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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

From Gridlock to Road Trip

gridlock

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

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

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

All American Boys by Brenden Kiely and Jason Reynolds

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Hate U Give by Angela Thomas

Listen, SlowlyListen Slowly by Thanhha Lai

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

Refugee by Alan Katz

Reign Rain by Ann M. Martin

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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

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

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

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

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

Resources that promote access to audiobooks:

Epic!

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

Overdrive

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

Scribd

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

Skybrary

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

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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She looks…pretend.

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

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

Me, too, sweetheart. Me, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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On Growing Older … Old

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

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

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

Can you name the number?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From time to time, bits fall off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pumpkin Muffins

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

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

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

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

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

And they say that size doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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Skinny Dip with Patti Lapp

Patti Lapp

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

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

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

When did you first start reading books?

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

Your favorite daydream?

I daydream of having time to write!

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

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

A Tale of Two CitiesAll-time favorite book?

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

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

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

What’s your least favorite chore?

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

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

Inspiration.

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

Barefoot or socks—season dependent.

When are you your most creative?

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

Your best memory of your school library?

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

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Cherry Garcia.

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

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

What’s your hidden talent?

I can weave.

jacksYour favorite toy as a child …

Jacks—Anyone remember that game?

Best invention in the last 200 years?

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

Favorite artist? Why?

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

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

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

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

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

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

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

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The Book Box

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

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

The Book Box

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

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

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

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

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

Gazing Globe

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

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

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

Book Box Interior

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Bookstorm™: Giant Pumpkin Suite

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

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

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

Downloadables

 

 

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

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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E.B. White

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

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

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

“Huh,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” he said.

“I’m kidding,” I said.

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

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

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

“Who’s it by?” he asked.

“E.B. White.”

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

“The very dude,” I said.

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

“Templeton,” I said.

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

“So, may I repack my bag?”

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

Indeed.

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

 

 

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Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s underneath all that armor?

What kind of underpants did this person wear?

What’s underneath all that armor?

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

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

See how much fun biographical research is?

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