time, I didn’t really feel passionate about books. Oh, I liked books, but theater was my favorite story medium. I had also just returned from 8 months in York, England. I went to school there and was introduced to new settings (that you could visit) as well as writers like Charles Dickens. I read Enid Blyton. More important, I watched my friends take the 11 plus exam, effectively tracking and dividing them for different kinds of futures.

The PearlMr. Sigley awakened my creative spirit in many ways. He got me hooked on books in three distinct ways. First, our class read and performed Romeo and Juliet—unabridged! He showed me that even if I didn’t understand the individual words, I could infer meaning in a text! Second, he tirelessly handed me books—he was determined to make me a reader. The book that did it was John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. That ending blew me away! It made me think! This was what I wanted from books! A chance to think about injustice and relationships and family … and how I could make it better. Last, he taught us how to make books—from writing to illustrating to binding. This first home-made book, The Adventures of Prince Charming, connected the dots. Books were like theater. Books were unique for each reader. I loved getting into the heads of my characters. I loved holding a book, too.

About the time Head Case was released, Mr. Sigley moved to the house next to my parents, so I got to see him many times and thank him for everything he taught me. He was a gentle, creative man. He was the first person who held me accountable and awakened my imagination.

All-time favorite book?

The word, favorite, is my least favorite word ever! Here are the books I keep on my desk—they are the books I love. They are the books I reach for when I’m stuck. These are the books that have taught me how to write.

  • The Story of Ferdinand, The Rag and Bone Shop, Sandy's Circus, What Jamie SawOliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
  • The Rag and Bone Shop (Robert Cormier)
  • Monster (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Clementine (Sara Pennypacker)
  • Bunnicula (James Howe, Deborah Howe)
  • What Jamie Saw (Carolyn Coman)
  • The Carrot Seed (Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson)
  • The Story of Ferdinand (Munro Leaf, Robert Lawson)
  • Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
  • Blubber (Judy Blume)
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria (Peggy Rathmann)
  • Charles and Emma (Deborah Heiligman)
  • Sandy’s Circus (Tanya Lee Stone, Boris Kulikov)

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

When I am in pre-writing mode, nothing counts! (I am one of those weird writers that deletes her first discovery draft!!!) I love writing without expectations! It doesn’t feel like work. It is all disposable!

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

You have to ask? I write books about fairy godmothers! I like shoes. Always shoes. I love shoes and boots and would even wear glass slippers if I didn’t think I’d trip and break them.

When are you your most creative?

First thing in the morning. Best advice I can offer: hide your phone. Be a word producer—not just a consumer. Get out of bed and create. Get someone to make you a coffee. Journal every morning. Or doodle. Get the pen to the paper. Find a way to transition from the real world to your imaginative state. The world and social media can wait!

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

In the winter: chocolate

In the summer: peach

But the gelato place around the corner makes Greek Yoghurt gelato. It’s sweet and sour and tangy! Yum.

(File under: this author has problems with favorites.)

Book on your bedside table right now?

I’m crying over Matylda, Bright and Tender, by Holly McGhee, recommended by Olivia Van Ledtje, also known as @thelivbits

Sarah Aronson's elephantWhat’s your hidden talent?

I can turn anything into a writing lesson.

Also: I can draw an elephant from behind.

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Young people give me hope. They value kindness. And the environment. They stick up for one another. They exhibit a strong sense of goodness and a willingness to speak out against injustices.

That is what I have seen and learned from readers—to kids and teens—even the shy ones who wait until they can email me to ask a question. Our young people are growing up in a time where there are no barriers to information. Yes, there is a lot of misleading stuff, but the good stuff is at our fingertips, too. I could complain a lot about phones and the internet, but technology is also equalizing. We live in a time when we can interact with just about anyone. There are so many ways to learn.

In young people, I see motivated kids like Nora (from The Wish List). They want to make the world better. They believe in goodness. They are not afraid to speak out. They support each other. That gives me hope.

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Thanksgiving Tea

The week before Thanksgiving I was part of a wonderful Thanksgiving-themed Storytime. Excellent books were read: Otis Gives Thanks by Loren Long and Thankful by Eileen Spinelli. We sang through There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Turkey by Lucille Colandro, and Simple Gifts by Chris Raschka. All was going swimmingly—beautiful children, rapt and smiling. They were very young, but you could tell they were read to regularly. They knew how to sit on cushions, raise their hands, use their inside voices, etc.

And then I decided to “tell” an original story about setting the table for a Thanksgiving Tea. I pulled out #1 Son’s tea set from when he was three and very into tea parties. I gave it a good wash—quite dusty as he has used larger tea cups for years now—and packed it into a “story box” with a few other props.

We will set a beautiful table together, I thought. I will invite them to pour the tea for one another…to imagine what they’d like to eat…we will give thanks for all the goodness in life…. Warm cozy feelings flooded my storytelling heart.

I placed a small end table in front of them. They all stood up and gathered around. This was unexpected—the standing—but it made sense, of course. They would be right there and able to see the story unfold. I smiled, opened my story box, and began.

This is our Thanksgiving table for tea… They stood still stock still, staring at the table in front of them. I love the innate drama of telling stories!

This is the tablecloth, ironed so smooth, that covers our Thanksgiving table for tea…. I spread a colorful sunflower napkin. Immediately they all were touching the napkin, rubbing the table with the napkin, pulling the napkin to one side and then the other, wiping their noses on the napkin. I suggested we put our hands at our sides.

Nope.

I suggested we put our hands behind our backs.

Ha!

So I continued. I’m semi-unflappable.

This is the light, that shines in the middle…. A quick glance at my fellow storytime leader confirmed that we might not want to light the candle as planned in my ridiculously cozy vision of this story telling. This was an excellent choice as instantly there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of little hands all over the unlit candle. They passed it around, grabbed it from one another, blew on it. I insisted we put the light in the middle as the story said.

When it was reluctantly placed there and we imagined the cozy flame, I continued through the story. They continued touching the candle and adjusting the cloth.

But things didn’t really fall apart until I brought out the small plates of “all different colors” with their “matching cups for our Thanksgiving tea.”

These were rearranged, stacked and unstacked, clattered together, passed around, dropped on the floor, sipped from, and licked. My fellow storyteller flinched with every clatter, but I knew what those dishes had been through and although they are pottery, they are the magical sort that somehow does not break.

When I placed the teapot and cream and sugar “that match the cups and plates, all different colors” on the table, frenetic pouring and common cup swigging ensued. Clearly they understood the concept of teatime. A small skirmish broke out over the cream pitcher and its imaginary cream. Heaps more sugar than the wee sugar bowl could possibly hold was sprinkled around all over the cloth and on each other. A thousand or more children managed to gather around that tiny table and “manipulate” the props.

WHAT A FEAST! I cried. WHAT A TREAT! WHAT SHALL WE EAT FOR OUR TEA?! 

“Cereal!” was the first answer. Then ‘taters and pie and popcorn and candy and turkey and more candy and toast and goldfish and jelly and macaroni-and-cheese and cupcakes and milk and apples and buttered noodles and bananas and hotdogs and meat and corn-on-the-cob and hot chocolate and watermelon and more candy. Marshmallows, too. For the hot chocolate. But also just to eat.

All of these things we pretended to place and plop and sprinkle and slop on the wee little plates and in the wee little cups as they were moving, no less. It was chaos—everything constantly being passed and clattered and exchanged and grabbed.

WE GIVE THANKS FOR THIS FOOD AND DRINK, THIS TABLE, AND OUR FRIENDS! I yelled above the mayhem. AND NOW WE CLEAN UP!

Half of the group immediately went and sat on their cushions. The other half did indeed “help” put everything back in the storybox. My storyteller partner and I heaved a sigh of relief as I put the lid on. Nothing broke. No one was crying. There was no blood.

“Now we have a craft!” we said. Which was, curiously, a much calmer activity. Except for the glue sticks—small battles erupted over those. More than one child used them as chapstick. Perhaps this made for a quiet ride home.

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The Kindness of Teachers

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

I loved first grade.

Fifty-one years later, I still have vivid memories of my teacher, Miss Follett. She played the piano every day. She read to us from her giant book of poetry. She showed us photos of her trips to exotic places, like Alaska and Hawaii.

At Halloween we screamed in terror and delight when she hobbled into our classroom dressed as a witch. At Easter we followed “bunny tracks” throughout the school till they led us to a chest filled with panorama sugar eggs that Miss Follett had handmade, one for each of us. On our birthdays we sat at the special birthday desk that was decorated with crepe paper streamers and balloons. Miss Follett would light the candles on the plaster of Paris birthday cake and the entire class would sing.

Miss Follett was also serious about learning. That was fine with me. One of the reasons I wanted to start first grade was because I desperately wanted to read. Words were all around me; I wanted to know their secrets.

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

I also remember Humpty Dumpty, Miss Follett’s form of behavior management. The Humpty Dumpty cookie jar sat on the corner of Miss Follett’s desk. If our class was very, very good, Humpty Dumpty might (mind you, might) be magically filled with cookies for us. No one ever wanted to do anything that would displease Humpty.

When I became a children’s author, Miss Follett attended one of my publication parties. It was a proud moment for both of us. When I autographed her book, I included doodles of my favorite first grade memories.

Years passed.

This last spring I came home from running errands to find a large box waiting in front of my door. When I removed the layers of bubble wrap, I discovered Miss Follett’s Humpty Dumpty cookie jar inside, along with this note:

Dear David,

Now that I am moving to senior housing and need to downsize,
it’s time for Humpty to find a new home. I thought
he might enjoy living in your studio.

Your First Grade Teacher
Rosemary Follett

Miss Follett did indeed teach me to read. But she taught me a lot of other things as well. She taught me that adults can be both serious and playful. She taught me that art and music and poetry make life more beautiful. She taught me that the world is full of fascinating places, and that I can go visit them. She taught me that you are never too old to use your imagination.

And she taught me that teachers never stop caring about their students.

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Biography: How to Decide
What Goes into the Soup Pot (and What Doesn’t)

It is cold up here in the north country, so lately my thoughts have turned to creating a steaming pot of soup. For soup, you have to hit the highlights; the chicken, onions, a carrot or two. If you toss in too many ingredients, nothing will stand out and the result will be a muddled mess. You must also have a special ingredient. The quick taste that says, mmm, what is that? A dash of nutmeg? A spoonful of caraway seed?

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the short profiles in Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, I realized they required a similar focus. I needed the highlights; birth, family, education. The profiles also needed that special something to stand out.

Other than biographical assignments in school, I hadn’t written many biographies. But often it is in the doing that we learn. When I researched and wrote my (looking for a home) picture book biography Step by Step: The Story of Elizabeth Kenny’s Fight to Treat Polio, I learned a few lessons.

I had been fascinated by Sister Kenny ever since my father’s stay at the Sister Kenny Institute after his stroke. Who was this brash woman who had founded the institute famous in Minneapolis? Not just Minneapolis, for in fact, she was once voted the most influential woman in America, beating out Eleanor Roosevelt.

Researching and writing the life of someone famous can be daunting. I didn’t have the space to write about everything in her life, and I didn’t want to bore young readers with uninteresting facts.

The Minnesota Historical Center’s Gale Family Library held her secrets in the form of letters, cards, and photographs packed into boxes. Seeing Sister Kenny’s handwriting helped me to imagine her sitting at a desk composing a letter. The photographs let me look into her simultaneously kind and determined eyes. It was an odd sense of the past, her past, coming to life. And yet, since she died in 1952, I knew more about her fate (and legacy) than she did.

Sister Kenny eventually became the sample chapter I included in my proposal for Bold Women of Medicine. The Chicago Review Press Women of Action Series introduces young adults to women and girls of courage and conviction.

As I sifted through these lives I wondered, what spurred these women on to a life in medicine?

Within the framework of the women’s lives (birth, education, career, and family), I began to see patterns leading them to medicine. My goal was to keep the story moving forward.

Sister Kenny (photo: State Library of Queensland)

For example, Sister Kenny realized success with one patient inflicted with cerebral palsy, causing paralysis. She said, “Although my special life’s work had not yet really begun, I always think of this period as my starting point.” Discovering each woman’s motivation helped me to create a tighter focus. In other words, I limited the ingredients I placed into my soup pot and at the same time found that special something.

What factors influenced Sister Kenny to practice medicine? Was it an event, a person, or a need to be helpful? I am a linear thinker (sometimes a hindrance) but in this case, point A of a woman in medicine’s life often led to point B. Sometimes I had to backtrack much like you do when following a hiking trail, and often when I backtracked I discovered another, more intriguing part of her story.

Research is a tricky beast no matter what the subject is, and the most difficult part of research is knowing when to quit. Not everything from your fridge must be a part of your dinner.

I searched for anecdotes that would interest a young reader. What happened in Sister Kenny’s childhood that shaped her interest in science? What character traits did she possess that led to success or failure? What impact did she have on history? Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough says, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface. You have to know enough to know what to leave out.”

I read as much as I could on each woman, until I found the story and pattern with which to begin. Each of these women lived full lives, and in the cutting of some of their life events I strengthened the flavors, highlighting their powers of hope, education, and perseverance. And as I write this on a cold day, it’s time to pull out the pot and figure out the best ingredients for my soup!

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Pie Season

Jackie: This is gratitude season and that is a good reminder. Many of us have plenty to be grateful for and we often forget that while waiting for the next good things. It’s also Pie Season. It is the one time of the year at my house when we have no holds barred on pie. Everyone gets to have a favorite at Thanksgiving. Pie for dinner, pie for breakfast (the best!). So Phyllis and I decided to find some pie books.

How to Make a Pie and See the WorldOne book that I wish I had written is Marjorie Priceman’s How To Make Apple Pie and See the World (Penguin, Random House, 1994; paperback, 2008). This is a delightful story of gathering the ingredients for apple pie and then making the pie and sharing with friends. This book can be used to teach math (fractions in the recipe), geography (of course), and pie-making. And, more importantly, it’s fun. The language is lively and original. After preparing for the trip by finding a “shopping list and walking shoes,” get on a boat. Go to Italy for semolina wheat, then to France. In France, “locate a chicken. French chickens lay elegant eggs.” “Make the acquaintance of a cow” in England. The cow and the chicken accompany our intrepid pie-maker for the rest of the book as she gets bark for cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sugar cane from Jamaica, salt from the ocean, and “eight rosy apples” from Vermont.

Phyllis: There’s so much to love in this book (which I, too, wish I had written): the sources of our food which we often take for granted, the friends the little girl makes as she travels the world, the resilience of finding what you need (and, in a twist at the end, making do without the ice cream), the treatment of animals who give us milk and eggs, the humor of the art, which shows the pilot dropping the little girl off in Vermont by means of a parachute, the interconnectedness of what we eat. It makes me want to bake a pie her way, and it also makes me grateful for the grocery store and farmer’s market.

Gator PieJackie: Another long-time favorite of mine is Gator Pie by Louise Mathews with illustrations by Jeni Bassett (Dodd, Mead, 1979). Alvin and Alice are gator friends who live in a swamp. One day they find a lovely pie. They decide to share, but before Alice can cut two halves another alligator comes up and demands a share. Now Alice must cut the pie in thirds. And Alvin is not too happy about sharing. It gets worse—Alvin thinks he’ll get a quarter of the pie, then an eighth and finally one one-hundredth. Then he gets a brilliant idea. And he and Alice get to share the pie themselves. The illustrations make this book delightful. The subject matter makes it perfect for talking about how fractions work.

Phyllis: Because we are often looking at older books (I remember reading this one to my now-grown kids when they were little), we sometimes have problems putting our hands on those books. Some reside on our bookshelves, some are available through interlibrary loan, some we find online, and on occasion, if one of us has a copy but the other can’t find it, we read the story to each other on Skype. This time, because Gator Pie hadn’t yet arrived at my local library from another library, I watched a YouTube video of a young boy reading with his father, who helped his son when he wasn’t sure of a word. At one point, the boy grins at his father and says, “Excuse me, I drooled.” I love thinking that a book about a pie was so delicious that it made the boy’s mouth water, but I love more seeing the tender interaction between child and parent and book. This is why we write, for those connections.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieJackie: Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley (Clarion, 2009) features Edna Lewis, African American chef who wrote several cookbooks “teaching people how to prepare food in the southern regional style.” This book focuses on Edna’s childhood and imagines Edna and her family gathering the foods of the season: wild strawberries and fresh greens in the springtime; honey, cherries, and blackberries in the summer. The round fruits—peaches and tomatoes—fill summer baskets and boxes. Corn for cornbread, watermelons, butter beans (“’We’re rich as kings as long as we have beans,’ says Mama.”) and muscadine grapes finish out the summer. Back to school season means apples for pie and apple crisp. This is a book to remind us to savor the foods of our area. Reading it will make you hungry—and make you want to get out bowl and spoon, flour and fruit, and cook something.

Phyllis: Which you can do with this book, because it ends with an author’s note and some mouth-watering recipes. It’s a book, too, rich in family and language. Mama says, ‘Better hurry! You’ll need to outrun the rabbits to get the berries.” Daddy says to fill as many baskets as they can because the larder’s empty. When Auntie helps Edna and her little sister gather wild greens, she says, “A fresh crisp salad to nourish the heart and soul as well as the body.” Brother helps gather cherries and blackberries. When the family gathers round to find the perfect melon, Granny says, “Melons are just like friends. Gotta try ten before you get a good one.” Sassafras roots tossed up by the plow will flavor root beer. Watermelon rind will become pickles. As Edna surveys the cellar packed with good things, she says, “You can never have too much summer.” When I look at the wealth of squash and onions and garlic and potatoes piled high on my counter from my CSA farm share, I agree with Edna. And you can never have too many books as delicious as this one.

Enemy PieJackie: Finally, we want to look at a charming book that uses pie to solve a problem–Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and illustrated by Tara Calahan King (Chronicle, 2000). When Jeremy Ross moves into the narrator’s neighborhood, things start to go bad. Jeremy laughs at the narrator when Jeremy strikes him out in a baseball game, Jeremy didn’t invite him to a party at his house. Jeremy Ross became the top—and only name—on the new “enemy list.” But Dad has the answer, Enemy Pie. What goes into Enemy Pie? Dad won’t tell. The boy brings his dad weeds, no need. He brings earthworms and rocks, used gum. Not in the recipe. Dad says the other important part of Enemy Pie is that the boy has to spend a day with the enemy. Dad says, “Even worse you have to be nice to him. It’s not easy. But that’s the only way Enemy Pie can work. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

So the boy spends one day with Jeremy Ross to get him “out of my hair for the rest of my life.” By the end of the day, when it’s time for Enemy Pie, the boy tries to prevent Jeremy from eating it. By then he doesn’t want him to eat the awful pie. But Dad was eating. Then Jeremy took a bite. Would their hair fall out? It turned out that Enemy Pie was delicious!

This is such a sweet book, with a wonderful pie-making Dad, and a boy who learns that enemies don’t always stay enemies.

Happy pie-baking to all. I’m eager for fruit pie. What’s your favorite Phyllis?

Phyllis: Pumpkin is luscious, but one of the best pies I ever tasted was on a road trip in Canada—bumbleberry pie, which I think might be made of all the fruit pie fruits in one.

However you slice it, we love pie and pie books. We hope your houses are rich as kings in books and pies this season.

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It’s All About the Heart

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Little Prince

Originally this installment of Teach it Forward was going to offer my take on how to foster independence and promote stamina in the classroom. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot from teachers about these two topics and the challenge they present. The struggle to create a classroom filled with autonomous students who can sustain purposeful learning seems to be universal. As I captured my thoughts about how to help teachers, I came up with a list of creative strategies that worked for me over the years. Along with my repertoire of ideas, I sprinkled in lots of encouragement and upbeat advice such as “Look for what you want to see in your students… the rest will follow.”

frustrated student

However, after sitting with my words for a few days, I realized that my attempt to simplify such a complex undertaking would likely only make matters worse for teachers. How could one brief article adequately address something so perplexing and yet so essential as fostering independence and stamina in the classroom? The answer to this predicament came from a wise colleague who recently chatted with me about the distress teachers face when it seems impossible to develop self-driven and engaged learners. She suggested we all do a bit of soul searching by starting with the heart, not the head, to find the answers to these questions:

  • What are my beliefs about how my classroom should operate?
  • What is my “why” for being a teacher?
  • How do the kids know that I care, that I am passionate?

remembering the heartThe Little Prince reminds us of the important role the heart plays in understanding what lies below the surface. We must be willing to be vulnerable with our students if we want them to be vulnerable with us. As mentioned in the column “Food for Thought” a few months ago, I believe reaching the heart is a prerequisite for reaching the head. Before we can enable students to be independent learners for extended periods of time, it is crucial to convince them that what is invisible to the eye is what matters most.

It starts with the first of four components from Culturally Responsive Teaching (Teaching Tolerance), referred to as The 4 Rs, which is relationships.

From there, we strengthen connections with students by bringing realness, the second of the 4 Rs, into our lessons.

Next, we consider the relevance of what we teach to make sure students see the “why” of what we are asking them to do.

And, finally, we infuse rigor, the fourth and final “R,” into our teaching as we strive for high expectations of all kids.

Which favorite teacher comes to mind when you think of The 4 Rs? I easily return to 6th grade and fondly recall my very best teacher, Mrs. Frett. Although I cannot remember one standard or learning objective that she taught me, I can easily recall several meaningful conversations we had more than 40 years ago. Her secret was simple: she focused on our hearts before going after our heads.

In the words of beloved poet and writer, Maya Angelou, “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

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Predictable Pattern

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Skinny Dip with Mira Bartók

Mira Bartok

Mira Bartók, author and illustrator, recently ushered The Wonderling into the world and it is already on several best of 2017 book lists. Congratulations, Mira, and thanks for sharing your responses with our readers.

When did you first start reading books?

Age 4.

The Arrival, Shaun TanAll-time favorite book?

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

Lunch: grilled cheese sandwich, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk!

What’s your leasst favorite chore?

Vacuuming.

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

Reading all kinds of books and taking random notes, and also going to museums to sketch objects and paintings that relate to what I’m working on.

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

Soft, comfy socks.

When are you your most creative?

When I’m not promoting a book, and when I turn off all electronic devices. And my brain is usually exploding with ideas when I’m either in a museum or walking in the woods. 

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint chocolate chip.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, M.T. AndersonBook on your bedside table right now?

There are several: M.T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand, two volumes of fairy tales by 19th century Scottish writer George MacDonald, the first Redwall book (I still haven’t read the series!), and a new short story collection called The Age of Perpetual Light by a  brilliant young writer named Josh Weil.

What’s your hidden talent?

I think I sightread piano music pretty fast. 

Your favorite toy as a child …

A little stuffed pony named: PONY. 

Favorite artist? Why?

South African artist William Kentridge. Because his work is avant-garde yet accessible, personal and political, and intellectual and emotional.

William Kentridge

A Universal Archive, copyright William Kentridge

tarantulaWhich is worse: spiders or snakes?

I love them both! I worked in a zoo and handled everything, including tarantulas!

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

I’m not sure which is my own best contribution but I know that composting and recycling every day is super easy and really helps. 

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

It’s hard to feel hopeful these days but when I see the little littles of the world experience wonder, it give me hope. So I suppose I feel hopeful because of them.

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Mighty Jack

Mighty Jack and the Goblin KingWe are thrust into the midst of the action, which never stops until the epilogue. This is how Ben Hatke tells a story.

We don’t know what’s going on. There’s no setup. Instead, we quickly learn that Jack is climbing some vegetative matter to find the ogre who kidnapped his sister Maddy and take her home. His friend, Lilly, no sidekick, is climbing alongside him.

The villains of the piece are rats, giants, and that ogre. They have control of a nexus point that exists outside of time and space, a connecting link between worlds. It looks like the tower of a castle built on an asteroid. The place has lost its luster because of the giants’ nefarious choices, among them the need to feed a human child to the machine that blocks the bridges between worlds. It’s satisfying to discover these plot points throughout the story.

Jack and Lilly are split up when Lilly falls from the vine (a rat is responsible). Jack vows to come back for her but he is compelled to find Maddy.

“This is not earth,” illustration from Jack and the Mighty Goblin King by Ben Hatke

The adventure takes off in two directions. Lilly is seriously hurt by the rats … and saved by the goblins who inhabit the lower reaches of the nexus point. The Goblin King demands that Lilly will be his bride. She has other ideas. In the “trash from all worlds,” she finds a Shelby Mustang. She will find a way to take it with her. Lilly is a hero in the truest sense of the word.

The goblins are the most endearing characters in the book. They are funny, resourceful, knowledgeable, and they care for Lilly. Their language is not exactly English and it suits them. Now we know how goblins communicate.

There are unanswered questions. Why can’t Maddy talk? Where did the magic seeds come from that give Jack and Lilly short bursts of needed power? Why is Jack’s mother’s house being foreclosed? These are the intriguing bits that encourage the reader to fill in the story, becoming one with the storyteller.

Hatke’s artwork is so much a part of the story that the book couldn’t be read out loud without showing the frames of the graphic novel. His brain creates exotic settings that invite lingering to absorb their oddness. His villains are dastardly, fearsome, inviting us to defeat them. The goblins are other-worldly but a little cuddly. (Just a little.) The color palette is spacey where appropriate,  convincingly subterranean when we’re in the goblin’s habitat, and quite richly appealing when the vegetation transforms. And that Shelby Mustang!

The book is filled with surprises. A turn of the page often brings an unexpected turn of events. Even the epilogue, often used to wrap up a story and tell us about the future, leaves us with a  sense of urgency: what will happen next?

There is a first book, Mighty Jack, which I have not read. It most likely creates the world in which Lilly, Jack, Maddy, and Phelix the dragon (!) live, but I’m very glad that a reader doesn’t have to first read that book to enjoy this one. I always hated going to my cousin Sig’s house, reading his comic books, never knowing where the stories were coming from or how they would end because they were published episodically. 

This is storytelling at its very best. Appealing, fun, hold-your-breath storytelling. I could have revealed that this is a re-telling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story but it is so much more than that. Ben Hatke’s powers enchant his readers once again.

(Please be advised that this might have a PG13 rating because of some violence and one swear word. You’ll know best if this fits for your family.)

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
a graphic novel by Ben Hatke
color by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore
published by First Second, 2017
ISBN 978-1-6267-226-68

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Art and Words, Words and Art

“Jungle Tales,” by J.J. Shannon, 1895

Thirty years ago, I bought a poster of “Jungle Tales” by J.J. Shannon (1895) at the Met in New York City. I took it to my favorite framer, but when it was ready, I was horrified to see they’d cut off Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Children’s Bookshop at the bottom, framing just the image.  No one thought the words were important.  The framer ordered a new poster and framed it intact. “Jungle Tales” has been hanging over our den sofa ever since. I love the painting, but I also love the place names. In my mind, the two can’t be separated—art and words, words and art.

Like most kids, I wrote stories and drew pictures. I enjoyed words with illustrations—magazines with photographs and cartoons, comic books, middle grade fiction with inside line drawings. The experience was never hurried—I pored over the images and made connections between the art and the words. This was a world I never wanted to leave.

Sancho, the Homing Steer, by Candice Sylvia Farris

I planned to be both a writer and an artist, but after high school I realized I’d need formal art training. College of any kind was out of the question. I could teach myself to write and that was the path I chose.

Still, art remained a large part of my life. I watch children’s book illustrators work, envying those who can draw and paint and see results at the end of the day. In a writing session, I may produce one decent sentence, if that. To improve my craft—a daily struggle even after all these years—I start journals, but falter in the practice. New projects seem wrenched from me. Words, words, where are the words?

Two years ago, I was asked to write a picture book based on a character created by an illustrator. I agreed to try, though I was uncertain and nervous. I hadn’t written a picture book in more than ten years. And I’d never written a picture book based on a character. The editor sent me the illustrator’s sample sketches. I studied them, just as I’d once pored over the art in comics or mystery books. I photocopied the samples and carried them around with me.

preliminary sketches for Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

Instead of having to visualize a character in my head, the way I usually wrote picture books (or anything), I could see the panda girl and her range of emotions, and appreciate Christine Grove’s sense of humor. I knew the kind of story this character needed. And I wrote it, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten (2017). When I was asked to write a sequel, the illustrations from the first book inspired me. Amanda Panda and the Bigger, Better Birthday will be out next summer.

Amanda Panda Quits KindergartenA few weeks ago, Christine Grove sent me a new character. “What do you think?” she wrote. I printed out the character and carried it around with me. A month later, I had a new story. Art came to my rescue. It gave me the words I hadn’t been able to pull out of my head. 

I don’t know if this new story will become a published picture book, but I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t stray from art again. I’ll collect magazine photos, doodle, photocopy books (Pinterest doesn’t cut it for me), and paste the images into those fallow journals. Visuals will help me find the words. Art and words, words and art.

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Cloth and the Picture Book:
Storytelling with Textile Techniques

Author and illustrator Debra Frasier was invited to lecture on this topic to the Western North Carolina Textile Study Group, and the public, in mid-November 2017. This is the bibliography that accompanies Debra’s presentation, with book selections by Debra Frasier and Vicki Palmquist.

If you would like to invite Debra to give this presentation to your group, please contact her.

Download a print version of this bibliography.

Books are listed in order of appearance in the presentation.

INTRODUCTION TO THE PICTURE BOOK FORM

Spike: Ugliest Dog in the Universe  

Spike, Ugliest Dog in the Universe
written and illustrated 
by Debra Frasier
Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster,
2014.

Collaged worn blue jeans with other textiles and papers.

THREE HISTORICAL INSPIRATIONS

Stitching Stars  

The Lady and the Unicorn, as seen in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, France.

The Bayeux Tapestry, written by David M. Wilson, “The Complete
Tapestry in Colour with Introductions, Description and commentary by David M. Wilson,” Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Stitching Stars, The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, Lyons, Mary E, African-American Artists and Artisans series, 1993, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, historical overview of late 1860’s, slave life, and Ms. Powers’ works and history.

A QUIRKY SURVEY OF TEXTILE TECHNIQUES 
USED IN ILLUSTRATIONS
FOR CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS

QUILTED INSPIRATIONS

Alphabet Atlas

 

The Alphabet Atlas
written by Arthur Yorinks
illustrated by Adrienne Yorinks
Winslow Press, 1999

Machine quilted, collaged continents

Hummingbirds  

Hummingbirds
written by Adrienne Yorinks and Jeannette Larson

illustrated by Adrienne Yorinks
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2011

Nonfiction combined with mythic, all quilted

Patchwork Folk Art  

Patchwork Folk Art, Using Applique & Quilting Techniques
written and illustrated by Janet Bolton
Sterling/Museum Quilts Book
Sterling Publishing Co, 1995

Not a children’s picture book but an excellent introduction to narrative in patchwork collage.

Mrs. Noah's Patchwork Quilt  

Mrs. Noah’s Patchwork Quilt
A Journal of the Voyage with a Pocketful of Patchwork Pieces
written by Sheri Safran
illustrated by Janet Bolton
Tango Books (England), 1995

Presents a how-to along with the story of Mrs. Noah’s quilt, and a back pocket includes patterns of quilt pieces appearing in the illustrations.

Tar Beach  

Tar Beach
written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold
Crown Publisher, 1991

Based on one of Ringgold’s quilts held by the Guggenheim Museum. The story arc and quilt borders all carried over to the picture book so, in this case, the book is inspired by the quilt.

Quiltmaker's Gift  

Quiltmaker’s Gift
written by Jeff Brumbeau
illustrated by Gail de Marcken
Scholastic Press, 2001

In which the creation of a quilt changes the heart of a greedy king. Each page features a different quilt block that fits into the context of the story.

The Keeping Quilt  

Keeping Quilt
written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
Simon & Schuster, 1988

A quilt made from a family’s clothing is passed down in various guises for more than a century, a symbol of their enduring love and faith.

CLOTH AND THINGS IN THE SEWING BASKET

Pat the Bunny  

Pat the Bunny
written and illustrated by Dorothy Kunhardt
Golden Book, 1940

Spiral bound with a small trim-size, this classic book uses actual bits of fabric to “feel” and “lift.”

Wag a Tail  

Wag A Tail
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt, Inc, 2007

Collaged papers and cloth, with buttons and “pinking shear” edging throughout.

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf  

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991

Burlap, kite tails, string and bits of cloth are used in the collages.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat  

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat
written and illustrated by Simms Taback
Viking/Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1999

The main character—a diminishing coat—is actual cloth and is collaged with other bits of cloth curtains, rugs and clothing, and then all adhered to a painted surface.

Mama Miti  

Mama Miti
written by Donna Jo Napoli
illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010

Nelson has combined cloth with painting for both landscapes and clothing.

Hands  

Hands
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Co, 1997

Ehlert has used actual objects: work gloves, apron swatch, sewing tools, scissors, pattern tissue—in this ode to making things as a child.

PAPER TREATED AS CLOTH

Paper Illusions  

Paper Illusions, The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave
by Barbara and Rene Stoeltie
Abrams, 2008 (English edition)

Lavish photographs of life-sized paper costumes made to match Renaissance period cloth using painting, folding, gluing, stitching to create the illusion of cloth.

Mole's Hill  

Mole’s Hill: a Woodland Tale
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt, 1994

Inspired by Woodland Indians ribbon applique and sewn beadwork, the paper is often dotted and pieced as if stitched and beaded. An author note describes this handwork and how it inspired her approach.

Seeds of Change  

Seeds of Change
written by Jen Cullerton Johnson
illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler
Lee & Low Books, 2010

Distinctive Kenyan-styled flower print dress patterns are used as the inspiration for paintings of dresses and mirrored in landscapes.

STITCHING

Fabric Pictures  

Fabric Pictures
A Workshop with Janet Bolton, Creating a Textile Story
written and illustrated by Janet Bolton
Jacqui Small LLP, Aurum Press, 2015

Not a children’s picture book but an excellent workshop-in-a-book on creating narratives with applique.

Baby's First Book  

Baby’s First Book
written and illustrated by Clare Beaton
Barefoot Books, 2008

Hand sewn felt, vintage fabrics, buttons, and stitched lettering collaged for a baby’s compendium of subjects. ALL items and backgrounds made of cloth.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves  

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
adapted by Joan Aiken
illustrated by Belinda Downes
A Dorling Kindersley Book
Penguin Company, 2002

Downes uses fine fabrics appliquéd with rich embroidery, incorporating a consistent running stitch to outline and embellish.

CLOTH AS SUBJECT

Cloth Lullaby  

Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois
written by Amy Novesky
illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016

The illustrator uses woven lines, [similar to some of Bourgeois’ later drawings] to create a textile sensibility in the illustrations amid the early years, and then the same vocabulary is used to visually describe the sculpture of her adult artist years.

Pattern for Pepper  

A Pattern for Pepper
written and illustrated by Julie Kraulis
Tundra Books, Random House/Canada, 2017

From Herringbone to Dotted Swiss, from Argyle to Toile—a visit to a tailor’s shop becomes a compendium of fabric patterns with each fabric sampled in the hunt for the perfect pattern for Pepper. Oil paint and graphite on board.

THREE-D CLOTH AND FELT

Pocketful of Posies  

Pocketful of Posies, A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
collected and illustrated by Salley Mavor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

64 traditional nursery rhymes are illustrated with hand-sewn fabric relief collages, including dozens of figures.

Felt Wee Folk  

Felt-Wee-Folk, 120 Enchanting Dolls
“New Adventures”
by Salley Mavor
C&T Publishing, 2015

This is a how-to book for creating characters and scenes as pictured in Pocketful of Posies.

Pride & Prejudice  

Cozy Classics
Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice
by Jack and Holman Wang
Chronicle Books, 2016

Entirely illustrated by felted 3-D characters that are set in an environment, superbly lit, and photographed to tell classic tales in one word page turns. Several classic titles are included in this series.

Roarr Calder's Circus  

Roarr, Calder’s Circus
a story by Maira Kalman
photos by Donatella Brun
designed by M&Co for
the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1991

Using bits of Calder’s spoken text from the film of his hand manipulated circus, Kalman expands the language and characterizations. Calder’s circus characters of wire and cloth are photographed and then collaged across the double-page spread.

THE DYED BOOK

We Got Here Together  

We Got Here Together
written by Kim Stafford
illustrated by Debra Frasier
Harcourt Brace, 1994

Shibori, a resist dyeing method, is used to pattern Japanese gampi tissue paper (long fibered tissue) as ocean and rain, in both pipe resist and braided resist techniques, respectively. Shibori tissue paper is combined with Japanese dyed sheets in collages on illustration board.

SPECIAL GUEST

Catharine Ellis  

Catharine Ellis, self published, three titles:

Cape Cod: The Present, Blue, and Mapping Color (written by Nancy Penrose, illustrated by Catharine Ellis). Find Catharine’s resources and publications here.

(Each of these chapbooks is illustrated using photographs of natural dyed fabrics, sometimes additionally stitched on the surfaces, while abstractly defining the text.)

What are your favorite books illustrated with textiles? Send us your recommendations.

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A Picture and a Thousand Words

As a reporter and editor for decades, I often heard people accuse my colleagues and me of “bias,” of having a particular slant on a story—usually a point of view that the accuser disputed. It was a common charge, especially if the issue was controversial.

But in truth, reporters are no different than anyone else. Everyone comes to a subject with some kind of bias.  If you know what a certain beach is like, then you are likely to associate other beaches with that experience; if you’ve never been to the beach, then you can only imagine what the smells, the sand, or the sea is like.

If you are pro-candy, you will read about candy differently than someone who doesn’t like it.

When you write nonfiction, these different reader perspectives matter. If we want to be thoughtful about a subject or apply those all-important critical thinking skills, it helps to acknowledge our natural biases—not to judge, but simply to understand that our experiences affect how we see things.

Tommy: the Gun that Changed America (hardcover on the left, paperback on the right)When I speak to junior high students, I often hold up a copy of my book Tommy: The Gun that Changed America and ask them what they think it is about.

“Why would I write this,” I go on, “and why, especially, for young people?” Then I might show them the paperback version, which has the same title, of course, but no gun on the cover.  “What do you make of that?”

From there, we can actually start talking about guns—what role they play in our society, what makes them interesting to readers and how they generate strong feelings—without having to debate the Second Amendment.

Because we live in such a visual world, I spend hours tracking down the right photos, cartoons, and documents to help tell a story. And even if these images don’t make it into the book, they influence my writing by reminding me what the world looked like and how people felt in that time period.

The images that do make it into my books can change the reader’s experience, challenging the biases they bring to the story.

Bonnie Parker

Bonnie Parker (photo: Missouri State Highway Patrol)

Consider this photo of Bonnie Parker, a key image in my next book, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend, due out in August 2018. It’s a crucial picture, the first time she became known to the public. What do you think about her when you see this? What do you think she’s like?

Now compare it to the glamour shot below, taken just a few years before. Does it change your perspective at all?

Maybe one way to make student research and nonfiction more engaging is to consider our assumptions and biases by bringing images into the process. Some ideas:

Bonnie Parker (from the collections
of the Dallas History and Archives Division
of the Dallas Public Library)

  • Ask students to make assumptions about a book from the cover. Then compare to what the story is inside. Did their perspective change?
  • Pull out a single image and try to guess what it means to the story. Then, read that chapter (or picture book) and test it.
  • Ask students to search for a photo separately from their research on a subject. Did the photo enforce or change their point of view?

What other ways can you address how a reader’s experiences can impact understanding?

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Pickle Voice

When I was a kid I got lost while participating in a summer recreation program. I was terrified. So the first thing I did when the group leaders found me was to laugh.

I was laughing out of pure relief at being found. And because even as a kid, my emotional stress relief valve was set to “humor.” I’m hardwired in such a way that I often laugh even while I’m crying.

I got in big trouble that day for laughing, and I continued to get in trouble whenever other people thought humor was an inappropriate response. Which led me to believe that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I needed to use a serious tone. Humor, I had learned, would likely get me into trouble.

Guess what? None of those oh-so-serious things I used to write got published. The writing felt lifeless and artificial; it wasn’t reflective of who I really am. It wasn’t until an editor encouraged me to pursue the “hidden funny story” that she found buried in a manuscript of mine that I let humor back into my work.

That reworked story, complete with lots of “funny,” went on to become my first published book.

I think that what we mean when we talk about “writer’s voice” is a writer’s personality showing up on the page. It emerges through many diverse writing choices, ranging from word usage to tone to rhythm. It’s a tough concept for students to grapple with. Yet editors say it’s a major factor in what they look for in a publishable piece, and writing programs include it as a key component. We can’t ignore voice just because it’s hard to teach and learn. So how do we help students find their voice, especially given that some of them may have been told that the voice that comes naturally to them should stay lost?

I use an activity that encourages students to play with voice. I first choose a group of things that exist as a collective, within which the different components have “personality” without being controversial. Examples are the four seasons—winter and summer have different personalities; or it might be colors—we can assign personalities to green and pink without coming to blows over it; or you could even use food flavors. Then I have students write about a simple topic using contrasting choices from the group. In other words, I might ask them to describe the town they live in, first using a dark chocolate voice, and then using a pickle voice.

It sounds odd, but I’ve seen it have surprising results. Somehow playing with voice in this way can set students on a path to finding the writer’s voice that was lost inside them all along.

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Revision Letter

Lynn Jonell's Page Break

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Skinny Dip with Susan Yutzey

Susan Yutzey

Susan Yutzey

Susan Yutzey worked as an Ohio school librarian for many years, serving in local, state, and national leadership positions. Now retired, she continues to be a tireless advocate for school libraries and librarians.

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

Ms. D’Angelo was my seventh grade teacher. I was a new student at Edith A. Bogart Elementary School and Ms. D’Angelo made me feel welcome. From encouraging me as a left-hander to position the paper the way I felt most comfortable to serving as my piano accompanist at the annual talent show as I sang selections from my favorite musical “Gigi,” Ms. D’Angelo was always my role model.

Nancy DrewWhen did you first start reading books?

My first book was a gift from my grandmother—The Little Engine that Could. From that point on, I remember reading every Nancy Drew book, relishing my Saturday mornings as I devoured The Secret of the Old Clock, The Mystery of Lilac Inn, The Secret at Shadow Ranch, and all the rest. To keep track of my books I created “checkout” cards and attached them to each book. Playing librarian at the tender age of ten should have been my clue that twenty-nine years later I would embark on a career as a school librarian.

The Poisonwood Bible Barbara KingsolverAll-time favorite book?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Your best memory of your school library?

The library in my high school was a two-story library with shelf after shelf of books and periodicals. From the second floor to the first floor was a winding staircase. During the two years I was a student at Northern Highland High School, I was secretary of the Library Council. The officers of the Library Council had their yearbook photo taken on that winding staircase. I also have fond memories of Mrs. Enos, the school librarian, and her assistant Mrs. Holmstrup who provided a supportive environment for students and encouraged independent thinking and action.

Turtles All the Way DownBook on your bedside table right now?

I seem to being going through a British mystery phase so on my bedside table you’ll find Friend Request by Laura Marshall. I just finished reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. I usually have two books going at the same time so my nonfiction read is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

What’s your hidden talent?

As an elementary school student I discovered that as a left-hander, I could write backwards. I would write my name or a phrase backward, hold it up to a mirror and there it was—able to be read by anyone! It was great for passing notes to friends.

Graeter's Ice CreamFavorite flavor of ice cream?

Graeter’s Ice Cream is a Cincinnati-based creamery. My favorite flavor from Graeter’s is black raspberry chocolate chip.

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

Walking wherever and whenever I can and recycling plastics and paper in our neighborhood recycling program.

Susan Yutzey, library advocate

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The Sameness of Sheep

Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”

I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either). The age argument took the wind out of my sails. I understood the reasoning—create older characters to get the most bang for the middle-grade buck by snaring younger readers. Better yet, stick the character in middle school.

The true middle-grade novel is for readers eight to twelve with some overlap. Chapter books for seven- to ten-year-olds bisect the lower end of middle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, straddle the gap between MG and YA. If my characters are twelve, I hit the middle grade and tween target and everybody wins. Maybe not.

At our public library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG novels off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main character. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turning twelve in the next chapter. While the characters and stories were all different, there was a sheeplike sameness reading about twelve-year-olds.

It worries me. Publishers contribute to pushing elementary school children as quickly as possible into middle school. Where are the middle-grade books about a ten-year-old character? An eight-year-old character? Ah, now we’ve backed into chapter book territory.

Charlotte's WebSupposedly, kids prefer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Reading about a character who is two or three years older might generate anxiety in some readers. And they may disdain shorter, simpler chapter books.

In the past, before publisher and bookstore classifications, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main character in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern saving him. Fern is eight, a fact mentioned on the first page. Does anyone care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s richly-depicted barnyard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recently, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” barrier with his terrific middle grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Betsy Bird compared it to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Billy is seven and starting second grade, a character normally found in a briskly-written, lower-end chapter book. Yet Billy Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird praises Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Billy a second grader because that’s what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader … To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a bigger challenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the characters are seven and six. This hefty MG explores the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Neri chose fiction rather than biography because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] story was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writing a lengthy, layered book about a first and second grader.

We need more books featuring eight-, nine-, ten-year-old characters that are true middle grade novels and not chapter books. Children grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “middle” stage, find themselves in books with characters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of seasons, “the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barnyard and into middle school.

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Mouse Books

We have mice. Hopefully just one, but it’s a brash one, scuttling around the kitchen during breakfast this morning.

This happens in the fall at our house. We’ve certainly tried to find where they might be getting in, but they say a mouse only needs a dime-sized hole, and we obviously haven’t found it. Caught two a couple of weeks ago.

They’re small. Cute, even. Which is good, because otherwise I’d have the heebie-jeebies. And I (mostly) don’t. It’s just a To-Do on the list—and I’m not the one who To-Do’s it even.

But it has me thinking…. We might not want them in our houses, but mice are beloved characters in kids’ books. Certainly at our house they have been. Ralph S. MouseThe Mouse and the Motorcycle…all of Kevin Henke’s wonderful mice picture books…The Brambly Hedge CollectionMrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHA Mouse Called WolfStuart LittleThe Tale of Despereaux…Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series…Avi’s Poppy and Ragweed books…Bless This Mouse…. And these are just some of the books in which mice play the starring role. Plenty more have mousy “minor characters.” (Think Templeton in Charlotte’s Web, or Mouse in the Bear books by Bonnie Becker.)

I’ve written many Red Reading Boots columns about our favorite mice books. (I just looked back—many!) I look at the shelves in my office, which have been stocked with all of the family favorites I’m allowed to take from the #1 Son’s and Darling Daughter’s shelves, and goodness! It would appear we’ve raised them on mice! #1 Son had imaginary mice friends who accompanied through the trials and tribulations of early childhood—and no wonder! Did we read anything else?!

What is it about mice that are so appealing for storytelling? Is it that they’re the presumed underdog because of their size? Yet in story after story, they prove themselves to be intelligent, resourceful, and courageous—their size even advantageous. Certainly this is a theme worthy of putting before children.

Is it because they are so wee and dear (fictionally!) and lend themselves to illustrations? Some of my most favorite illustrations have mice in them (see the above list for starters!) Their little clothes! 

Or is it because we like to imagine parallel universes in which the smallest animals create homes and villages and worlds from our bits and bobs? Hidden away in the hedgerows, the rafters, beneath the floorboards…all these stories running along beside use.

It might be this last thing for me. When I’m on walks I often see tiny hollows, small pockets, and inviting dime sized (and larger) holes in the walls and hedges and trees. When I see these, I’m immediately furnishing a home for tiny ones inside—scraps artfully repurposed, cozy built-ins, winding passages….

I’m fully aware that other rodents could star in such scenes, but it’s always a bitty mouse with large ears and eyes and flickering whiskers that comes to mind. Perhaps it’s because of what I’ve read over the years? Certainly could be. There’s something about mice that fire our imaginations, I think.

I’m on the hunt for new mouse books. What do you have to recommend?

 

 

 

 

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Tiny House, Cozy Cabin

A few months ago, my husband and I sold our home of 30 years and decided to live full-time in our cozy cabin in the woods. We left behind greater square footage, a quaint and sometimes bustling village on the waterfront, and a home with lots of family memories.

But it was time for a change.

Time for more simplicity.

Ever since our kids left home, we’d been juggling life between our house and cabin, leaving us feeling fragmented and burdened. Something had to go. The decision wasn’t easy. A comfortable, well-appointed and spacious home? Or a tiny house / cozy cabin with a spacious outdoors? We opted for less house, more nature.

Mary Casanova cabin

On these 60 acres, the aspen and maple have nearly shed all their leaves. Winter is coming, and we heat our cabin with hand-split fire wood in our woodstove. Mornings start with coffee by the crackling fire, then we head out to feed three horses, clean stalls and paddock, gather eggs, and hike with our dogs to the river.

After breakfast, I like to tidy up my home before getting to my writing desk, which is in the loft. In a tiny space, cleaning takes minutes. Of course, moving into this smaller home first meant downsizing our possessions. We went on a crusade to rid our lives of clutter. We donated, trashed, recycled, and gifted away everything we could.

With less to manage and maintain, we lower our stress and free up more space for things that matter to us.

The cabin’s cooling a bit as I write this.

Time to stoke the fire and grab a good book.

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Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer and her books are respected and loved by children, parents, educators, librarians, editors, and writers. She began her career as a novelist, turning to picture books later in her career. Celebrating the release of her newest picture book, the charming Winter Dance, we were curious about how she writes these short books so we asked! And this long-time teacher of other writers provided heartfelt answers.

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer (photo credit: Katherine Warde)

If You Were Born a KittenWhen you sit down to write a picture book, what has inspired you?

Sometimes I begin with an idea I want to share.  If You Were Born a Kitten, for instance, comes out of my very impassioned belief that the miracle of birth is hidden from most young children in our society—from most of us, really.  I wanted to celebrate birth in a way that would show it both as miracle and as part of our solid, everyday reality. 

Sometimes the concept comes from something I read or something someone says to me. Winter Dance came from an editor’s saying, “What about celebrating the first snow?” 

But the actual picture book begins, always, with language.  I can’t even begin to flesh out my idea until the opening line is singing in my head.

The Longest NightDo you know the ending of your picture book before you begin to write?

I always know the end of a novel before I begin to write, and if a picture book is a story, I know the end of that, too. So when I began writing The Longest Night, I knew before I put down the first word that the little chickadee would bring back the sun. When I write concept books, though, like How Do I Love You?, I have to find my ending in the playing out of the language.

Do you write with a specific child in mind?

I write always for a child, and in the case of picture books for the adult who will be sharing the book, but I have no particular child in my heart … except maybe the small child I was so many years ago.

Do you envision the illustrations while you are writing?

I envision space for the illustrations, which is a very different thing. I don’t think what the illustrations will depict, specifically, and I certainly don’t think about what they will look like. That’s the artist’s territory. But I make sure I have created an active changing world for the illustrator to take hold of.

How much do you consider the level of the reader’s vocabulary when you write a picture book?

Honestly? Not at all. Because picture books are usually read to a child rather than by the child, I never consider vocabulary. Sometimes a totally new word is, in itself, a kind of enchantment for a child. Think of Peter Rabbit for whom lettuce had a “soporific” effect! No, I’ve never used the word soporific or anything like it, but isn’t it a wonderfully resonant word? 

I should add, though, that there is one basic rule I use with all of my writing.  I believe the best word in any piece of writing for any audience is always the simplest one.  Sometimes, though, that best word might just happen to be soporific.

Winter DanceDo you ever begin a picture book feeling at a loss for how to write it?

Yes, and when I do I always stop, set it aside, give it time. When it begins to sing to me—if it begins to sing to me—then there will be no more loss.

Winter Dance, my newest picture book, actually began with an editor’s committing to a picture book I had written about spring.  For a complicated series of reasons the text the editor contracted had to be altered substantially, and during that process, my drafts got farther and farther away from anything the editor wanted.  I mentioned earlier, it was the editor who finally came up with the idea that I write about the first snow instead.  Great idea, but first I had to find my fox, and I had to discover that foxes mate in winter so he would have a reason to rejoice over snow.  And then, of course, I had to find the song to carry him through.

What is the word length you aim for in a picture book?

A maximum of 450 words.  Even that can be too long for some books. 

You were best known for your novels for middle grade and teen readers. What influenced you to try a different book form for a different reader?

The truth is I always wanted to write picture books. In the beginning, I simply didn’t know how to write them, even though I had read them endlessly to my own children and to various foster children in my home. Picture books are a bit technical to learn, and I had no one to teach me. In fact, I started out trying to write picture books and discovered I didn’t know what I was doing. So I moved on and found it easier, not knowing what I was doing, to muddle through a novel. 

The other piece, though, was that my first editor, at a time when we  writers were owned by our first editors, said to me when I showed him what I thought was a picture-book manuscript, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer.” Now, he could legitimately have said, “Marion, that’s not a picture book.” Because it wasn’t. But even when the publishing world opened up and I did learn and began publishing successful picture books with other houses, he refused to alter his vision of me as only a novelist. So I have him to thank for my career getting established in novels. Picture books are so much fun, if he had been open to younger work from me, I probably would have been off playing with picture books much sooner.

___________________

Thank you, Marion, for sharing your thoughts about picture books in such an instructive way. We’re always happy to learn from you.

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.

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A Kindle* of Cats

Phyllis: 

Luna

Phyllis Root’s cat, Luna

*Even though kindle means cats born in the same litter, the alliteration was hard to resist.

“All my work is done in the company of cats,” writes Nicola Bayley, wonderful picture book artist and writer, in her book The Necessary Cat.

I know what she means. Right now my cat Luna is sitting on the open copy of The Kittens’ ABC, clearly a cat of discerning literary taste.

Cats and writers seem to have a particular relationship. Cats wander in and out of our picture books, take naps on our keyboards, and curl up in our hearts. This month we looked at a few of the many picture books where cats play a role.

The Kittens' ABCI was introduced to Claire Turlay Newberry when I found a used copy of The Kittens’ ABC and was enchanted by her drawings of cats in which she captures them with a few lines in charcoal, pencil, and pastels. (Of her seventeen picture books, all but three are about cats.) The rhymes with each letter of this ABC are simple, but I could linger over those wise, playful, cozy pictures for hours. And if Luna has her way, curled up now on N is for Nap, I will.

Kittens like to take their naps
In boxes, bureau drawers, and laps;
Or else, along the sofa pillows,
In rows, like little pussywillows.

Green EyesAnother used book find is Green Eyes by A. Birnbaum, winner of a 1953 Caldecott honor. The story follows the first year of a springtime-born kitten’s life, from scrambling out of a large box to exploring the farm life around him—chickens, cows, pigs, goats. By the time leaves fall, followed by snow, the now almost grown cat fits more snugly in his box. The art is superb, strong black lines and bright colors. This is the only picture book Birnbaum both wrote and also illustrated, but his work appeared on The New Yorker covers over more than forty years. Scrolling through images of those covers, I found myself wishing he had illustrated a whole stack of picture books (two of my favorite images:  the woodpecker rattling away after a bug to feed the nest of little woodpeckers and the exuberant crocus in a pot).  

It’s hard for YouTube to do justice to the art, but you can see and hear Green Eyes, now reissued.

Millions of CatsMillions of Cats, written and illustrated by Wanda Gag, with double page spreads, black and white lithograph prints, and hand lettered text has been called the first true American picture book. Millions of Cats won a Newbery honor in 1929 (the Caldecott did not yet exist) and has been in print ever since. The text and art roll rhythmically through the story, and the smallest cat, who didn’t consider herself pretty enough to argue with the other cats about who was prettiest, is the only one left after the hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats fight so much they eat each other up. The littlest kitten, adopted  and loved by the little old lady and the little old man (cat owners might say the people were adopted by the kitten) becomes the prettiest cat of all.

Cats in Krasinski SquareCats are the heroes in The Cats in Krasnski Square by Karen Hesse, a fictional story based on a true story of cats helping outwit the Gestapo and smuggle food into the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

The cats
come
from the cracks in the Wall,
the dark corners,
the openings in the rubble

With her older sister (all that is left of her family) the narrator, who escaped the Polish ghetto and now lives outside its walls, is part of the resistance smuggling food to Jews still imprisoned inside the ghetto, including her friend Michael.  When the resistance learns that the Gestapo is coming with dogs on leashes to sniff out the food arriving by train to be smuggled behind the walls, the narrator knows what to do:  round up as many cats as possible and take them to the station.  As the train arrives, the narrator and her friends  release the cats, which drives the dogs wild; during the distraction the food vanishes  from the station

through the Wall, over the Wall,  under the Wall,
into the Ghetto.

Wendy Watson, one of my favorite artists, illustrated the books in somber tones reflecting the gravity of the story, where acts of great courage can resist great darkness.

So many more cat books to love!  Here are a few to check out:

Cat books

All Archie says to the stray cat on the city sidewalk is, “Hi, Cat!” in Hi, Cat! by Ezra Jack Keats, but the cat follows him and manages to ruin every act of the show Archie and his friend Peter are putting on. Still, Archie decides that the cat “just kinda liked me!”

Cats aren’t mentioned in This is Our House by Hyewon Yum, but generations of cats and kittens weave in and out of the art of this deceptively simple story of immigration, family, and home.

Ginger written and illustrated by Charlotte Voake, is a tale of “sibling” rivalry when the cat of the house must deal with a new kitten.

Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes tells of a kitten who thinks the first full moon of her life is a bowl of milk in the sky, but all her efforts to drink that milk end in disaster.  Luckily, when she returns home, a bowl of milk is waiting just for her.

Lola and the Rent-a-Cat, written and illustrated by Ceseli Josephus Jitta, tells how Lola, whose husband of many years has died, finds a cat to belong to (and keep) through the Internet. Lola chooses number 313 Tim:

  • Homely, slightly older cat
  • Loves attention and care
  • Fond of diet food

Lola and Tim are together all the time, and she is able to recall the good memories as she and Tim sit on a bench in the evenings, and Tim purrs as she strokes him. 

October 29 is National Cat Day, but any day is a good day to curl up with a cat book (and a cat, if one is handy).

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A Vehicle for Change

Fallout ShelterI’d heard my mom talk about “duck and cover”: hiding under her school desk from a potential nuclear attack. And I’d participated myself in tornado drills during my own school days, lining up in a basement hallway with our arms covering our heads.

None of that prepared me for a lockdown drill. I was on one of my regular gigs as a visiting author when the teacher pulled me aside and prepped me on what to expect. Except it turns out there’s no prepping for the feeling that comes over you when you’re locked into a dark room with twenty-some kids crouching under desks, recognizing that you’re practicing in case someday, one of them decides to show up to school with a gun hidden under a peanut butter sandwich. It ranks as the most unsettling moment I’ve experienced during a school visit.

I’m certainly not alone in wishing we could find the way to permanently erase the need for lockdown drills. The one suggestion I can offer is something I know from firsthand experience: writing can provide a valuable outlet for young people who are grappling with life’s harshest realities. When I go into a school, I might be there for only a day or a week. And yet even in that very brief chance to work together, I’ve had students who’ve used their stories to share all sorts of sad and scary realities from their lives: pain over their parents’ divorce, bullying, betrayal by a friend, death, abuse, and fear. These students follow a long human tradition of using art to shed light into the dark corners of our existence.

And because I’ve seen what a difference it can make for a young person to share their own dark corners, I also believe that we could use art as one of the vehicles of change we’re looking for. As much as I understand the unhappy necessity for lockdown drills, I can only hope that we also remember to give students enough time to sit at their desks with the lights on, writing and creating the kind of art that illuminates us all. Maybe somehow giving them those opportunities will prove even more important than teaching them to crouch under their desks, waiting for the darkness to come and find them.

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Roadblocks

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Pigs Galore

This past September, after years of writing and teaching the writing of realistic YA fiction, I was pleased to launch into the world a set of four early chapter books. Not surprisingly, the challenge of telling a story in 1000 words instead of 60,000 was huge. It was not the only challenge.

Instead of focusing on a teen girl in turmoil, I was now writing about a talking pig. An athletic one, to boot: Gracie LaRoo, the youngest member of a championship synchronized swimming team. I can just hear the younger writer me: Anthropomorphism? You’re really gonna go there?

While developing Gracie and while writing her stories I was keenly aware she was joining a crowded field. There are a lot of pigs in children’s literature, and many of them have reached one-name celebrity status. Okay, Piglet, Freddy, Wilbur, Babe, and Olivia only ever had one name, but since their arrival on the scene have they ever needed more than that?

Character is everything in literature, and I was delighted to discover some fine new and new-to-me pigs. Like almost all the books I read and reread, my list can be divided into two types of books: farm pigs and pigs-as-people (i.e., full-blown anthropomorphism).

Pigs Might Fly  

Pigs Might Fly
written by Dick King-Smith

(Mary Rayner, illus; Puffin, 1990)

I loved this novel by the author of Babe: The Gallant Pig, and not just because the protagonist Daggie is a swimming pig like my Gracie. There’s a lovely balance of realistic farm life and talking-animal whimsy. Like most of the farm-story pigs, Daggie appears destined for the breakfast table. How can he avoid that fate? Daggie is a wonderful character; his delight in cooling off in a stream on a hot day is visceral. And does he ever fly? You think I’d tell you?

Adventures of a South Pole Pig  

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig
written by Chris Kurtz

(Jennifer Black Reinhardt, illus; HMH, 2015)

An outdoor survival story with a female protagonist–what’s not to love? Okay, Flora’s a pig, but still. Perhaps because the novel begins on a farm, I had no hesitation in accepting that what happens later in the story is precisely what would happen were a pig shipwrecked at the edge of Antarctica. One warning: the shipboard rats are very frightening.

 

The Pirate Pig

 

The Pirate Pig
written by Cornelia Funke

(Kerstin Meyer, illus; Yearling, 2015)

Funke is of course the imaginative author of many middle grade and YA novels. This story about a treasure-sniffing pig who is shanghaied into labor by two evil pirates is great fun; also, how can you resist a pig pirate named Julie?

Poppleton Has Fun  

Poppleton Has Fun
by Cynthia Rylant

(Mark Teague, illus; Harcourt School Publishers, 2006)

Animals of all types abound in stepped-reading sets and series, and pigs are especially well-represented. I pored over many and quickly tossed some aside. Thanks to Newbery winner Rylant’s deft characterization and pitch-perfect language, Poppleton emerges as the best, and in this book he quilts and takes a nice bath. Fun, indeed.

 

Did I miss your favorite pig? Please comment!

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Skinny Dip with Anne Broyles

Anne BroylesAuthor Anne Broyles is a world traveler, explorer, and social justice advocate who writes books about historical journeys, family traditions, and the immigrant experience.  

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

My fifth grade teacher at Schumaker Elementary School, Mr. George Willems, encouraged me to think of myself as a writer through our weekly writing assignments. One week he put on a scary piece of music called “Danse Macabre” and asked us to write the story that came to us as we listened to the music. My story was about skeletons in the graveyard. Another week, he took us out on the playground to lie on our backs and use the clouds for inspiration. I still have a lot of the work I did in his class.

I have few regrets in life, but I do wish I had returned to the school to thank him for his encouragement, but by the time I was old enough to realize that this might have meant something to him, he was already gone.

What is your favorite part of starting a new project?

I love the initial inspiration of a new project, then the research into making sure my ideas, setting, language, and details are all accurate. For instance, in my research for my middle grade novel-in-progress, Plenty Powerful, I spent two weekends in Arthurdale, West Virginia, a planned community that Eleanor Roosevelt helped found during the Depression. I spent time with the real-life people who, had my character been an actual person, would have been her classmates. They told me what it was like to move from extreme poverty in mining camps to a place where they had homes, running water, electricity, and a sense of community. Those are the kinds of details I love to include in writing fiction..

grilled cheese and tomato soupFavorite lunch as a kid?

Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich.

Barefoot or shoes?

I grew up in Tucson, so I am definitely a thongs/sandals person. I feel sad when summer is over and I have to start wearing “real shoes.” Though I backpacked through Europe for seven months right after college and loved my heavy hiking boots so much, I sometimes slept in them after I got home!

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Like Anne Frank, I “believe, in spite of everything, that people& are truly good at heart.” I try to look for and find the light that is in everyone I meet.

Best invention of the last two hundred years?

The telephone, because it gave people opportunity to communicate with family and friends who were not geographically close. I use email and texts to stay in touch, too, of course, but there’s nothing as satisfying as hearing the voice of someone I love, and getting to have a back-and-forth conversation when we are apart.

Long Way DownBook on your bedside table right now?

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, which I just picked up today. I look forward to seeing how he pulls off the concept of “a novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.”

Your most cherished accomplishment?

I received a Youth Mentor Award from the League of United Latin American Citizens.

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From Gridlock to Road Trip

gridlock

If you were stuck in bumper to bumper gridlock, heading south on Hwy 100 last week, you may have noticed a woman laughing all alone in her car as she waited patiently (with eyes on the road) for things to start moving again. The very next day you might have caught a glimpse of that same lady wiping a tear or two from her cheek, again, staying attentive to the traffic. This emotional driver wasn’t reacting to the road congestion or the fact that her time behind the windshield was double what it should be. The source of her amusement and sadness was coming from her car radio speakers, more specifically, the audiobook Gone Crazy in Alabama, written by Rita Williams-Garcia, narrated by Sisi A. Johnson. That captivated listener/careful motorist was me, making the most of rush hour by savoring a story that begs to be heard in audio format.

Gone Crazy in AlabamaThe Gaither sisters, Delphine, Vonetta and Fern, along with Big Ma, their grandmother, and Ma Charles, their great grandmother, joined me for the commute down Hwy 100 for about a week. The combination of exquisite writing by Ms. Williams and enthralling narration by Ms. Johnson transformed several days of difficult maneuvering on the interstate to an extended road trip with some of my very best friends. There was even one morning when I finally arrived at the school parking lot only to have to pull myself away from my vehicle, after telling myself “Just five more minutes to finish this chapter!”

In addition to Gone Crazy in Alabama, I have enjoyed nearly three dozen other audio titles in the past year. My top recommendations stand out for their memorable and engaging narrations. Other than The Hate U Give (most appropriate for age 12+), these audiobooks would be great additions to middle grade (4th-6th) classrooms.

All American Boys by Brenden Kiely and Jason Reynolds

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Hate U Give by Angela Thomas

Listen, SlowlyListen Slowly by Thanhha Lai

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

Refugee by Alan Katz

Reign Rain by Ann M. Martin

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

My all-time favorite audiobook adventure was Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan. With a running time of ten and a half hours, this masterpiece is well worth every minute spent taking in the captivating tale of magic, mystery and harmonica music. The fate of three children is interwoven from Germany to the United States, from the Rise of Hitler to post-Pearl Harbor as the harmonica plays an integral role in the characters’ connections and the book’s conclusion. I am convinced that the audio production of Echo offers a unique and memorable experience that is beyond comparison to either the read aloud or independent reading option. Whether Echo becomes your first audiobook or lands at the top of your existing “to be listened to” list, you will not be disappointed (well, perhaps you will be, but only because it has to come to an end).

If you are looking for other great audio picks, consider the award winners chosen by YALSA and ALSC.

The Odyssey Award sponsored by YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) recognizes the best audiobook produced each year for children and/or young adults. In 2016, the Honor Recording was Echo.

In addition to the Odyssey Award winners, a longer list of exemplary audio recordings are offered annually on the Notable Children’s Recordings list, selected by the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children). In 2011, One Crazy Summer was recognized.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on a powerful quote from Kylene Beers from Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading; “Nonfiction lets us learn more; fiction lets us be more.” This is what I want most for young readers and I bet you do as well.  Yet, like me, you might wonder just how many of our kids have ever experienced this powerful aspect of fiction? I believe that for some, if not many, exceptional audiobooks may be the ticket to helping kids be more through the books they experience. There was a time in my teaching career when I didn’t give audiobooks and their listeners the credit they deserve. I have come to appreciate the aural reading experience both personally and professionally. I hope you feel the same.

Resources that promote access to audiobooks:

Epic!

Epic! is the leading digital library for kids, with unlimited access to an incredible selection of 25,000 high-quality books, learning videos, quizzes and more. You can access Epic! on any device, including your smartphone, iPad or computer—FREE for educators!

Overdrive

Borrow eBooks, audiobooks, and more from your local public library—anywhere, anytime. All you need is a library card.

Scribd

Scribd is a reading subscription that is available anytime and on any device. Enjoy access to 3 books and 1 audiobook each month—plus unlimited access to magazines and documents—for $8.99/month.

Skybrary

Skybrary is a carefully curated, ever expanding interactive library of digital books and video explorations designed to engage young readers and foster a love of learning.

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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I have had the pleasure of entertaining a few young writers in my office in the last couple of months. They come with a Mom, usually. (My office doesn’t really hold more than three people at a time.) These Moms are so thankful that I would do this “generous thing” of having them over that I feel almost guilty. Because I do it for me. These writers, most of whom have not hit the double digits in age yet, are such an inspiration for me.

We often share our WIPs (works-in-progress). Theirs is beautiful, because they are almost always illustrators as well as writers. Some write picture books only, but some cross over into illustrated chapter books, filling notebook upon notebook. I usually show them some mess I’m working on, and although they’re polite, I can tell they’re startled (or amused) that I don’t have my act more together.

We discuss process. I ask them if they write most every day and they say things like, “Of course.” And “I use my free time in class efficiently.” These kids leave and I have the urge to clean my office, start a new notebook and calendar, and get my act together. They are good for my soul.

They usually try my Wesk (Walking Desk) and they spend a lot of time looking at my bookshelves. This is how I know they’re serious writers—they’re serious readers. I tell them this. And they nod smartly or look at me with the “Duh!” look on their face. Mostly we talk about newer books—those published within their lifetime—that we love. But I had one young writer recently who kept remarking on the books of my childhood.

Ramona the Brave! I love Ramona…. The Borrowers! Remember when we read that when we were visiting your friend, Mom? Wind in the Willows! I like Mr. Toad….”

And then she spied Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. She pulled it off the shelf and scrutinized the cover. “Is this the same Mrs. Frisby we have?” she asked her mother, doubt and suspicion in her young voice. Her mother answered that it was, this one just had a different cover. “Was this yours when you were a girl like me?” she asked, her eyes darting my way but then immediately back to Mrs. Frisby in her modest red cloak on the cover.

“No,” I said. “This was my son’s copy.” The cover says: Celebrating the 35th anniversary of NIMH. It’s not nearly as well done as the art on the original, which I had—the book is nearly as old as me.

“This does not look like Mrs. Frisby,” she said, her nose scrunched up in disapproval.

“I don’t think so either,” I said. For the life of me, I do not know why they redid the cover. Zena Bernstein’s gorgeous (pen and ink?) drawings are still inside the book. Why did they change the cover to something that looks so…blah for the 35th anniversary?

“She looks…pretend.

Right. I remember so clearly being this young writer’s age, and my second grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, reading us the story after recess each day. This was my favorite part of the day. I just fell into the world of Mrs. Frisby and her wee family in such danger in their cozy cinderblock home. There was nothing pretend about it. Young Timothy had pneumonia—I’d had pneumonia and I knew exactly what that felt like. I wheezed along with Timothy in solidarity. I remember visiting the Rats of NIMH with Mrs. Frisby, and my heart pounding with hers as she delivered the sleeping powder into the cat’s dish.

“I mean, I know it is pretend,” said my young visiting writer. “Technically. But it doesn’t feel pretend when you’re reading it.” She pushed the book back into my overcrammed bookshelf. “That’s the kind of book I want to write.”

Me, too, sweetheart. Me, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

bored writerFor me, writing nonfiction is a fun adventure. A game to play. A puzzle to solve. A challenge to overcome.

But many students don’t feel the same way. According to them, research is boring. Making a writing plan is a waste of time. And revision is more than frustrating. It’s downright painful.

Why do young writers have a point of view that’s so completely different from mine? While there’s probably no single answer to this question, one thing that’s missing for young writers is an authentic audience.

When I begin writing, I know exactly who my audience is—kids, of course, but also the adults who put the books in the hands of children. I’m excited to share information with my audience, and I hope they’ll find it as fascinating as I do.

I know people are reading my books because I see reviews online and in journals. Eventually, I see sales figures. Kids respond by sending me letters, by asking probing questions at school visits and, sometimes, by dragging their parents to book signings. Teachers and librarians respond via social media and by inviting me to their schools and conferences.

These responses are different from the ones I get from my critique group and editors. Sure, they read my work too, but it’s their job to find fault with it. While I appreciate and depend on their feedback, it’s far less rewarding than the reactions I get from my true audience, my authentic audience.

Students often don’t have an authentic audience. Their teacher is like my editor. And if peer critiquing or buddy editing is part of their writing process, those classmates are like my critique group.

How can we give young writers the kind of experiences professional writers have when they write for and get responses from an authentic audience? Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. Share writing with younger students. Encourage the younger students to respond with writing of their own or by drawing pictures or making an audio or video recording.
  1. Create a class blog and encourage students in other classes and/or parents to read the posts and leave meaty comments.

If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments below or via social media. I know there are lots of ways we can create an authentic audience for our students.

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On Growing Older … Old

Growing OlderWhy is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?

To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door. But old … ah, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance. Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-our-society word … death.

I am approaching my birthday month. It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to. I will be 79 next month.

Can you name the number?

Forty didn’t trouble me a bit. I had a friend, several years older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age. It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.” And she was right! I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident … and still young.

Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare. As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all. Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security and Medicare, and for the self-employed that is no small thing. I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me. Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal. (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.” That’s what Medicare is, and it works! It works better than any other pay-for-care system this backward system offers.)

When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party … at my request, I should add. It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me. Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.

“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.

She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”

But this is 79! And yes, I might as well name the number. Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!

It’s the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix. Not that I’ve given up trying. I walk vigorously two of three times a day. I do Pilates three times a week. I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene. Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.

From time to time, bits fall off.

And my mind? That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about. I can still produce a workable manuscript. I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too. But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.

My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.

Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement. Who is ever prepared? After all, old has never been something to aspire to … despite the alternative. A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.” And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.

I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be. I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all. I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings to a room.

I want to use these years to live. Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those. We all have enough of those.

I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully. And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.

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Pumpkin Muffins

Pumpkin Muffins
Yields 18
Melanie Heuiser Hill, the author of Giant Pumpkin Suite, would like to think that Gram would be baking Pumpkin Muffins this month. Enjoy!
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Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Ingredients
  1. 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flouor (about 10 ox)
  2. 2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  3. 1-1/2 tsp baking soda
  4. 1 tsp ground ginger
  5. 1/4 tsp salt
  6. 1 cup golden raisins
  7. 1 cup packed brown sugar
  8. 1 cup canned pumpkin
  9. 1/3 cup buttermilk
  10. 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  11. 1/4 cup molasses
  12. 1 tsp vanilla extract
  13. 2 large eggs
  14. Cooking spray
  15. 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400 deg F.
  2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda, ginger, and salt in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Stir in raisins; make a well in center of mixture. Combine brown sugar, canned pumpkin, buttermilk, canola oil, molasses, vanilla extract, and eggs, stirring well with a whisk. Add sugar mixture to flour mixture; stir just until moist.
  3. Spoon batter into 18 muffin cups coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove muffins from pans immediately; cool on a wire rack.
Notes
  1. Prepare these muffins up to two days ahead of serving them.
Adapted from Cooking Light
Adapted from Cooking Light
Bookology Magazine http://www.bookologymagazine.com/
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Shifting Gears

Darth Vader with Light SaberThe only argument I’ve ever witnessed between Teenage Nephew 1 and Longtime Girl-friend was a doozy.

And I couldn’t help chortling with glee because the basis of their disagreement was so close to my heart: What makes for the best possible story?

Actually, the way they put it was, “What’s better, ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Harry Potter’?” But don’t let the fact that they were comparing two fictional worlds fool you: this was a white-hot debate, the competitors more impassioned in their arguments than politicians at a pre-election picnic.

Neither was giving ground; they had dug their heels in, and the “wizard vs. space warrior” dispute looked as if it was coming perilously close to derailing Young Love, when Teenage Nephew 1 suddenly shrugged and said, “All I know is, lightsabers are bigger than wands,” in a definitive way that signaled that in his mind, at least, he’d had the final word.

And they say that size doesn’t matter.

Size may not, but stories do matter. We all have stories that have become an integral part of us; we carry them around and they help shape who we are. Capturing stories on paper, however, can be tricky, and leads some students to dread story-writing. So one of the tricks I’ve found to generate classroom enthusiasm for writing stories is to first get students talking about the stories that have mattered most to them personally. What are their favorite books or movies, and why? Does their favorite song tell a story, maybe about love gone right or love gone wrong? What are their most treasured personal stories: the scary thing that happened on their family vacation? The memory of that time their dog ate the holiday dinner?

Based on the age of your students and the size of your group, you might choose to have them share favorite stories in a big group, or break them into smaller groups. The point is to have them realize how much certain stories have mattered in their own lives, or even to extend the discussion to talk about how a big a role stories have played in shaping human history.

Once all those great stories have filled the room, it becomes a whole lot easier to shift gears into having them write stories of their own.

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Skinny Dip with Patti Lapp

Patti Lapp

A dedicated educator in Pennsylvania, we invited Patti Lapp to answer our twenty Skinny Dip questions.  

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

Mr. Jordan was my favorite teacher who taught 7th grade. He was funny and straightforward; all of us students respected him, and he certainly kept everyone in line. I attended a Catholic school, and he was unique in that setting.

When did you first start reading books?

My mom read to me when I was very young, and because of her dedication, I could read independently when I entered kindergarten. I have been reading voraciously since.

Your favorite daydream?

I daydream of having time to write!

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

The dinner party would be at Soggy Dollar in Jost Van Dyke, BVI. The guest list would include: Jesus, of course! This choice is cliché, but how interesting would this dinner conversation be with Him?! At this dinner, I would also invite Mary Magdalene, Stephen Hawking, David Bohm, Albert Einstein, Gregg Braden, Nikola Tesla, Edgar Cayce, Nostradamus, Shirley MacLaine, Nelson Mandela, Charles Dickens, Maya Angelou, Avi, Viggo Mortensen, Paul McCartney, and my father and grandfather, both deceased.

A Tale of Two CitiesAll-time favorite book?

A Tale of Two Cities—brilliant plotline, indelible characters, and a notable beginning and end!

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

My mom made the best French toast. The key is a lot of cinnamon.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Getting ready the night before for the next day’s work.

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

Inspiration.

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

Barefoot or socks—season dependent.

When are you your most creative?

Sitting alone in the quiet dark at night, decompressing before bedtime.

Your best memory of your school library?

When in elementary school, my best memory is of the Nancy Drew mystery stories that I borrowed every week. Now, as a teacher, my best memories are discussing novels with the many librarians that we have had over the years. They read a lot; so do I.

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Cherry Garcia.

Purgatory Ridge William Kent KruegerBook on your bedside table right now?

William Kent Krueger’s Purgatory Ridge, the third novel in his Cork O’Connor murder/mystery series of currently 16 books. I got hooked on his brilliant story, Ordinary Grace, a standalone novel. He writes beautifully.

What’s your hidden talent?

I can weave.

jacksYour favorite toy as a child …

Jacks—Anyone remember that game?

Best invention in the last 200 years?

Clean water and indoor plumbing and the printing press and the electric light.

Favorite artist? Why?

I love Van Gogh because of his textured brush strokes, color, and creativity.

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

Snakes are the worst. I do not kill spiders because they will consume most of the insects in our homes. If they are big and hairy, they pack their bags and leave—in a cup—to move outside.

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

I am a vegetarian. It takes 15 pounds of feed to generate 1 pound of meat; hence, more people in the world can be fed when people consume a vegetarian diet. Additionally, animals are saved, many that would be raised in inhumane conditions, many that would be treated inhumanely.

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Ideas are humans’ most valuable resource. If we continue to invest in innovation and research that make our planet healthier and improve the quality of life for the global community, we have hope. As a very simple example, look at the fairly new awareness of GMOs in our food. With awareness, comes demand. With demand, comes change—and humanity clearly needs to continue to make pioneering and positive changes.

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The Book Box

For a fiction workshop, I asked participants to bring in childhood books that influenced them to become a writer. Naturally, I did the assignment myself. Choosing the books was easy, but they felt insubstantial in my hands, vintage hardbacks that lacked the heft of, say, the last Harry Potter. When it came my turn to talk, I figured I’d stammer excuses for their shabby, old-fashioned, stamped jackets. (“Well, this is the way library books looked in the fifties.”)

I wanted to tuck my beloved books in a box to keep them safe, like baby robins fallen out of a nest. Really, what is a book, but ideas, adventures, people, and places protected by cardboard, shaped like a box? I carried this notion with me on a trip to Michael’s, where I found a sturdy box with a jigsaw of little boxes stacked under the front flap. I knew just what I’d do with this prize: showcase my favorite books in an assemblage. 

The Book Box

At FedEx Office, I color photocopied the book covers, reduced them several sizes, then dashed through A.C. Moore’s miniature section to collect tiny endowed objects. Next, I happily sorted through my scrapbook and ephemera stash for just-right window dressing. I glued on paper, adding the objects. Pictures and trinkets were pretty, but not enough. The box needed words to set the stories—and their meaning—free.

Home for a BunnyI typed quotes and notes into strips folded accordion-style. Margaret Wise Brown’s Home for a Bunny gently reminded me that once I had lived “under a rock, under a stone.” Like the bunny, I had no home of my own until I was five. This was my first book, my first experience in identifying with a character.

The title of Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion contained “secret” and “mansion,” words that made my heart thump. Trixie lived in the country like me, and had to work in the garden, like I did. Trixie stumbled into mysteries and I did, too, when I furiously scribbled whodunnits in fourth grade. Just like that, I became a writer.

Diamond in the WindowThe Diamond in the Window opens with a quote from Emerson: “On him the light of star and moon / Shall fall with purer radiance down … / Him Nature giveth for defense / His formidable innocence; / The mounting up, the shells, the sea, / All spheres, all stones, his helpers be …” At eleven, I skipped those words, but I didn’t ignore the small lessons from Emerson and Thoreau sprinkled throughout this fantasy / adventure / family / mystery story. This book changed my life.

I had to be married on Valentine’s Day, after the “Bride of Snow” chapter (and I was one, too, in three feet of snow!). Our powder room has a Henry Thoreau theme and we have a gazing globe (“The crystal sphere of thought”) in our back yard, like the Hall family.

Gazing Globe

With some thought and imagination, a book box can be a tangible book report. Supplies required: a cigar box, construction paper, glue, and a favorite book. A box covered in red construction paper could represent Wilbur’s barn. A lid could replicate the map of Hundred Acre Wood. Or Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Making my book box helped me slow down and think about what my favorite books meant to me. How Diamond in the Window led me to the works of Thoreau and Emerson, inspired me to look up from the printed page and truly see the great sphere of our world.  

I still fill my pockets with rocks, pick up shells at the beach, and stare at the stars. I wonder if the rocks were broken off from ancient glaciers, and what happened to the sea creatures inside the shells. The shells and rocks stay in jars and boxes. The stars cannot be contained, thankfully.

Book Box Interior

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Bookstorm™: Giant Pumpkin Suite

Giant Pumpkin SuiteCompetition is a part of young people’s lives: art, sports, music, dance, science, cup-stacking … many children spend a good part of their day practicing, learning, and striving to do their best. Giant Pumpkin Suite is about two types of competitions, a Bach Cello Suites Competition and a giant pumpkin growing competition. Rose and Thomas Brutigan are twelve-year-old twins … but their personalities and interests are quite different. It’s a book set within a neighborhood that pulls together when a serious accident changes the trajectory of their summer. We meet so many interesting people, children and adults, in this book. It’s full of hold-your-breath plot turns. 

The book is written at a level for 5th to 8th grade readers (and adults) and it has many ties to popular culture, mathematics, gardening, and the nature of competition. It’s an excellent choice for a book club discussion.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, websites, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests.  

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more information about Melanie Heuiser Hill on her website.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Johann Sebastian Bach. Rose Brutigan focuses on an upcoming Bach Suites Competition by practicing … a lot. Who was Bach and why is his music still with us 260 years after his death? Resources include books and videos of our best cellists playing the Bach Cello Suites.

The Cello. More about the instrument Rose plays, with a number of videos you can share with your class or book club.

Charlotte’s Web. This book is a favorite of Rose and her neighbor Jane. Charlotte’s Web provides a major turning point in Giant Pumpkin Suite. Learn more about the book and its author, E.B. White.

Giant Pumpkins. Thomas and his neighbors work together to grow a giant pumpkin. Today, these pumpkins (not grown for eating) can way over 2,000 pounds—more than one ton. Books, videos, and articles share stories and how-tos for growing giant pumpkins competitively.

Japanese Tea Ceremony. Mrs. Kiyo shares this beautiful ceremony with Rose. The Bookstorm suggests a video for your students to watch.

Mathematics and Bach. Are you aware that Bach used math and physics when creating his compositions? Your students can delve into this fascinating aspect of the composer!

Movie Musicals. The music from musicals of the 1940s and 1950s is very important to Jane and Mrs. Lukashenko—they sing and tap dance at the least suggestion. We provide three suggestions for watching these movies.

Music Competition (Fiction). There are a number of excellent books about young people preparing for, and playing in, music competitions! 

Music in Middle Grade Books. And more novels in which music is an important part of the plot. 

Neighborhood Books. We suggest books in which the people and places of a neighborhood are integral to the plot of a book. Perhaps you’ll find your favorites.

Tap Dancing. Who can resist a good tap dance? Another strong plot point, we suggest books and videos to share with your students.

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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E.B. White

A couple of weeks ago I was in the basement of the Science and Engineering Library at the University of Minnesota getting a little writing in before work. It’s a good spot—there’s a nice coffee shop, nothing in the stacks is intelligible to me on that floor so I’m not distracted, and it’s quiet and out of the hordes of university traffic. Only those looking for serious quiet go all the way down in the basement.

When I was done with my jolt of creativity caffeine, I packed up to head out. As I walked through the library’s security gate, I set off the alarm. I turned around and looked at the sleepy scruffly young man at the check-out desk. He looked as surprised as I did.

“I didn’t even go into the stacks this morning….” I said.

“Huh,” he said.

“Can I just go through then?” I asked.

“Well…I’m supposed to look in your bag.” He grimaced.

“Okay,” I said, heaving my giant bag up on the counter in front of him. He peeked in. Didn’t even touch it. Clearly, this was not something he did often.

“Would you like me to pull stuff out?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure.” So I pulled out the detritus that is my commuting bag—a couple of folders and notebooks, my knitting, sunglasses, The Horn Book magazine and two small books, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of markers and colored pencils, the pouch of meds/lipstick/emergency supplies, some hand lotion, my wallet and phone, a pair of socks, the granola bar I couldn’t find the day before, my water bottle, lots of Kleenex and ticket stubs, and the program from my daughter’s band concert the night before. I threw out a couple of receipts while I was at it, and tidied the collection of post-it notes and recipe cards etc. while he stared at the pile. He looked to be completely overwhelmed.

“I can live on the streets for three weeks out of this bag,” I said.

“Wow,” he said.

“I’m kidding,” I said.

He looked at me nervously and then ran his hand half-heartedly over the paper items and picked up one of the books. The Wild Flag by E.B. White. (I wrote about it in Red Reading Boots a few weeks ago.) It’s the perfect size to slip into a purse and I’ve been carrying it around since I purchased it this summer. It’s also a pleasure to hold—worn, but solid linen-esque cover, comfortable size and shape etc.

“What’s this?” he asked, turning it over in his hands. He even sounded suspicious.

“It’s called The Wild Flag,” I said. “I purchased it in an antique store in Stonington, Maine this summer. The receipt is serving as a bookmark, I believe.” He pulled out the receipt, glanced at it, and then stuck it in somewhere else. Not that it matters. You can open this book up to most any page and start reading. It’s a collection of editorials.

“Who’s it by?” he asked.

“E.B. White.”

“Is that the dude that wrote Charlotte’s Web?” he asked, looking suddenly awake.

“The very dude,” I said.

“My Mom read that to me a bunch of times when I was little.” He smiled. “I loved the rat.”

“Templeton,” I said.

“Yeah, Templeton!” He handed me the book back.

“So, may I repack my bag?”

“Sure!” he said. “You have a lot of stuff. But I know you didn’t find that book down here.”

Indeed.

Wherever this man-child’s mother is—she should be proud. He woke up early one morning and remembered Templeton all these years later. That’s the power of reading to a child.

 

 

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Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Samurai RisingDon’t be alarmed by the ghoulishness of my title. Trying to resurrect the life of someone who turned to dust centuries ago is a challenge, especially if the person left behind no personal writings such as letters or diaries. But it can be done. In preparation for writing Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, I read all the academic and primary sources I could find about late-twelfth-century Japan. And while what-happened-when is the basis of biography, you can challenge students (or adults) to dig deeper. If you really want to try to get into the head of the long dead, go beyond the obvious. Try answering these questions.

What did this person believe was going to happen after they died?

No, I don’t mean what they thought might happen to their kingdom or their reputation. I mean: did they believe in an afterlife? How would such a belief (or lack of belief) color their perception of the world? Twelfth-century Japanese of Yoshitsune’s social class were Buddhists. In all likelihood, at the very end of his life Yoshitsune accepted that his fate was determined by karma (the sum of good and bad deeds during his current and past lives). He hoped that his next life would be kinder and he would be reunited with his friends and family.

What assumptions did this person have about their place in society?

In other words … there was probably something about this person’s role or status that they never questioned. What was it?

We are all members of human society. Each society, in each time period, has some underlying assumptions that are rarely (if ever) questioned. Nobody in Yoshitsune’s time questioned the notion that the Emperor was semi-divine … or that some people were better than others because of their imperial descent … or that loyalty should be based on bloodlines. I think it’s safe to say that Yoshitsune enthusiastically believed in his own superiority. If you insisted to him that “all human beings are equal” he would’ve thought you were nuts.

(Extra credit if you can articulate an assumption from contemporary culture that may seem really bonkers to your great-great-great-great grandchildren.)

How was this person impacted by technology (or lack of it)?

Here’s an example. The technology of warfare in twelfth-century Japan demanded that samurai leaders display personal bravery and credible martial skills. In those days you had to get up close and personal to kill your enemy—within ten yards to be really accurate in horseback archery, and much closer with spear or sword. There were no guns, no cannons, no sitting in HQ and phoning orders to your troops. To be an effective leader Yoshitsune had to be willing to risk his life.

What’s underneath all that armor?

What kind of underpants did this person wear?

What’s underneath all that armor?

Someone actually asked me this about Yoshitsune. Amusingly trivial? Well, as it turns out, you can’t answer the question without an understanding of the material culture specific to the society and time period. So here we go.

When Yoshitsune was an apprentice monk, he would have worn a loincloth (a strip of cloth wrapped and tied around his privates). It would’ve been made of hemp cloth because that’s what poor people used as fabric in twelfth-century Japan. (Cotton wasn’t introduced until centuries later.) When Yoshitsune was older and living in Hiraizumi, Kamakura, and Kyoto, he would have had clothes benefitting his status, and high-status Japanese wore silk. However, I strongly suspect that when dressed in full armor, wearing a loincloth under his hakama (wide-legged trousers) would’ve made relieving himself quite a hassle. In that case I think Yoshitsune would’ve gone commando.

See how much fun biographical research is?

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Knowing My Own Mind

There are times when I don’t know my own mind. Worse, there are times when I think I know my mind perfectly well and then find an entirely different mind on a later visit to my opinions.

Which feels almost as though I have no mind at all.

Some time ago one of my favorite writers came out with a new novel. I had been waiting for her next book for years, so, of course, I signed up to have it pop into my electronic reader at the first opportunity. It did, and I read it eagerly.

I was disappointed. Profoundly.

It wasn’t that the novel was badly written. This author isn’t capable of bad writing. It was just that I didn’t care about the people she explored so deeply. And even knowing their complexities, one layer exposed after another, didn’t make me want to spend time with them.

I didn’t have to wait nearly so long for her next book. This time, though, I read it with caution, with my newly acquired discontent. (Once burned.) This novel was . . . okay. But I wasn’t in love. I had been in love with her early novels. Besotted, really.

Now another book is out. In a series of interwoven short stories my once-favorite author explored many of the characters from the previous novel, the one I didn’t dislike but that had never quite captured me.

And before I had quite decided to do so, I had finished the latest offering and gone back to reread the previous novel. The okay one. And I found myself rereading the book I had been so tepid about with new respect, even full-blown appreciation. Obviously, the book hadn’t changed on the page.

Next I intend to return to the first book that disappointed me. Will the change in me, whatever caused it, now make room for that one, too?

As someone who has for many years mentored my fellow writers, I find myself wondering. Is my opinion any more reliable, any less emotionally based when I am evaluating a manuscript than it is when I approach a published novel?

When I critique a manuscript I always try, if I possibly can, to read it twice. Sometimes a strongly held opinion from my first reading dissolves on the second. When that happens, I usually trust the second reading. And, especially if it’s a long manuscript, I rarely risk a third.

Is nothing in my mind solid, certain? Are my opinions based on anything except emotion? Is all the logic in the world simply something I pile around me to justify my mood?

When I’m responding to published work and the opinions I hold are only my own, the question is merely a matter of curiosity. Something to take out and wonder at in wondering moments. How solid is this thing I think of as self with all its supporting framework of opinion?

When I’m responding to a manuscript-in-process, the question is one of profound responsibility. My opinion will impact another person’s work. And what if my response is, indeed, a product of my mood? What harm might I do to a piece of writing in the name of helping?

The question is even more disconcerting when I face my own work. Some days I am utterly confident of this new novel I’m pecking away at. Others I’m equally convinced that my entire premise is bogus.

I have long known that nothing impacts my writing output more than my confidence. If I’m certain that this piece I’m working on is truly good and I’m loving writing it, the words flow. (The true value of what I produce is a matter for later discernment, my own and others.) When I doubt myself, each word arrives after a slog through mud.

How I wish there were a reliable way to keep my writing flowing, to keep my soul brimming with confidence.

Emotions are slippery, often hard to recognize and name, certainly impossible to keep marching in a straight line, and yet I’m convinced this supposedly logic-driven world is more accurately an emotion-driven one.

It’s a scary thought!

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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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Babies and Puppies

Mary Casanova's granddaughterWhat, really, can be more life-affirming than a beautiful baby or cuddly puppies? On June 26th, both arrived in our lives. One baby—our first grandchild, Olivia—born to our son and Korean daughter-in-law. We received the news via FaceTime from Seoul, South Korea. Though they had Broadway related jobs in NYC, they opted to move to Korea for awhile where they would have more time to work at becoming a family.

Hours after we received the news about our rosebud grandbaby, two 8 month old puppies arrived on our doorstep. Literally. The owners drove them to us, just to see if they might interest us and possibly work out. But how can you say “no” to pleading puppy eyes? Though their owners loved these pups, their two sons with autism were not treating them well. They urgently needed to be re-homed. Could we refuse? We couldn’t. And didn’t.

Not long ago, we had three dogs, but lost two of them to old age at 14 and 16. We were down to one dog, Mattie, who is 10½. I had been keeping my eyes open for one puppy. I wasn’t planning on two.

Mary Casanova's new puppies

So here we are, our lives enriched with photos, updates, and knowledge of our precious grandbaby. At some point we will board a plane, go visit, and hold her in our arms. In the meantime, two new puppies keep asking for attention—and I’m more than willing to cuddle and snuggle. After all, what’s life about, if not babies and puppies?

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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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Pinkerton & Friends

I had a “Why in the world….?” moment the other day. It was unexpected and a little strange and it was this: When I imagine picture books that I am writing and/or thinking about writing, I imagine very specific illustrations. From a very specific illustrator. Even though I admire the work of many illustrators. (I admire this one, too, of course.) But always, always, in my first imagining, I “picture” the illustrations by Steven Kellogg.

I love Mr. Kellogg’s work. But I love the work of a lot of illustrators and would aspire and hope for many (very different) illustrators to make art to help tell my stories. I can switch my imagination to other illustrators if I think about it, but without thinking about it…it’s Steven Kellogg’s art. When this realization came to me I pulled some of his books off the shelves in my office with the question: Why is Kellogg my default, the first one whose work I imagine?

All I can think is that the years 1999-2002 were what I think of as The Pinkerton Years. You might think it strange that I can pinpoint the years, but I know we were less involved with Pinkerton (and by that I mean not reading Pinkerton stories on a daily basis) by the time Darling Daughter came along late in 2002. Prior to that, we could hardly leave the house without a Pinkerton story with us.

These were also the first of the allergy/asthma years—#1 Son was critically ill too much of the time, and with his doctors we were struggling to figure out what was causing such severe reactions. The only clear allergens were pets, and he came to understand first that he could not be around puppies or kitties, or anything else furry and cuddly and fun. A terrible sentence, of course, when you are three and wheezy.

So we read a lot of books about pets, and before we read Ribsy and Because of Winn-Dixie we read Pinkerton stories. A lot of Pinkerton stories. #1 Son adored Pinkerton. Pinkerton, a Great Dane, is possibly the most hilarious dog to ever be featured in a book—he is huge and ungainly and always getting himself in a fix. His expressions, his “knees and elbows,” his giant floppiness, and his curiosity and giant heart make him quite a character.

Very quickly we learned to spot Kellogg illustrations from across the library/bookstore, and pretty much wherever there are Kellogg pictures, there are animals. Not just great danes, but boa constrictors, mice, cats, pigs, ducks in a row, horses, spaniels….. And wherever there are animals, there’s a fair amount of chaos—at least in a Kellogg book. (Articles and interviews suggest he has lived the fun and chaos in a home we could not have entered and lived to breathe—lots of pets!)

The detail in Kellogg’s illustrations is tremendous, the hilarity aptly conveyed, and the sweetness and rollercoaster high emotions of kids and Great Danes alike comes alive on the page. I could read stacks of the books in one sitting to my wheezing boy. We used them to get through nebulizer treatments, and to “push fluids,” and to encourage rest for a kid all amped up on steroids. They were magical and we poured over the illustrations long after the reading of the story was done. The medicine could go down without much fuss as long as Pinkerton was along.

Those were exhausting, worried years, and all I can think is that I somehow absorbed Steven Kellogg’s art in my sleep-deprived anxious state…and it’s now in my bones. Thank you, Mr. Kellogg, for your stories, your art, and your presence in our family’s life. You are the default in my imagination and I’m grateful.

 

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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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