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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

The Velveteen Rabbit

Meryl Streep is in the news this week for her speech at the Golden Globes. It’s a powerful piece—though, truth be told, I think she could read out a phone directory and it would be powerful. She began by apologizing because she’d lost her voice. It was loud enough to hear, but certainly rough. I was overcome by an urge to make tea with honey while watching.

Listening to her made me think of the cassette tape we had of her reading of The Velveteen Rabbit when our kids were small. I think we received it as a gift the Christmas I was pregnant with #1 Son. I might’ve even listened to it during labor, now that I think about it. In the early stages anyway.

It is soothing in the extreme. A beautiful story…accompanied by George Winston’s December album…stellar narration; it is an astounding package. And our sweet baby listened to it every night at bedtime for the first several years of his life. I’m tempted to credit this cassette tape and Winnie-the-Pooh, which he listened to at naptime, with the reason he’s such a gentle giant of a young man.

We travelled with The Velveteen Rabbit and a small boombox with that kid—he needed it to go to sleep at night. We used it like a drug on car trips. It seldom failed us. We listened to it so often that the recording became hard to hear, which had the effect of making you listen all the harder. Truly, by the time the boy could talk, we probably could have recited the story, though not with the lovely inflection Meryl Streep conveys, of course.

We tried using it with Child #2, as well, but the recording had been loved much, and had not become real, as the Velveteen Rabbit and Skin Horse had, so much as unintelligible. You could still hear Winston’s piano, but the story didn’t quite come through. By age three, Darling Daughter often said it made her feel too sleepy and asked that it be turned off. (She has never slept as soundly or as long as her brother….)

I have several copies of this sweet story in book form—various artists have illustrated it and I have large format books and smaller, too. I don’t recall reading it to either child, however. I love to read aloud, and this is a favorite story of mine…but who can compare to Meryl Streep? Plus, seldom do I have someone in my living room at the piano to accompany my narration….

But I’m so glad our kids had this story in their life in the way they had it. Meryl Streep and George Winston spinning Margery Williams’ magical tale of love and childhood…well, I can’t think it gets much better than that.

 

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The Books in the Night

Phyllis: Night means many things: the terrifying darkness behind the garage where I had to carry the garbage after supper as a child, the dark night of the soul that depression brings, the hours between sunset and sunrise that grow longer and longer as our earth turns into winter. But night holds comfort as well as fear, and this month we want to look at books about the gifts that night and darkness can bring.

In the Night KitchenWho hasn’t heard of Mickey who “heard a racket in the night and shouted ‘Quiet down there!’ and fell through the dark out of his clothes past the moon and his mama and papa sleeping tight and into the light of the night kitchen?” (Maurice Sendak moves through more action in his marvelous first sentences than almost any other author we can think of.)  The Night Kitchen is Sendak’s imagined answer to what might have happened after he had to go to bed as a child, and his comic-book art pays tribute to the comics that influenced his work. This book has encountered both public and private censorship, including librarians painting diapers or clothes on Mickey to cover his nudity, but children love the adventure he discovers in the night kitchen.

Jackie: Sendak’s editor, the legendary Ursula Nordstrom, was eloquent in defending her books from such censorship. She once wrote to a teacher who had burned a copy of In the Night Kitchen, “I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.” (Dear Genius, p.302)

Where Does the Brown Bear Go?Phyllis: Sendak imagines a rollicking adventure making cake for breakfast, while Nikki Weiss, right from the title, asks, Where Does the Brown Bear Go? Lovely in its simplicity and strong at its heart, this series of rhyming questions, one to a spread, wonders where animals go when night falls:

When the lights go down on the city street
Where does the white cat go, honey?
Where does the white cat go?
When evening settles
On the jungle heat,
Where does the monkey go, honey?
Where does the monkey go?

After every two questions, the same answer comes: 

They are on their way.
They are on their way home.

This would be a sweet catalog of animals headed home at night, but the book resonates more deeply when it asks: 

When the junkyard is lit
By the light of the moon
Where does the junkyard dog go, honey?
 Where does the junkyard dog go? 

Knowing that even the junkyard dog is on his way home moves me almost to tears. 

Jackie: Same here. And it urges me to imagine what is home for the junkyard dog and to put myself in that home for just a bit.

Phyllis: The last page shows a boy snuggled in bed surrounded by his stuffed animals (who resemble the animals of the preceding pages), and the book’s last line reassures us that everyone is home. It’s what we wish for every one of us, that a home awaits us at night where we are safe and cherished.

Night on Neighborhood StreetEloise Greenfield’s Night on Neighborhood Street uses a variety of poetic forms to tell the stories of the children and grown-ups who live on Neighborhood Street as night falls and bedtime arrives. Juma stretches out his bedtime with a willing daddy, a new baby cries and is rocked lovingly to sleep, a family gathers for “fambly time” on the floor, Tonya’s mother plays her horn for Tonya’s friends at an overnight, the church congregation sings songs of praise, and Karen lets her sister be the mama when their mama has to work at night.  But the darker side of life appears as well:  a lonesome boy waiting for his friend to come home looks at the moon “with a sad, sad eye/poking out his mouth/getting ready to cry.” A drug dealer comes around, but the children “see behind his easy smile” and head inside. A “brother who tries to pick a fight” is shut down when everyone else nods and smiles and lets him know they’re not interested in fighting. The book ends with Tonya’s mama blowing lullaby sounds on her horn into the silence of the street. And the children “hear and smile…and they are at peace with the night.” 

Jackie: I love how the families watch out for each other in this book. There is such a strong sense that children are cared for. Tonya’s Mama is a good example of this:

When Tonya’s friends come to spend the night
Her mama’s more than just polite
She says she’s glad they came to call
Tells them that she loves them all
Listens to what they can do
Tells them what she’s good at, too.
Plays her horn and lets them sing
(Do they make that music swing!)…

We aren’t sure why Tonya’s friends are there. Perhaps there was trouble, perhaps it’s just a visit. But we are sure that Tonya’s mother is strong and will love and take care of  these children. Neighborhood Street is a neighborhood indeed, where all are made stronger by watching out for each other.

The House in the NightPhyllis: Susan Marie Swanson’s The House in the Night, inspired by a nursery rhyme from The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, is also deceptively simple in its text. The story is told in short declarative sentences, one sentence each to a double page spread of Beth Krommes’ Caldecott-winning scratchboard illustrations illuminated with bright yellow stars, lamplight, moon, and other objects. “Here is the key to the house,” the book begins.  In the house a light burns, a book rests on a bed, a bird flies with a song about starry dark, moon, sun, all of which circles back (in shorter phrases, a beautiful use of syntax) to the house in the night where art shows a parent lovingly tucking in the child who has read the book in “the house full of light.” Utterly beautiful and satisfying.

Jackie: There is so much to notice in this book. First the travel and the wonderful verbs:  In the house burns a light/In the light rests a bed./On that bed waits a book./In that book flies a bird./In that bird breathes a song….” We go all the way to the moon and the sun—and return. And for the journey back Susan Marie Swanson uses no verbs. We zoom from one place to the next. It really feels like space travel.

Sun in the moon,
moon in the dark,
dark in the song,
song in the bird,
bird in the book,
book on the bed,
bed in the light,
light in the house,…

You are right, Phyllis. This is such a satisfying trip back to the cozy bedroom of the house in the night.

Sweetest KuluPhyllis:  Not all nights are dark. The summer sun never really sets in the arctic, although someone who lives there told me how the quality of light changes under the midnight sun. (Someday I hope to see for myself.) In the Arctic Summer of Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk nature comes to give its gifts to little Kulu on the day he is born. The sun gives him “blankets and ribbons of warm light,” wind tells how weather forms, snow buntings bring seeds of flowers and Arctic cotton, “reminding you to always believe in yourself.” Arctic Char, Fox, Narwahl and Beluga, Muskrat, Polar Bear, and the Land itself all offer gifts  both tangible and intangible. This is a child welcomed and cherished by all.  A final piece of art shows Kulu nestled with a polar bear cub in a circle of grass and flowers.  Exquisitely beautiful and loving, this is a book as full of light and joy as the endless Arctic summer days. 

Jackie: I am so impressed with the language of this book. Many phrases caught my ear. Here are a couple of examples: “Melodies of wind arrived,” “Fox, so thoughtful and swift,/came to tell you to get out of bed as soon as you wake,/and to help anyone who may need your help along your way…”

This bedtime lullaby resonates with older readers, too.  We are daily reminded in our own lives of Muskox’s gift. “Muskox shared heritage and empowerment with you,/magnificent Kulu,/showing you how to protect what you believe in.”

These nighttime books, whether in the kitchen, on Neighborhood Street, in the cozy house in the night, or in the Arctic urge us to quiet, to being in a quiet world, where we have space and time to appreciate what is around us in the physical world as well as what is in our hearts and how they are strengthened by affection and care.

Phyllis: This is the season for quiet, after the blooming and buzzing of summer. As days shorten and the nights stretch out toward solstice, choose a book or several to read aloud, an act as comforting as a cup of warm cocoa and a fire in the fireplace.

Here are a few more night stories:

Can’t Sleep by Chris Raschka

Good Night Sleep Tight by Mem Fox

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman

Night Flight by Joanne Ryder

Night Noises by Mem Fox

Ten Nine Eight by Molly Bang

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I confess, I’m a bit of a tough sell when it comes to fantasy books (unless they are for really young kids). I don’t do vampires, I’m not thrilled with dystopic settings, and although I love dragons and fairies, other fantastic beasts tend to make my eyes roll, and I…well, I lose interest. I believe in magic, but it has to be really well written to keep my interest, and frankly, I’ve not finished a lot of really well done fantasy novels.

I do try. Regularly, in fact. Darling Daughter is always trying to get me to make it through one of the huge fantasy tomes she’s carrying around. (Side Note: Why are they all so large? I feel like I would finish more if they were under three hundred pages.) And I always give it a go—particularly when Kelly Barnhill has a book come out, because her writing is so lovely.

I held on to Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon for quite some time. I didn’t let Darling Daughter read it first, as is often our pattern—I hid it for myself, saving it for a time when I could enjoy it all on my own. It was worth the wait.

From the first Shirley Jackson-esque (The Lottery) chapter I was hooked. It’s a terrible premise—every year the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. But very quickly, thanks to Antain (who is at the beginning and the end of the story, but is only deftly sprinkled through the middle so you don’t forget how dear and important he is), the reader realizes that something is wonky and tenuous with regard to this carefully preserved “tradition.”

In any event, the baby in question—the one this book is about—is rescued by a kind witch named Xan, who, as it turns out, has no idea why babies are left in the forest. She has simply rescued the children and delivered them to families on the other side of the forest for ages. She’s been doing it for who-knows-how-long when she finds Luna, the baby who changes everything.

You see, Xan feeds the babies with starlight as she takes them to their new families. Starlight! This is exactly the sort of fantasy detail that makes my heart go pitter-pat. Such whimsy, such metaphor! Love it! Luna gets moonlight, not starlight, however—quite accidentally, you understand—and the moonlight fills her with extraordinary magic. Which is why Xan decides to raise her instead of giving her to a family as she usually does. Therefore, Luna grows up with a wise Swamp Monster, a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, and a kind witch as her family. These endearing characters provide a large share of the delight of the book. They did not once make me roll my eyes.

When Luna’s thirteenth birthday is on the horizon, her magic—carefully restrained by Xan for most of her childhood—begins to leak about…and the plot thickens! As she grows and changes and learns, she becomes all the more magnificent. So does the story. There are creeptastic birds, a woman with a Tiger’s heart prowling around, and heroic efforts made on the very world’s behalf.

But Luna! Oh, Luna is so incredible! She is strong and determined, loving and wild, smart and magical. The kind of magic that is real. The kind of magic all girls have—and we must help them tap it, because it’s precisely the kind of magic that the world tries to beat out of them, and now more than ever they need to tap their magic, people!

As soon as I finished it, I handed it to Darling Daughter. “It’s terrific,” I said. I did not say “It’s important!” but it is. So important. This is, as the bookjacket says, “a coming-of-age fairy tale.” It’s a gorgeous book. And I’m giving it today to one of my nieces on the occasion of her twelfth birthday. I can’t wait for her magic to be fully-realized—she’s amazing already.

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To Each Maker, Their Model

many, many carsDespite my appreciation for cars as a transportation mode, I was always hopeless at telling one make and model from another. Then I took on an assignment to write about some high-profile vehicles, and I had to learn about their distinguishing characteristics.

Even with all that extra study, I still can’t authoritatively identify those cars if I see them from the front. But a split-second glance at the shape of one from behind now tells me if it’s a Corvette or a Mustang. I guess I’m just better at naming something when I view it from the backside.

Written pieces are the same for me: I can rarely come up with the right name for them until I’ve seen them through to the end. I have all sorts of titling tactics that are useful after the piece is written. I share those with students who are having trouble coming up with a title: Is there something attention-grabbing that also reflects the tone of the piece? Is there something quirky about the contents, or some great one-liner within, that could command attention at the top of the page? Is it meant to be informative, so the title should make that clear? Does the writer need to hint that it’s a mystery or an adventure or a fantasy, so that the piece attracts the right readers?

But here’s the funny thing: as often as I tell students that I prefer to wait until I can see the entire shape of a piece before I title it, there are always those who ask me—beg me, really—for permission to write their title first. I’ve come to recognize that for some of them, writing out the title is an important first step. A blank piece of paper is scary to them. But allow them to slap a title up top—and presto, they’ve claimed that piece of paper. They’ve told it, “Watch out—I have something to say. It’s just going to take me a little while to get it all down.”

In other words, some writers find it helpful to title a piece when they’re staring into its headlights, while others find it better to wait until after they’ve watched its taillights speed by. Both approaches can have their merits; to each maker their model.

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Potato Latkes

Potato Latkes
Serves 4
Whether you're celebrating Hanukkah with these delicious treats or you're a fan of potatoes, you'll want to add this easy recipe to your repertoire. (from The Food Network)
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Ingredients
  1. 1-1/2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled
  2. 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
  3. 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  4. 2 Tbsp flour or matzo meal (may need more)
  5. 1-1/2 teaspoons salt and freshly ground black pepper
  6. Vegetable oil for frying
Instructions
  1. In a food processor grate the potatoes. Line a sieve with cheesecloth and transfer potatoes to the sieve. Set sieve over a bowl, twist cheesecloth into a pouch, squeezing out some moisture. Let mixture drain for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, pour off liquid from the bowl but leave the white potato starch that settles in the bottom of the bowl.
  2. To that starch add shallots, eggs, flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt and freshly ground pepper. Return drained potatoes to this mixture and toss to combine.
  3. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Line a baking pan with paper towels. When you are ready to eat, in a large skillet heat 1/4 inch of oil over medium high heat until hot. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of potato mixture and cook for 3 to 4 minutes a side; latkes should be golden and crisp on both sides. Eat right away or keep warm in oven. Serve with applesauce or sour cream or cottage cheese mixed with sour cream.
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I Have Some Bad News

Page Break Lynne Jonell

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Skinny Dip with Caren Stelson

Caren Stelson

Caren Stelson, author

We interviewed Caren Stelson, first-time author, whose nonfiction book Sachiko: a Nagasaki Bomb Survivor Story has received a good deal of positive recognition, including the longlist for the National Book Award and inclusion on many Best Books of 2016 lists. (Her name is pronounced just as you would say Karen.)

Which celebrity would invite you like to invite to a coffee shop?

If I could invite anyone to coffee, I’d invite Eleanor Roosevelt and happily pick up the tab. Eleanor—what a woman! She overcame so much, from her difficult childhood, to finding and claiming her own life work, to being Franklin Roosevelt’s conscience as First Lady. Actually, she was the conscience of the nation, then as U.N. representative, the conscience of the world. I’d love to ask Eleanor, “What do you think of Donald Trump as President of the United States?”

To Kill a MockingbirdWhich book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

I keep coming back to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as my favorite book. Anyone who wants to understand the United States needs to read Harper Lee’s novel.

Favorite city to visit?

Can I have two favorites? Bath, England is one and Nagasaki, Japan is the other. I lived in Bath, England in 2001-2002 and spent that year interviewing adults who had survived the April 1942 blitz as kids during World War II. I was fascinated by what they remembered about living through the war and what those memories meant to them now. I have great memories of the interviews and great memories of the city of Bath, itself. Bath is a Georgian architectural wonder with layers and layers of history. The Roman Bath in the heart of the city is the best preserved Roman bath in the world. I loved living in Bath. I still have many friends there, making Bath “home away from home” for me. Nagasaki, Japan is another city where I’m at home. Of course, my friend Sachiko Yasui lives in Nagasaki as do many of my other Japanese friends. Because Nagasaki was the second city destroyed by an atomic bomb during WWII, the horror of nuclear war is forever stamped on the city’s conscience. So is the necessity for peace. For me, Nagasaki is Ground Zero for the study of peace.

City of Bath, England

Bath, England

Roman Bath

The Roman Bath in Bath, England

Nagasaki, Japan

Nagasaki, Japan today

Most cherished childhood memory?

One of my most cherished childhood memories is sledding down a hill in Vermont one wintry night with my family. I still can see my father stretched out on a wooden sled with my mother on top of him, speeding down the hill. I can still hear their screams of laughter echoing through the dark. I don’t have many memories of that kind of family laughter, so I hang onto this memory pretty tightly.

What’s your dream vacation?

My dream vacation is a photographic safari to the Serengeti Plain. My husband and I traveled to Tanzania in the 1980s and camped on the floor of Ngoro Ngoro Crater, the place with the greatest concentration of wild animals in the world. I can still hear the lions’ roaring at night. And the eyes. At night, we aimed a high-powered flashlight outside the circle of tents and watched the eyes of antelope stare back at us. Today it’s not possible to camp on the crater floor, but I’d do it in a heartbeat as my dream vacation.

Ngoro Ngoro Crater, Tanzania (Wikimedia Commons)

What makes you shiver?

There’s a lot to shiver about these days, but honestly, the first thing that popped into my mind was shark attacks. Any story that has a shark attack in it will give me nightmares.

Morning person? Night person?

I used to be a night person when I was younger, but now I’m a straight morning person. Sometimes I’ll get out of bed around 5:00 am, maybe earlier, put on the coffee, and start writing right away. When I’m in that half-sleep, half-awake zone, lots of interesting things start happening on the page.

What’s your hidden talent?

I really love having conversations with three-year-olds. I think that can be considered a talent.  I recently took care of a three-year-old for a day and we had the best time exploring every mechanical item in the house, from how a mixer works to how a piano makes its sound. If we could all sustain our three-year-old curiosity, we truly could be wide-awake, life-long learners.

Piano iinterior

Explaining how a piano makes sound (Wikimedia Commons)

Favorite candy as a kid?

Good ‘n‘ Plenty. I loved those pink and white candy covered pieces of licorice, particularly if I ate them at the movies.

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

I have an older brother and a younger brother, so I’m the sister stuck in the middle. Being the only girl shaped my life quite a bit. My brothers weren’t all that interested in sports, but I was. My father taught me how to throw a football, play tennis, and get up the courage to play varsity high school sports. Having that fatherly attention gave me confidence. But I also missed not having a sister I could confide in. I looked for that closeness in the books I read and in my personal journals. Today, I think of my closest women friends as my sisters, which makes up for the hole in my childhood.

Sachiko: a Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's StoryHope for the world?

What is there but hope for peace? The world is heating up with fears and tensions we haven’t seen in decades. This does not bode well for the future. It’s a long shot, but I hope the nations of the world will collectively realize war is not the answer to our problems. Really, we have no choice. Between nuclear weapons and climate change, our existence on this planet is at stake. We Americans and the rest of the world’s population have to figure out how to work together and work for peace. As individuals we may feel powerless in the face of world tensions, but we can begin the peace process among neighbors and across our cities and states. I love the quote by peace activist and Quaker Gene Knudsen Hoffman, “The enemy is a person whose stories we have not heard.” We can start listening.

Nagasaki, Japan

Caren Stelson in Nagasaki, Japan

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Santa’s Favorite Story

Verily, as if on cue, I have fielded the year’s first parental question about Santa Claus. It is the whispered earnestness of the askers that keeps me from rolling my eyes. What role, if any, should Santa have in a Christian family….? they whisper leaning away from the baby on their hip, lest that babe be tipped off. It’s always their first child. They want to do things right. They’re absolutely so dear, and I feel privileged that they come to me, even as I think this is largely a stupid question. I’m with Johnny Cash: Joy to the world, and here comes Santa Claus!

I can tell which way they’re leaning as soon as I tell them how much I love Santa. They either blink politely, or look tremendously relieved. (Disclaimer: I respect either, but I’m more interested in talking to the latter.) Either way, I tell them something about the history of St. Nicholas, which we celebrate each December 6th in our household. This gives the man in red some religious credentials if that seems important to the family. Then I tell them about Santa and Coca-Cola, which I find utterly fascinating. (I also find it fascinating that snopes.com covers the story.) I usually end my impassioned speech for Santa with a poorly paraphrased version of G. K. Chesterton’s views on Santa, which can be found in the second half of this meditation. (The first half is excellent, as well, but I should memorize the second half.)

If they’re still with me—by which I mean they’re true believers in Santa and they were only temporarily deluded into thinking they needed to give that up to be responsible and faithful parents—I tell them about Hisako Aoki’s and Ivan Gantschev’s book, Santa’s Favorite Story.

This book is so simple, so good, so right. The animals in the forest discover Santa asleep against a tree and they are alarmed. Santa! ASLEEP?! They wake him and Santa explains that he’d gone for a hike to get in shape for Christmas Eve. When he got tired, he decided to take a nap. Santa napping?! He muses that maybe all the presents will be too much for him this year.

Does that mean there won’t be a Christmas anymore?” the fox asks, giving voice to the worries of the entire forest’s population.

That’s when Santa tells them the story of The First Christmas. Four spreads lay out the story told in the Gospel of Luke, complete with shepherds and sheep, a bright star, and the babe lying in the manger. Santa tells his furry audience that God gave love that first Christmas and love is the best present there is.

It’s an enormously satisfying book, and it’s still in print, I believe—somewhat remarkable given that the original copyright is 1982. I love how it holds the two most famous people of Christmas together and delivers a gentle critique of rampant consumerism at the same time. Amen, I say! Get yourself a copy and have a read this Christmas. Amen.

 

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Karen Cushman, the Girl in Men’s Underwear

Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

We welcome the opportunity to talk with Karen Cushman, Newbery Medal and Honor recipient for The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy, as well as historical fiction set in the western United States. Her most recent novel is the fantasy Grayling’s Song. We look forward to talking with Karen because her sense of humor is always in play, something you’d expect from reading her books.

 Are you working on a new manuscript? (Care to offer a teaser)?

I’m struggling my way through a book set in San Diego in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor. Here’s the beginning, or the beginning at the moment:

Jorge lifted the slimy creature to his lips and bit it right between the eyes.

I shuddered as I watched. “Doesn’t that taste muddy and disgusting?”

“Nah,” he said, wiping mud from his mouth. “Is only salty. This way they don’t die but only sleep, stay fresh.” He threw the octopus into a bucket and slipped through the mud flats to another hole in the muck. He filled a baster from a mud-spattered Clorox bottle and squirted the bleach into a hole.

When the occupant slithered to the surface, Jorge pulled it out and bit it, too. “You want? Make good stew.”

I shook my head. I preferred fish that came in cans and was mixed with mayo and chopped celery.

 Elvis PresleyAre there particular memories of growing up that, looking back, you see as leading you toward a writing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be leading me to a writing career. I wrote all the time: poems, short stories, a 7-page novel, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis (see the last question below). A lot of what I wrote was involved with creating a world I’d like to live in starring a person I’d like to be.

Are there three books you’d recommend for gift-giving in the upcoming holidays?

I asked my daughter, who works at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland and knows more about books than anyone. She recommended three illustrated nonfiction titles. I plan to buy them for myself.

  • Atlas Obscura (by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton). A fascinating tour guide to the strangest and most curious places in the world: glowworm caves in New Zealand, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, salt mines in Poland, a parasitology museum, bone museums in Italy.
  • David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now. Packed with information on the inner workings of everything from windmills to Wi-Fi, this extraordinary book guides readers through the fundamental principles of machines and shows how the developments of the past are building the world of tomorrow. 
  • In the Company of Women (by Grace Bonney). Photos and descriptions of inspiring, creative women across the world who forged their own paths and succeeded. 

Three book recommendations by Karen Cushman

What did you study in college?

I entered college as an English major but quickly became enamored of the Classics department because it was much smaller and more interesting and they had sherry parties every Friday afternoon. My final major was double—Greek and English.

Did you taking writing classes?

My university had a graduate creative writing major but there was only one course for undergraduates. I took it, hated it, and never went. People sat around and criticized each other’s work. Not for me. The night before the quarter was over, I stayed up all night and wrote twelve short stories. The professor commented that I seemed to have learned a lot during the class even though I never came to class. Go figure. That was my first and last writing class.

men's boxers What was your first job?

I worked in the men’s socks and shorts department of a Target-like store, where I was known as the girl in men’s underwear.

What’s your strongest memory of the 1950s?

Elvis. No question. I also remember looking at all the unhappy housewives on our suburban street, sipping martinis and making lunches, and feared I would end up like that.  

PS:  I didn’t.

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Writing around Roadblocks

Mutzi and Lisa Bullard's deskI’ve tried to create a stimulating atmosphere in my home office. Works of art by the illustrators of my picture books adorn the walls. I have a Rainbow Maker in the window. There are blooming plants and inspiring sayings and a basket of toys to play with. There are birds chirping outside the window (even an occasional owl when I’m working at midnight). My desk chair is large and comfy. Mutzi the tailless cat perches next to my keyboard and purrs. Everything in my writing space is meant to help me transition quickly and happily to a creative and productive writing frame of mind.

Which works great, some days. Other days, I sit here like a dud. I’ve found that the only answer on those days is to take a writing road trip.

It doesn’t have to take me far, or to a particularly fancy destination. One time I had about given up on finding the right words for a particular picture book concept, despite weeks (maybe even months?) of battling to pin it down. Finally I grabbed my notes and headed off to a coffee shop, without even my trusty laptop as a token of the familiar. Suddenly, in this different environment, I was able to crank out an entire rough draft in about an hour and a half.

Of course, all of those unproductive attempts in my home office also fed this creative burst. But I’m convinced the story might never have come out if I hadn’t broken through that writing roadblock by taking my pen-and-notebook show on the road.

Here’s a simple way to give your students a creative kick start when you sense their writing energy is flagging: allow them to move to a different writing spot. Do you have a long writing session planned for the day? When you have ten minutes left, allow students to stretch out on the floor or curl up in a corner of the room with their notebooks. Or initiate a “musical chairs” type of desk exchange, where everyone at least ends up with a different perspective of the room.

The combination of movement and a change of scenery can work wonders for our brains when they’ve become too complacent to remain creative.

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The Contract, It Arrives!!

Lynne Jonell's Page Break

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Skinny Dip with Janet Taylor Lisle

Janet Taylor LisleFor this interview, we chat with Janet Taylor Lisle, Newbery Honor-winning author of Afternoon of the Elves, the Scott O’Dell Award-winning The Art of Keeping Cool, and the thriller Black Duck, along with many other reader favorites.

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

I’m quite sure Emily Dickinson, shy and secretive as she was, would never invite me to a coffee shop, but perhaps I could slip a note under her door in Amherst, Massachusetts and beg for a visit. I’d like to ask her why she made her poems, what some of them mean, and if it mattered to her that her work was unpublished during her life.

The LeopardWhich book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

My all-time favorite book is The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Every time I read it, the novel changes what I see around me. Lampedusa wrote only this one work but it’s enough to put the universe at your fingertips.

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

I am not nocturnal but my cat Nellie would like to mention here that she will take straight canned tuna fish and milk anytime after midnight. After 3 a.m., too, if it comes to that.

Most cherished childhood memory?

So, we three children are sailing off Martha’s Vineyard with my dad when a sudden storm hits. Violent sea! Howling wind! My dad is on deck reefing the sails when a huge wave rolls into the cockpit. It lifts my little brother up and is sweeping him overboard when I grab him by the arm and hold on with all my strength. Hugh is saved! (That was close.) I cry. He grows up to become a loved doctor who cares deeply for his patients.

Janet Taylor Lisle with one of Barry Flanagan’s “hare” sculptures, at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, in Washington, DC

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

I guess the illustrators I loved as a child still speak to me most directly. Beatrix Potter for her hedgehogs and rabbits; John Tenniel for his Mad Hatter and March Hare; N.C. Wyeth for his murderous, one-legged pirates and mysterious islands. So many others. Today, it’s anything by William Steig or Arnold Lobel for me and my grandchildren. (Nellie cozies up to these guys too.)

Favorite season of the year? Why?

Winter in New England. Stark. Quiet. When the leaves fall off the trees the land  opens to show its real face. The moon looks bigger.

Janet Taylor Lisle

Winter, Janet’s favorite time of year

What gives you shivers?

A recent arrival in my Rhode Island neighborhood is an otter-like animal known as a Fisher Cat. It hunts near the pond and screams most horribly at night. I pull the blankets over my head and Nellie’s. We don’t like even thinking about this creature.

Morning person? Night person?

I’m a morning person. I like to rise with the sun. Rosy-fingered dawn for me, and a walk on the beach. (My novel The Lampfish of Twill came from this daily  habit.)

Janet Taylor Lisle

Janet Taylor Lisle in front of the pond in Little Compton, the inspiration for my fictional Quicksand Pond.

What’s your hidden talent?

I love to sing and have sung in choral groups all my life. Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach. I’m not a religious person but the big requiems and masses sometimes bring me to tears even as I sing them. I’m a sucker for popular music too: a big crooner in the car. Radio always on.

Best tip for living a contented life?

For a contented life, keep it simple and keep out of the limelight. Fame never did anyone any good.

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In Draft

Henry James“He was always chasing the next draft of himself.”

 American critic Dwight Garner, in the New York Times Book Review on February 16 of this year, was describing the childhood of Henry James.

An expandable list comes to mind, some of our memorable figures moving toward the next draft of themselves: Anne Shirley, Holden Caulfield, Jo March, Jody Baxter, Arnold Spirit, Jr., Gilly Hopkins, M.C. Higgins, Jane Yolen’s Hannah/Chaya, Will Grayson and Will Grayson, Billie Jo Kelby, Ramona Quimby, the Gaither sisters, Hugo Cabret, Stanley Yelnats, the Logan family of Mississippi, Winnie Foster, Walter Dean Myers’ Steve Harmon, Terry Pratchett’s Mau and Daphne and their Nation.  Harry, Hermione, Ron.

One of our truisms is that the characters who transport us in their stories are actually showing us—seldom without pain—about revising and becoming. We’ve all felt it happen.

After the last page, our selves have enlarged, leading us often subtly, silently, into our own next draft.

Generation after generation, many of our young, in fiction and in the house just down the road, must revise themselves by fleeing chaos, violence, or neglect wrought by callous or confused adults. Others seek change and release from what seems an abyss of boredom. And some of us lucky ones try on differences just because we can.

draftRight now, December 2016, in our own USA, many of our neighbors and students fear deportation, a cruel next draft in a world they never made. As the new administration struts toward Washington, we’re wary of the convulsive upending, we’re apprehensive about the precipitous swerves and the jaw-dropping, impetuous tweets, and some of us place bets. Here is Henry James’ declaration from about a hundred years ago: “I hate American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort.” Come on back, Henry. We have drafts galore for you, we’ll help you catch up on your reading, and we’ve got real life complications that will blow your spats off.

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Irresistible Reading: How Things Work

How Things WorkNow, if that Science Encyclopedia wasn’t cool enough, here’s another sure-fire hit for kids who love to read facts, true stories, and know how things work.

In fact, the book is called How Things Work and it’s another powerhouse from National Geographic.

As the book admonishes, “PUT THIS BOOK DOWN NOW. It’s dangerous. It might make you think you can do impossible things.” Followed closely by “You must be one of those. The kind of kid who thinks ‘just because’ isn’t a real answer.”

Do you know one of those kids? Endless questions? On the trail for the real story? Wondering all the time? Lucky you. Lucky them if you give them this book.

How do hoverboards work? This comes with a “Try This!” that encourages experimenting with the attraction and repelling of magnets.

How do microwaves work? There are infographics, fun facts, diagrams, another Try This with ice cubes, Myth vs. Fact, a short biography of Percy Spencer whose melting peanut cluster bar sparked his imagination … and it’s all terribly exciting.

The visuals that accompany every fact in this book, the layout, the colors, all of this put together makes me want to devour this book. There are so many cool things explained that it makes me breathless.

Don’t you want the kid in your life to feel the same way about learning?

How Things Work
T.J. Resler
National Geographic, 2016
ISBN 978-1426325557, $19.99

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Wish

wish200I did not grow up in the south, but my parents did, so I like to claim a little southern heritage. When my kids were younger, I loved reading them books set in the south—willing into their souls the humidity, barbecue, iced tea with lemon, and accents that have the rhythm of rocking chairs found on great big porches. They enjoyed hearing how my grandparents called me “Sugar,” and I felt it vitally important they understand that Missouri peaches just might be better than the famed Georgia peaches. (It’s true–no offense to Georgia.)

I’m a big fan of Barbara O’Connor’s novels—whether they’re explicitly set in the south or not they feel southern, and when I pick them up I know I will enjoy them. So as soon as I heard her latest book, Wish, was coming out, I put a reserve on it at the library, where it was already ordered for when it came out months down the road. This is my system so I don’t forget about great books coming out. (Which seldom happens—for the really great books, anyway—but maybe that’s because I use this system, who knows?)

By the time the library notified me my copy was in, I’d already bought the book and read and loved it. So I pulled my reserved copy off the hold shelves and went to the check-out desk to let them know I didn’t need it anymore. I took my place in line behind a little girl standing with her mother. She was wearing a winter coat even though it was about sixty degrees that day. Minnesota had a lovely extended fall this year, which Minnesotans were in awe of as we ran around in our short sleeves almost to Thanksgiving, but newcomers still thought it was cold.

I heard the girl’s mother talking to the librarian. Her voice was a gentle rocking chair voice. They were signing up for library cards. The girl stared at me, eyeing me up and down. Somewhat suspiciously, perhaps. Maybe it was my short sleeves.

She looked at Wish, which I was holding down by my side. “Is that book about a dawg?” she asked, tilting her head the same way as the book.

“There’s a dog in it, yes. His name is Wishbone,” I said, pointing to the beagly looking dog on the cover.

“What’s that girl’s name?” she asked pointing to the girl on the cover with the dog.

“Her name is Charlie.”

“That’s a boy’s name,” she fired back.

I handed her the book because I could tell she wanted to look at it straight on.

“Her mama named her Charlemagne. She liked Charlie better,” I said. “It’s a really good book.”

“What’sitabout?” she asked all in one word.

“It’s about wishes…and friends…and home…and family. It’s about a girl living in a new place and she’s not sure if she likes it or not.”

“Does anything bad happen to that dawg?” she asked warily.

“Nope,” I said.

She handed the book back to me.

“Maybe you’d like to read it?” I said. “I’m not checking it out, I’m returning it.” It was my turn at the library desk.

I explained to the library worker that I didn’t need the book and asked if the little girl walking toward the door with her mother could check it out instead. Alas, someone was waiting for it, and things happen in certain orderly ways at the library, so they couldn’t check it out to her. I decided not to be irritated by this and checked it out anyway since it was still technically my turn.

I followed the girl and her mother out the door to the parking lot and gave them the book. I told them I borrowed it for them and I told the mother I thought she’d do a great job reading it out loud. I told the girl I thought she would enjoy it a lot. They both thanked me. The mother said, “Bless your heart!” about five times.

And my heart was blessed.

“What if they don’t return it?” the library worker said when I walked back in the library. “It’s checked out on your card.”

“If they need to keep it, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

We’ll find out in a few weeks, I guess. But I’m not worried.

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Essential Holiday Giving: Books

Hands down, there is no better gift for holidays or birthdays than a book. You can find a book to suit every interest, every taste, and your budget. You can always feel good about giving a book (unless you’re giving a gift to someone who lives in a Tiny House … ask first). 

pl_books_best_gifts

Here’s my list of suggestions for the holidays. It’s filled with books that are informative, beautifully illustrated or photographed, useful, well-written, but mostly books that can be savored or cherished, with uplifting stories.

And if you’d like more suggestions, my best advice is to walk into your public library and talk to the children’s librarians there. Tell them about the children in your lives, their interests, the kind of books they like to read, or if they haven’t yet met the right book to turn them on to reading. You’ll be amazed by the good suggestions these library angels will give you.

I’m going to break these out into the type of reader I think will be most appreciative. You’ll find links to longer reviews scattered throughout. And I’m going to keep adding to this list up until the end of the year. People are celebrating holidays at many different times.

In love with picture books

Before MorningBefore Morning
written by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Beth Krommes
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

I think this ranks up there in my list of favorite picture books of all time. It works on so many levels, but mostly it speaks of love and yearning and beauty and grace. It is a simple story of a little girl who wishes for a snow day so her family can be together. Joyce Sidman’s story is exquisite. Beth Krommes creates a winter everyone can love and appreciate with her scratchboard illustrations. The color palette, the texture on the page, and the snow! Has there ever been such glorious snow? A perfect gift book for young and old.

Frank and LuckyFrank and Lucky Get Schooled
written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow Books, 2016

“One day when Frank could not win for losing, he got Lucky. And one day when Lucky was lost and found, he got Frank. Both of them were just pups. They had a lot to learn.” Life, at its best, is one big learning adventure. Frank and Lucky grow together, each teaching the other. We hear the story in both of their voices. Life is explore through learning: Chemistry, Taxonomy, Reading, Math. So many questions and so little time. Learning follows these two wherever they go. They have fun. But how does it all fit together? Ah, that’s the adventure. There is so much to look at and think about in this book … and Lucky makes the adventure fun. A great book for exploring together as the first step in planning your own learning adventures. Inspired!

Henry & LeoHenry & Leo
written and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 

This is such a wonderland of a book. I finished it and immediately started again at the beginning. And yet again. The pages are filled with details that are irresistible, inciting curiosity and storytelling. The story is a comforting one about a young boy, Henry, who ferociously loves his stuffed lion, Leo. The family goes for a walk in the Nearby Woods and … Leo is lost. Henry is beside himself, worried about Leo alone in the woods. His family comforts him by saying that Leo isn’t real, which is no comfort at all of course. But something very real and mystical happens in those Woods and Leo finds his way back to Henry. Pamela Zagarenski paints this book with lucious foresty and night-time colors, with pages so soft and textured you know you can walk into the scene. She includes her trademark crowns, critters large and small, windows, and those teacups. What does it all mean? As our brains look for answers, we create our own stories. It’s magical.

Ganesha's Sweet ToothGanesha’s Sweet Tooth
written by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes
illustrated by Sanjay Patel
Chronicle Books, 2012

A story based on Hindu mythology, an adorable Ganesha and his friend Mr. Mouse are all about the candy. In particular, Ganesha wants a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Ladoo (candy) and he wants to bite down on it. Mr. Mouse warns him that it’s a jawbreaker. And soon Ganesha has broken his tusk. Luckily, he happens upon a poet who advises him to use his tusk to write down the Mahabharata, a long, ancient, Sanskrit poem about the beginning of things. Ganesha is described as a “Hindu god. He’s very important and powerful. And a tad chubby.” And that sets the tone of the book. Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is a feast for eyes, mind, and imagination. Patel, an artist and animator with Pixar, creates illustrations unlike anything I’ve ever seen before … you’ll enjoy poring over them.

Luis Paints the WorldLuis Paints the World
written by Terry Farish
illustrated by Oliver Dominguez
Carolrhoda Books, 2016

When an older brother enlists in the army to “see the world,” young Luis is uncertain. How could his brother want to leave their family and their neighborhood? How could he want to leave Luis? Will he come back again to play baseball and eat his Mama’s flan? Luis begins painting a mural on a wall in their neighborhood, hoping to paint the world so Nico won’t need to leave home. He paints and paints with a good deal of skill. Yet Nico does leave home. Missing his brother, Luis continues to paint his heart onto the wall. Soon his friends, family, and neighbors join him in painting. Will Nico come home again? The author, Terry Farish, based her story in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where she was a public librarian. The city is famous for the murals and outdoor art found throughout the town. For a heartwarming story of love and artistic expression, this is the right choice.

Monster & SonMonster & Son
written by David LaRochelle
illustrated by Joey Chou

This is an ideal book for dads to read aloud to their little sons. Yetis, werewolves, monsters of every shape and shiver, this is a bedtime story in spite of the subject matter. The illustrations are calming and detailed, even sparkling, yet perfectly suited to the monster fan. David LaRochelle’s text is fun to read out loud and Joey Chou’s artwork is painted with calm blues and purples and sleepy monsters.

NorNorth Woods Girl
written Aimée Bissonette
illustrated by Claudia McGehee
Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015

For anyone who loves the North Woods, no matter where those woods may be, this is a heart-calling tale of a grandmother who knows she belongs in the woods and a granddaughter who is fascinated by what her grandmother knows and how she lives. Aimée Bissonette’s story is so well told that it feels universal. We all know someone like this girl and her grandmother. We hope we understand what it means to be so connected to place. Claudia McGehee’s scratchboard illustrations are an integral part of the experience of this book. The animals, trees, plants, the boundless night sky, the warm fire … there’s so much to love here. North Woods Girl will lead to good inter-generational discussions and foster good memories of your own special places.

On One Foot

On One Foot
written by Linda Glaser
illustrated by Nuria Balaguer
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2016

A familiar tale to many Jews, this story of the not-quite-a-fool who seeks a rabbi (teacher) who can teach him while standing on one foot (I’m guessing because the student would like the teaching to be short, even though he says it’s because he wants his teacher to be the best) is an active parable for the most important lesson in the world. Each successive teacher derides the student for asking them to teach the Torah on one foot, telling him that not even the famous Rabbi Hillel could do such a thing. When the student finally meets Rabbi Hillel, he is astounded by the simplicity of the lesson, one that each of us can live and share. The cut paper and mixed media illustrations are fitting for long-ago Jerusalem, showing both wit and empathy.

A Poem for PeterA Poem for Peter
written by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson
Viking, 2016

Probably my favorite picture book of 2016, A Poem for Peter tells the story of the growing up and older of Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz, who is “Born under Hardship’s Hand, into a land filled with impossible odds.” He began paintings signs for stores when he was eight years old. An introduction to the Brooklyn Public Library opened the world to him. It’s a biography written poetically and every word is worth savoring. We know him now as Ezra Jack Keats and he created A Snowy Day, which is one of the most beloved books of all time. His life is painted here by Fancher & Johnson, who small touches on each page of their illustrations that remind us of Keats’ genius, his work with collage and color and shapes and textures. It’s a lovely, beautiful, magical book. It should be on your family’s bookshelf, ready for reading again and again.

Storm's Coming!Storm’s Coming!
written by Margi Preus
illustrated by David Geister
Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016

The weather! In many parts of the country, it is increasingly a factor in our everyday life. Here in Minnesota, it is what strangers talk about before anything else. Friends exclaim in e-mail and by phone about the effect weather has on their lives. When family gathers, the first topic of conversation is the weather (and how they drove to the gathering place). Margi Preus tells the story of a storm approaching with traditional weather signs and folk sayings. Bees flying in large numbers into their hive? “Look at those busy bees,” Sophie exclaimed. “They know it’s going to storm.” Dan watched the bees flying into their hive. “That’s true,” he said. “You know what they say: A bees was never caught in a shower.” All kinds of intriguing tidbits are woven into this weather story, set at Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior at the beginning of the twentieth century. David Geister’s oil paintings are suffused with light, family love, the varying moods of the Lake, and the final, satisfying storm scene. You know the weather-watchers in your family. This will make a welcome gift.

savors poetry

Emily Dickinson: Poetry for KidsEmily Dickinson: Poetry for Kids
edited by Susan Snively, PhD
illustrated by Christine Davenier
MoonDance Press, Quarto Publishing Group, 2016

For a beautiful introduction to the poems of Emily Dickinson, this book invites reading out loud, discussion, and turning the pages in appreciation of Christine Davenier’s art. The poems are accessible by children and their adults. Arranged by the seasons of the year, the pages offer commentary and definitions for important words to aid in your conversations about the poems. It’s a book that will be read and re-read in your home.

Miss Muffet, or What Came AfterMiss Muffet, or What Came After
written by Marilyn Singer
illustrated by David Litchfield
Clarion Books, 2016

Think you know all about Miss Muffet? That tuffet? That spider? Think again, mes amis!

This oh-so-delightful book will have you smiling, laughing, heart filling with awe at the poet’s and illustrator’s mastery … but most of all falling in love with a story you never knew. That short nursery rhyme? Pull back from the scene (I easily see this as a staged play, readers theater or with props and costumes) and realize that Miss Muffet (Patience Muffet) and the spider (Webster) live in a larger world of sister, mother, rooster, fiddlers, a king, and many lively neighbors. These are easily understandable poems and poetry that is fun to say out loud and poems that tickle our funny bones. David Litchfield manages to use mixed media in a way that pulls us into the story and has us touring Pat Muffet’s world. Just gorgeous. It’s all so satisfying. Children will enjoy reading this themselves, with friends, acting it out, and taking part in a classroom performance. Such possibilities!

good family read-alouds

Garvey's ChoiceGarvey’s Choice
written by Nikki Grimes
WordSong, 2016

Garvey feels as though he’s constantly disappointing his father. Sports are his dad’s way of relating and he has high hopes for Garvey becoming a football player or a baseball player or … something in a sport uniform. Garvey, on the other hand, enjoys reading and music and science. How does he show his dad what matters to him? This is a book that is optimistic and funny and hopeful. Even though Garvey consoles himself with food, becoming heavier and heavier, he is drawn outside of his funk by his interests. He can’t resist. And his father finally sees what’s important to his son. A novel written in verse, this makes a good book for the family to read out loud. 

Making Friends with Billy WongMaking Friends with Billy Wong
written by Augusta Scattergood
Scholastic Press, 2016

When Azalea’s mother and father drive her to Arkansas to help her injured grandmother, Azalea is not thrilled. She contemplates being lonely for an entire summer and having nothing to do … and her grandmother, whom she hardly knows, is cranky. Even though she yearns to go home, she is drawn into the neighborhood by a boy with a boundless spirit and a curiosity to match her own. There is a mystery to solve and the two kids become friends while they’re figuring things out. It’s a heartwarming book and one that brings to light an immigrant story that isn’t well-known. 

Saving WonderSaving Wonder
written by Mary Knight
Scholastic Press, 2016

Curley Hines lives with his grandpa in Wonder Gap, Kentucky, settled in the Appalachian Mountains. His Papaw gives him a word each week to learn and decide where it fits into his life. For people who love words, this is a book that enchants with its word choices. Curley has a best friend. He believes he’s in love with Jules but at 15 it might be a little early to know. And then Jules is entranced with the new kid in town, an urban kid, J.D., and Curley’s life is taking an unexpected turn. Even these changes pale in the face of a more threatening change: the coal company that employs so many of Wonder Gap’s residents wants to tear down Curley and Papaw’s mountain in order to get at the coal inside cheaply. All three of the kids get involved in Saving Wonder. This is an uplifting story that will have you cheering while you’re reading.

WishWish
written by Barbara O’Connor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016

Charlie Reese is a girl whose parents have abandoned her. Her father is in jail and her mother suffers from a depression that has her forgetting about Charlie for days on end. Child Protection Services sends Charlie to live with her Uncle Gus and Aunt Bertha who are as nice and loving as any kid could want. But Charlie wants to go home. She wants a family who loves her. In fact, she searches every day for something lucky that allows her to make that wish. She’s angry about her new home. She hopes it’s temporary. So she’s resistant when Howard, a kid with an up-and-down walk, does his best to reach her, to make her his friend. And she’s a little resistant when a stray dog, who she names Wishbone is as hard to reach as she is. It’s a wonderful story of a group of people coming together to form a family that’s made with love. These characters will take up a place in your mind and your heart for a very long time. And isn’t that a magical book cover?

can’t get enough of biographies

Let Your Voice Be HeardLet Your Voice Be Heard:
The Life and Times of Pete Seeger

written by Anita Silvey
Clarion Books, 2016

At this very moment, many of us, children and adults alike, are looking for a way to make a difference in our world. We’d like to show that love is stronger than any talk or action done in hatred. Young and old, we’d like to show that we are willing to stand up and let our voices be heard. There is no better example than the life of Pete Seeger. Anita Silvey writes this book in a way that shows how hard it was for him to perservere but he stood by his principles for nearly nine decades! Even when he was beaten down by the government, he was resolute. And he sang songs by the people, for the people, to inspire the people and bring them together. This book is written so it can be read by anyone ages 9 and older (adults will find this book worthwhile, too). I highly recommend it as a family read-aloud and discussion starter but it’s so good that reading it individually works, too.

Six DotsSix Dots: a Story of Young Louis Braille
written by Jen Bryant
illustrated by Boris 
Random House, 2016

When a terrible accident blinds him as a child, Louis Braille’s world turns dark. He sets out to get along in the world. “My family did what they could. Papa made a wooden cane. … My brother taught me to whistle … My sisters made a straw alphabet. Papa made letters with wooden strips or by pounding round-topped nails into boards” With his mother, he played dominoes. But he wanted to read books. Six Dots is the story of Braille’s journey to create a code that the blind could read. Louis Braille was a child inventor and this biography leads us to appreciate how significant his invention was and how much it continues to matter in the world today. Bryant’s text, written in free verse, makes the reading lyrical. Kulikov’s illustrations give an understanding of the darkness and the light in this blind inventor’s world. Six Dots fits well into our list of uplifting gifts. [Hidden Giveaway: the first person to send us an e-mail requesting this book will receive a copy of Six Dots, signed by the author. Be sure to include your mailing address so we can send you the book.]

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. WhiteSome Writer! The Story of E.B. White
written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

Are you a fan of Charlotte’s Web? Stuart Little? The Trumpet of the Swan? One Man’s Meat? Here is New York? E.B. White wrote books that are considered classics today, loved with a fierce wonder for their characters and emotions. In a work of love and art, Melissa Sweet shares the story of his life from childhood through adulthood as he learned to love books and writing. It’s the story of a man of words who lives so closely with them that he co-authors Elements of Style, a standard reference. There are details here that every fan of his books will want to know. Best of all, the book is done as perhaps only Melissa Sweet could, making collages out of found objects, White’s papers, and original (and charming) drawings. There are Garth Williams’ original sketches and photos of the people in E.B. White’s life. This book is a treasure, one you can share with many people on your gift list. Perhaps you can bundle it up with a copy of one of his books listed earlier, choices for both children and adults.

just the facts, please

Science EncyclopediaScience Encylopedia: Atom Smashing,
Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More!

National Geographic, 2016

I think every person on your gift list should get one of these! Seriously, whether you love science or don’t want anything to do with it, you will like this book. You will dip into the book somewhere and then you’ll find yourself thumbing through, being caught by this and that tidbit. Here’s my full review of this encyclopedia.

How Things WorkHow Things Work
T.J. Resler
National Geographic, 2016

As if the Science Encyclopedia isn’t cool enough, this book, also published by National Geographic, has astounding information in it. This quote from the beginning of the book wraps things up so well and tempts you to pull at the tail of the bow: “PUT THIS BOOK DOWN NOW. It’s dangerous. It might make you think you can do impossible things.” Followed closely by “You must be one of those. The kind of kid who thinks ‘just because’ isn’t a real answer.” Read the full review and buy this book for every kid (and maybe an adult or two) who love to know how things work. Because this book reveals all.

adults who breathe more fully around children’s literature

Comics ConfidentialComics Confidential: Thirteen Novelists Talk
Story, Craft, and Life Outside the Box

interviews by Leonard S. Marcus
Candlewick Press, 2016

If you have the smallest bit of interest in comic books and graphic novels, you will find yourself drawn in by the interviews in this book. Marcus is a veteran at asking the right questions and his chosen subjects are the people who create books that kids and adults stand in line to read. You’ll hear from Harry Bliss, Catia Chien, Geoffrey Hayes, Kazu Kibuishi, Hope Larson, Danica Novgorodoff, Matt Phelan, Dave Roman, Mark and Siena Cherson Siegel, James Sturm, Sara Varon, Gene Luen Yang. Each one of them contributes a self-portrait, a comic written and drawn especially for this book, and there are sketches that accompany the interview. It’s a visual book about a visual medium created by visual artists who know how to tell exceptional stories.

Picture This: How Pictures WorkPicture This (25th anniversary edition)
Molly Bang
Chronicle Books, 2016

If you’ve ever felt that you like the art in a book but you don’t know why, this is the book for you. If you know teachers who regularly read out loud to children, this is the book for them. First written 25 years ago, Molly Bang has revised her guide to show us in clear language and pictures how the art in our favorite books works its magic. The way a page is arranged, the perspective, the focal point, the emotion, the mood, all of these can change the way we experience a book. We can understand what it is that we’re looking at in ways we never understood before. This is a very special book to give as a gift to someone you love or to yourself.

cook it up!

Betty Crocker's Cooky BookBetty Crocker’s Cooky Book
by Betty Crocker (!)
illustrated by Eric Mulvaney
Hungry Minds, 2002

I received this book in 1964 with an inscription from my grandmother, who wanted me to have “the gift of cooking food everyone will love.” It’s hard to go wrong serving cookies and the recipes in this book are classics. You’ll find Chocolate Chip Cookies, Toffee Squares, Krumkake, and Sugar Cookies. Good photographs show you how to decorate them and suggest how to serve them. Your burgeoning baker will spend hours planning, considering which cookies to make, and mixing things up in the kitchen!

Kids in the Holiday KitchenKids in the Holiday Kitchen
by Jessica Strand and Tammy Massman-Johnson
photographs by James Baigrie
Chronicle Books, 2008

For those who celebrate Christmas, this book has loads of recipes that are fun to decorate, good to give as gifts, and will help to keep the holiday buffet well-supplied. And it’s not just food. There are crafts included to decorate a soap bar for a gift or dress up gift tins. A good idea for the cooking-inspired child on your gift list.

Everyday Kitchen for KidsEveryday Kitchen for Kids: 100 Amazing Savory and Sweet Recipes Your Children Can Really Make
by Jennifer Low
Whitecap Books, Ltd.

If your child’s wish is to appear on Food Network, here’s a head start.  In addition to being delicious and easy to make, these 100 recipes are all about safety. None of the methods call for sharp knives, stovetop cooking,  or small motorized appliances. All the recipes are kid tested and each one is accompanied by a full-color photograph.

crafts are the stuff of life

Ed Emberley's Book of Trucks and TrainsEd Emberley’s Drawing Book of Trucks and Trains
Ed Emberley
LB Kids, 2005

Using simple shapes and lines and putting them together in thousands of different ways, anyone can draw. And in constructing these pictures out of those shapes and lines, they will find confidence in creating their own drawings. A part of it is practice, but a part of it is seeing how things are put together and Ed Emberley is a master at this. He is a Caldecott Medal winner and the author of many fine picture books, but it is his drawing books that many children cherish because that’s how they learned to draw! It’s an ideal book for a gift because with a pack of colored pencils and paper the fun can begin immediately!

51 Things to Make with Cardboard Boxes51 Things to Make with Cardboard Boxes
Fiona Hayes
Quarto Publishing Group, 2016

Gather up cereal boxes and chocolate boxes and match boxes and large boxes and small boxes and paint and googly eyes … to create dinosaurs, chickens, houses, and robots. Then make a giraffe and a hippopotamus and a construction crane … all out of boxes! The book has step-by-step instructions in both words and pictures that will help you and your children create fifty-one different projects. My only quibble with this book is that I would like measurements so I know which kind of boxes will work best … but perhaps the author wanted the size to be variable. I would have loved this book as a child. I suspect there’s crafty and building children in your life as well. There’s hours and hours of fun (and cereal-eating) ahead.

Look for this company’s 51 Things to Make with Paper Plates as well. Using paper plates and paper bowls (and googly eyes) there are many more creatures to be brought to life with these inexpensive construction tools.

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Skinny Dip with Ed Spicer

For this interview, we visit with Ed Spicer, educator, author, curriculum guide writer, and ALA committee member many times over.

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

I would love to spend some time in a confidential, friendly chat with Michelle Obama.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

Oh! This depends so much on what color your wheelbarrow might be! As a teacher, I’ve always loved edging students out of their comfort zones and we are all students. I adore Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. I love Audre Lorde’s poetry, which is most certainly a window for this white, male reader.

CeremonyCurrently, I am getting ready to do a presentation at a symposium featuring Naomi Shihab Nye, so I have fallen in love again with 19 Varieties of Gazelle, a gorgeous book that helps us to remember that no single story can encapsulate a people or a culture or even a single human. If you want to read a book with your ears, I think Tobin Anderson’s Feed is actually enhanced by the audio (and it is terrific with just your eyes).

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

Either cashews or ice cream. but don’t tell anyone!

Favorite city to visit?

If I were only allowed one, I could very well choose staying at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans in the winter or spring (they treated us like family). If not, Chicago and Toronto would have to battle it out.

The badge of honor in Ed's class was trying things that are hard. These students are eating seaweed.

The badge of honor in Ed’s class was trying things that are hard. These students are eating seaweed.

Most cherished childhood memory?

A lot of my childhood memories are not pleasant. I watched my father knock my sister’s front tooth out with a cement sprinkler attached to a garden hose. I ran away and lived hiding in a church youth center for about a year. I was on my own for good at the age of 15. Yet I absolutely cherish these memories. As The Association says, “Cherish is the word I use to describe all the feeling I have hiding…”

First date?

When I went to college, I weighed under 100 pounds and was approaching the five foot mark. Dating wasn’t a word that meant the same thing to me as it did to the young women I thought I was dating. In any event, my first 500 dates were totally boring and insignificant. I may also be exaggerating the five actual dates I really did have, but I still do not remember them.

Ed Spicer Dinner Party

A recent dinner at Ed and Ann’s house with (clockwise from left) Charles Emery, Eric Rohmann, Gary Schmidt, Edith Pattou, Bill Perkins, Lynn Rutan, Anita Eerdmans, Cindy Dobrez, Lynne Rae Perkins, Candy Fleming, Stephanie Hemphill, Ed, Travis Jonker.

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

Too many! Kadir Nelson, Beth Krommes, Pamela Zagarenski, Melissa Sweet, Jerry Pinkney, Paul Zelinsky, Marla Frazee, Mo Willems, E.B. Lewis, Matt Faulkner, Yuyi Morales, Ashley Bryan … And, of course, Maurice Sendak, Wanda Gag, Beatrix Potter, Dorothy P. Lathrop from earlier years. Among the younger illustrators coming up the pipe, I am very excited by the new work Shadra Strickland is doing. I also think Christian Robinson will become even more of a force. My friend Ruth McNally Barshaw gave me a watercolor she painted of Red Riding Hood. Watercolor is a new medium for her and it is among my very favorite pieces of art and I hope it bodes well for her.

On of Ed's favorite reading photos

One of Ed’s favorite reading photos

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

COFFEE, cream and no sugar! Sometimes there is nothing better than a gin and tonic, however.

Favorite season of the year? Why?

ALA Midwinter season! This may not be a universally acknowledged season, but for me it begins that slow trek back into feeling healthy. I suffer from seasonal affective disorder and ALA comes right after the holidays in January (sometimes, painfully, February). Hanging around so many believers in children, in literacy, and, more importantly, kindness always restores my faith in the world and in myself. From an art perspective, I love autumn. The colors never cease to blow me away.

Ann and Ed at Yellowstone National Park

Ann and Ed on their national park tour

What’s your dream vacation?

My wife, Ann, and I have begun exploring our National Parks. Last summer we visited six, which brings our total close to 20. We want to keep exploring. I have dreamed of traveling down the Zambezi River through the Okavango Delta region of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana although I fear I may have missed my opportunity.

What gives you shivers?

Our newly elected president and our lack of kindness and even civility toward those who do not share our culture, religions, customs, holidays, language, etc.

Logan, a former first grader in Ed's class, now a writing major and slam poet at Emerson College in Boston

Logan, a former first grader in Ed’s class, now a writing major and slam poet at Emerson College in Boston

Morning person? Night person?

NIGHT! Bedtime before 1:00 am is for wimps.

What’s your hidden talent?

Years ago I was a very successful cologne salesperson during the holidays! I sold a lot of Russian Leather cologne. Today, I am not a chef, but I do make very pretty food that tastes good! I cannot, however, follow recipes to save my life and I have rarely made the same thing twice.

Your favorite candy as a kid …

Any that I could steal.

Mission to PlutoIs Pluto a planet?

Ha! I write the curriculum guides for Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series. I just finished doing the guide on Pluto. The lead scientist in this book thinks of Pluto as a planet. I will side with him.

What’s the strangest tourist attraction you’ve visited?

Corn Palace? I have been to some very sketchy amusement parks. In Allegan, I often take people to see our giant chicken at our County Fair site.

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

When everyone was alive, I had 2 brothers and 5 sisters. At least one brother has passed away and I haven’t seen the other for more than 50 years. I haven’t spoken to anyone in my family for more than ten years. It is more like anti-shaping.

Best tip for living a contented life?

Get help!

What a Wonderful WorldYour hope for the world?

When I taught first grade, I could never read the Ashley Bryan illustrated version of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World without crying! I read this book every year and cried every time. “They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know…” always hit me as so beautiful and so true. I often told people every year that I had first graders who are much smarter than I am. Many people assumed I was being facetious, but I meant it quite literally. I have more experience and I have more facts at my disposal, but my first graders always demonstrated the creativity, the dreams, and the fearlessness that make me feel hopeful for our future.

Ed Spicer's Classroom

Ed Spicer’s class five years ago

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