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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

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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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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Skinny Dip with Suzanne Costner

Suzanne Costner

Suzanne Costner

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

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

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

When did you first start reading books?

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

Suzanne’s first book, a Real Cloth book.

Your favorite daydream?

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

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

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

All-time favorite book?

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

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

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

What’s your least favorite chore?

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

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

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

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

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

Toy RocketWhen are you your most creative?

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

Your best memory of your school library?

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

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

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

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

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

What’s your hidden talent?

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

CowgirlYour favorite toy as a child …

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

Best invention in the last 200 years?

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

Favorite artist? Why?

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

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

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

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

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

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

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

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Skinny Dip with Aimée Bissonette

Aimée Bissonette

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

When did you first start reading books?

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

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

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

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

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

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

When are you your most creative?

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

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint chocolate chip. Hands down.

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Theater Geeks!

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

All the World's a Stage  

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

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

 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

 

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

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

Better Nate Than Never  

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

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

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

Drama  

Drama
written by Raina Telgemeier
Golden Books, 1947

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

Forget-Me-Not Summer  

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

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

Goblin Secrets  

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

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

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!  

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

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

King of Shadows  

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

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

The Life Fantastic  

The Life Fantastic
written by Liza Ketchum
Simon Pulse, 2017

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

Okay for Now  

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

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

Replay  

Replay
written by Sharon Creech
HarperCollins, 2005

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

Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive) At Last  

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

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

The Shakespeare Stealer  

The Shakespeare Stealer
written by Gary Blackwood
HarperCollins, 2005

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

Snow White  

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

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

The Cruisers A Star is Born  

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

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

Starstruck  

Starstruck
written by Rachel Shukert
Delacorte Press, 2013

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

Summerlost  

Summerlost
written by Ally Condie
Dutton Books, 2016

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

Surviving the Applewhites  

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

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

Swish of the Curtain  

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

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

Theater Shoes  

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

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

The Wednesday Wars  

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

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

Will Sparrow's Road  

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

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

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