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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | children’s literature

Mouse Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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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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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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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Bookstorm™: No Monkeys, No Chocolate

No Monkeys Bookmap

 

No Monkeys, No ChocolateWe are pleased to feature No Monkeys, No Chocolate as our August book selection, in which author and science writer Melissa Stewart, along with Allen Young and illustrator Nicole Wong share the interdependent ecosystem that creates the right conditions for cacao beans to be grown and harvested so we can produce chocolate.

This ecosystem is set in the rainforest of the Amazon, but there are interdependent ecosystems all over the world, vital animals, reptiles, birds, insects, humans, and plants that are necessary for our lives to continue on this earth. We all rely on each other. We all have a part to play in preserving a healthy Earth. We are grateful to authors and illustrators like Melissa, Allen, and Nicole who bring these connections to our attention so we can share them with children who will become the stewards of this planet.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests. This month, we’re focusing on books about American lighthouses, lighthouse keepers, and biographies of female heroes. 

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You’ll find more information about Melissa Stewart on her website. Illustrator Nicole Wong’s website will show you more of her portfolio.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Chocolate. I know there are people who don’t like chocolate, but surely they are a small percentage of people in the world! As we move between descriptions of decadent chocolate pleasures to news that it’s healthy for us to fountains and personalized chocolate … these books share facts, stories, and tantalizing photographs.

Ecosystems. Our featured book is an excellent description of an ecosystem in which plants, animals, and insects work together to create the bean that creates chocolate. There are a number of good examples of ecosystems throughout the world in the books we’ve included.

Growing Food. We appreciate and thank the people who work so hard to grow our food. From urban farms to rural ranches to rainforests, the foods we tend and grow and harvest are essential to all life on earth. We hope that teaching children about the sources of their food, the people who grow it, and the care given to the stuff of life will encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Monkeys. Monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, apes … primates have been fascinating people, especially children, since time began. And now we now they’re essential for chocolate! We’ve included books that will start discussions, answer questions, and entertain young readers.

Pollination. The process of pollination, and all the ways it happens, is incredible. These books are guaranteed to interest young readers.

Rain Forest Preservation. It’s vital for all the people of the earth to support efforts to keep the rain forests of our world healthy. The more we know and understand about their role in our climate, our air, our ability to breathe, the more we can commit to doing our part as individuals. 

Author’s Website Resources. Author Melissa Stewart created a writing timeline that is useful in teaching writing, especially expository writing, to your students. She has a reader’s theater, teaching guide, and several more teaching aids to offer. We’ve provided links.

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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Bookstorm™: Jazz Day

Bookmap for Jazz Day

 

Jazz DayThis month we’re featuring Jazz Day, a book that’s all about jazz and a photograph that recorded a moment in time, people at the top of their musical careers and people who were just getting started. Author Roxane Orgill is familiar with the jazz culture; she’s written several books about the music and the people. Illustrator Francis Vallejo took elements of photography, graphic design, acrylic, and pastels to illustrate his first book. This powerful team has received no fewer than six starred reviews for the picture book biography they’ve created together.

In Jazz Day, each story is told with a poem, among them free verse, a pantoum, and a list poem. There are poems about the photographer, the musicians, the young neighborhood boys who showed up for the photograph out of curiosity, the jazz life, and the process of taking the photo, Harlem 1958, which is famous for capturing a large number of musicians in their time, their clothing, their community, but without their instruments (except for one guy, Rex Stewart, but it earned him a poem).

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, websites, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests. This month, we’re focusing on books about jazz, music, singers, and photography. 

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more information about Roxane Orgill on her website. The illustrator’s website will show you more of Francis Vallejo’s portfolio.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Jazz Musicians in Picture Books. Here you’ll find excellent picture books about jazz musicians including Trombone Shorty, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Louise Williams, Melba Liston, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. Many of these books help us understand how the childhood of these renowned musicians launched them into their careers.

Jazz Singers. Ella Fitzgerald? Scat. Josephine Baker? Showmanship. Civil rights. The Sweethearts of Rhythm? Swing musicians who rose to prominence during the war. Exceptional books about exceptional singers.

Jazz for Older Readers. From Roxane Orgill’s own book, Dream Lucky, one of the best books about jazz musicians, to highly respected books like Jazz 101, and The History of Jazz, and Marsalis on Music, there’s a lot of information here to get you talking proficiently about, and teaching, jazz.

Photography. Art Kane wasn’t a photographer but he took one of the most famous photographs, Harlem 1958. But there are children’s books about famous photographers such as Gordon Parks and Snowflake Bentley. You’ll find more suggestions in the Bookstorm.

The Music. Your students who are already interested in rap or jazz rap or hip-hop or pop music, will be fascinated to listen to the different genres of jazz music that came before … and we’ve included URLs where you can find excellent examples. Or perhaps you’re a jazz aficionado and you have your own music to share.

Websites. There are helpful websites such as the Jazz Education Network and Smithsonian Jazz that will help you put together a multimedia set of lesson plans for exploring jazz, our most American form of music.

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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Bookstorm™: Miss Colfax’s Light

Bookmap Miss Colfax's Light

 

Miss Colfax's LightWe are pleased to feature Miss Colfax’s Light as our June book selection, in which author Aimée Bissonette and illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen tell the fascinating story of a woman who served as the Michigan City Lighthouse keeper from 1861 to 1904. Captains and navigators on Lake Michigan relied on her lighthouse to keep them from foundering on the rocks or crashing onto the shore in rough weather.

Every day heroes. That’s how author Aimée Bissonette refers to the people in history who intrigue her. She traveled to research her chosen subject, Harriet Colfax, talking with people in Indiana who could proudly provide information. Miss Colfax faithfully kept a log, so Aimée was able to read about Harriet’s work and her daily life in Harriet’s own words. Illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen painted a wealth of accurate, time-appropriate details into the pages of the book, helping readers visually understand the time in which Miss Colfax lived. We think you’ll be inspired by Miss Colfax’s story as much as we are.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests. This month, we’re focusing on books about American lighthouses, lighthouse keepers, and biographies of female heroes. 

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more information about Aimée Bissonette on her website. The illustrator’s website will show you more of Eileen Ryan Ewen’s portfolio.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

About Lighthouses. For background information as you prepare to excite students, library patrons, or your family members about American lighthouses, these books will help you locate these beacons of safety, learn more about their operation, and understand the science and math that are an inherent part of the workings of lighthouses around the country.

Brave and Extraordinary Women. From picture book biographies to short-article anthologies, you’ll find a variety of inspiring stories from oceanographer Sylvia Earle to educational activist Malala Yousafzai.

How Lighthouses Work. From the Fresnel lens to the Chance Brothers engineering to the improvements in fuel, increases in the range of light, and Edison’s invention of the lightbulb, you’ll find books to inform your presentations and discussions about Miss Colfax’s Light.

Lighthouse Books. There are a number of good books to pair with our featured Bookstorm. Compare the true story of Miss Colfax with that of Abbie Burgess, who took her lighthouse keeper father’s place during an ice storm, or the Maine Flying Santa program, or the Little Red Lighthouse near the George Washington Bridge in New York City, among many others.

Protecting Our Waterways. In addition to our lighthouse keepers, the U.S. Coast Guard is on duty protecting water travelers and shipping vessels during all types of weather and in hazardous situations. These books will extend readers’ understanding of the work done by highly skilled patrols.

Water. Before and after reading Miss Colfax’s Light, it’s a good time to have a discussion about the importance of water in our lives. From our Great Lakes, to our coastal waters, to the rivers and lakes throughout our country, to the water that falls from the sky, to the water that is pumped up from underground aquifers, water and water conservation are essential to our everyday lives. 

Whether you choose to focus on every day heroes, water, science, Great Lakes commerce, or inspiration women, there are many directions you can go and many subjects you can support with Miss Colfax’s Light.

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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Gardening and Farming Delights

 

Jackie: At last—we made it to spring and all the usual accoutrements have shown up—lilacs, violets, the smell of apple blossoms, and thoughts of sprouting seeds and growing vegetables.  How could we not look at picture books about gardens and farming this month?

Miss Jaster's GardenI have to confess, Phyllis, I did not know of Miss Jaster’s Garden, written and illustrated by N. M. Bodecker and published in 1972. I’m so glad to meet Miss Jaster and Hedgie the hedgehog whom she treats with a bowl of milk each night. “But hedgehogs being the shape they are, and Miss Jaster being a little nearsighted, as often as not she put the saucer where the hedgehog’s head wasn’t. And Hedgie—so as not to cause distress—“politely dipped his tail in the milk and pretended to drink.” 

That’s not the only problem caused by Miss Jaster’s poor vision. When she is scattering flower seeds in her garden she does not see Hedgie and plants seeds on him too.  “…after a while he began feeling restless.” Hedgie is sprouting. Hedgie blooms! And feels like dancing. “Tomorrow I’ll be as quiet as an earthworm,” thought Hedgie, “but not today. Today is the greatest day of my life. There’ll never be another like it!” When Miss Jaster sees flowers dancing in the yard, she yells, “STOP THIEF!”  and poor Hedgie, frightened and chagrined, runs off. Eventually the Chief Constable, with a capable bit of sleuthing, finds Hedgie and brings him back—“a weary, worried, bedraggled little animal, down on his luck.” Miss Jaster feels bad at having given the hedgehog (“flowerhog”) such a scare. And they take breakfast together every morning—“And there was nothing but peace and sunshine and a touch of Sweet William.”

I love the tone of this book—Hedgie is up for the adventure of being a walking flower garden. The constable is thoughtful, “Did you by chance, happen to notice how many legs these flowers had when they made their getaway? In round numbers?” In round numbers! And I love the characters—the hedgehog who’s so thoughtful he pretends to drink with his tail so as not to upset Miss Jaster. And kind Miss Jaster who doesn’t mind sharing her garden with a hedgehog and is actually pleased when she realized that she also shared flower seeds with him.

This story has a lot of text. But the humor is so wonderful and the characters just the right degree of eccentric, I think it would be enjoyed  by the five to ninety crowd. What do you think?

Miss Jaster's Garden

Phyllis: I didn’t know this book, either, but I also love it. The double-page spread map at the beginning of the book is a little story all in itself, as good maps often are. From Hedgie’s corner to the birdbath (“For ancient inscription, see page 17”) to Miss J’s wicker chair and Sunrise Hill (“Elevation 9’”) Bodecker has created a whole world in art as well as text.

As someone who has become nearer and nearer sighted my whole life, I completely understand how Miss Jaster might make such a mistake. And who wouldn’t want a walking flower garden? Who wouldn’t want to be a flower garden? I love how the ending brings mutual satisfaction to Miss Jaster and to Hedgie, who have always been solicitous of each other—each morning they share “a leisurely breakfast … and a walk along the beach, followed by a small but persistent butterfly.”

Certainly the text is much longer than many more recent picture books, but what wonderful details! When Miss Jaster goes out to plant she does so in “a purple morning-dress and sturdy shoes” with a “large straw hat, trimmed with cornflowers on her head,” pulling “a small four-wheeled wagon full of garden tools and flower seeds.” Like a garden in full bloom, the story is lush with language.

I love, too, how Hedgie, as he discovers he’s sprouting, wonders which he will be:  “’Flower bed or vegetable garden? Vegetable garden or flower bed?’” until one day, “’I’m in bloom!’ cried Hedgie.”

Grandpa's Too Good GardenJackie:  I call James Stevenson the writer with the humor cure. He makes me laugh. And Grandpa’s Too Good Garden  is one of his curing-est. Mary Ann and Louie are disappointed with their gardening. Louis says, “We dig and rake and plant and water and weed—and nothing ever comes up. Our garden is no good.” Grandpa remains calm and tells them he once had a garden that was “a little too good.” There are some wonderful cartoon-y frames of Grandpa and Wainey in the garden (both as kids with little mustaches) but the story really begins when Father throws his Miracle Grow hair tonic out the window. It spills into the garden and gets rained in. Before Wainey even wakes up a vine snatches him up and almost out the window. The garden was taller than the house. Giant caterpillars came to eat the giant plants. The plants continued to grow and Grandpa got “snagged on a weather vane above our roof.” Grandpa is in trouble…only to be rescued by Wainey on a giant butterfly. This happy ending is accompanied by Wainey showing up to offer Grandpa and the kids some ice cream. I love the exaggeration, the total silliness of it.

Phyllis: Gardeners need patience, but not all of us wait quietly. When the seeds don’t grow quickly  enough, Wainey and Grandpa encourage them. “’Hello, beans? Tomatoes? Are you down there? Give us a sign!’ ‘Hello, carrumps?” The fortuitous hair tonic reminds me of old radio science fiction shows. “You threw the growth formula out back?” the scientist asks his assistant just before the now-giant earthworms come banging on the door. There’s a satisfying circularity to Grandpa’s garden story when one of the giant butterflies that metamorphed from the giant caterpillars rescues both brothers. Wonderful wackiness!

Farmer DuckJackie: Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) is set on a farm and Farmer Duck does farm work so we are including it. It’s all about friends. And friends are important to gardeners. Who else would take our extra zucchini? or help us pull weeds? or share plants with us?

This is such an exuberant telling. Was there ever a lazier farmer than the human farmer who stays in bed all day, yelling to the duck, “How goes the work?” Farmer Duck always responds the same way, “Quack.” This goes on day after day. While the lazy farmer eats bon bons, the duck saws wood, spades the garden, washes dishes, irons clothes. The other animals can’t stand to see their friend work so hard. One night they meet in the barn and make a plan. “’Moo!’ said the cow./’Baa!’ said the sheep./ ‘Cluck!’ said the hens. And that was the plan.” 

When they carry out their plan the lazy farmer runs away and never returns. “…mooing and baaing and clucking and quacking, they all set to work on their farm.” We just can’t help but think hay will be sweeter, corn will be taller, and there may be dancing in the barn.

Farmer Duck

Phyllis: I adore this book, text and art. The duck looks wearier and wearier, and who wouldn’t want to be comforted by such caring hens and the other animals as well?  And I love how the animals that the duck tended to at the beginning of the story, including carrying a sheep from the hill, all pitch in to help at the end as “mooing and baaing and clucking and quacking, they all set to work on their farm.” Animals, unite! The fruits of the labor belong to the laborers!

When the Root Children Wake UpJackie:  I would be remiss not to mention your namesake book, Phyllis—When The Root Children Wake Up, retold by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Ned Bittinger. It’s a story of seasons. A robin comes to the window of Mother’s Earth’s underground “home” and calls, “Root Children! Root Children …Wake up! It’s time for the masquerade.” The children awaken the bugs and paint them and head out for the masquerade. But it’s not too long before “Cousin Summer slips his knapsack on his back and quickly strides over the hills and far away.” Time for Uncle Fall. And soon it will be time for another winter’s nap. 

There’s a lot about this story that I like—the circle of seasons, painting the bugs. I’m a little put off by the very realistic drawings of children as the “Root Children.” I’m not sure why. Maybe because they seem too real to be sleeping underground all winter. Makes me feel  claustrophobic. Maybe I’m just grumpy. I’d love to know what others think.

When the Root Children Wake UpPhyllis: It’s true that what caught my eye about When the Root Children Wake Up was my name in the title, but I also love the story and art in the version I have, a reprint of the 1906 Sybelle Olffers book  first published in Germany and republished in English in 1988 by Green Tiger Press. The charmingly old-fashioned original illustrations remind me of books I loved as a child and include a joyous spread of the root children emerging above ground carrying flowers and grasses “into the lovely world.” Interesting how art can change the perception of a story!

Lola Plants a GardenA garden book for the very young is Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosaline Beardshaw. The straightforward story tells how Lola loves the poem “Mary Mary Quite Contrary” and  wants to plant a garden of her own. She and Mommy read books about gardens, make a list of Lola’s favorite flowers, buy seeds, and plant them. While she waits for them to grow, Lola makes their own book about flowers, strings beads and shells and bells, and makes a little Mary Mary doll. Lola’s patience and work are rewarded as the flowers grow big and “Open toward the sun.” Daddy helps her hang her bells, her friends come to her garden to eat Mommy’s peas and strawberries, and Lola makes up a story for them about Mary Mary. The book concludes, “What kind of garden will Lola plant next?” Simply told and satisfying, the book makes me want to run out and buy more packets of flower seeds, then invite friends to come visit in the garden and encourage them to grow.

Lola Plants a Garden

Jackie: Friends and gardens and the cycle of seasons. We are all rooted on this earth. And that’s good to remember. Let’s go plant some beans.

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Bookstorm™: Turn Left at the Cow

 

Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWho doesn’t love a mystery? Whether your find them intriguing puzzles or can’t-wait-to-know-the-solution page-turners, a good mystery is engrossing and a little tense. Throw in a little humor, a detailed setting, and well-drawn characters and you have a book you can confidently hand to young readers who are already hooked on the genre and those who have yet to become fans.

We are pleased to feature Turn Left at the Cow as our May book selection, written by the expert plotter Lisa Bullard, replete with her characteristic humor.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests. This month, we’re focusing on books for middle grade readers with mysteries, humor, and bank heists. 

Downloadables

 

 

Don’t miss the exceptional resources on the author’s website. Try your hand at butter carving with “Butter Head Beauties,” engaging science, art, and language arts skills. Re-create the book’s chicken poop bingo with “Chances Are,” calling on math and language arts. Lisa Bullard’s Pinterest page has more great ideas that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Middle Grade Mysteries. There are amazing books written for this age group. We’ve included a list that would help you select read-alikes or companion books, drawing on titles first printed in 1929 (yes, really) to 2015.

Butter Heads and Other State Fair Strangeness. A butter head is one of the attention-worthy objects in the book. Begin an online research assignment with a few articles about butter heads around the country.

Fish Out of Water. Travis lives in southern California. When he runs away to his grandmother’s cabin in northern Minnesota, it walks and talks like a different world, one that Travis has to learn to navigate if he’s going to solve the mystery.

Missing Parent. Even though Travis left his mother behind with her new husband, Travis is most interested in finding out about his dad, who died before he was born. Books for this age group often revolve around a parent or parents who are not present. We’ve recommended a few of them. 

Robberies and Heists. Travis has trouble believing his father could have robbed a bank but the townspeople seem to think so. We’ve included books that delineate bank or train robberies, some of them true.

Small Town Festivals. One of the most exciting scenes in Turn Left at the Cow takes place in Green Lake, Minnesota’s annual summer festival where chicken poop bingo is a tradition. We’ve found articles about other small town festivals that would make good writing prompts, research projects, or PowerPoint projects.

Mysteries offer a special pleasure to many readers, both children and adults. They provide an excellent opportunity to talk about plot and how that plot is reinforced by intriguing characters (and good writing!).

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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Spring, Where Are You?

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in SpringPhyllis: Each year, as soon as the snow melts, I’m eager to go search for native wildflowers. Two of the earliest flowers bloom in two different protected places a car ride away. And every year, I go too early—either the ephemeral snow trilliums aren’t even up yet or the pasque flowers are still such tiny, tight, furry brown buds that they’re hard to spot in the dried grass on the hillside where they grow. When I do finally find snow trilliums and pasque flowers in bloom, I know spring really has arrived.

A little boy named King Shabazz also goes looking for spring in Lucille Clifton’s The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, illustrated by Brinton Turkle. His search takes him down city streets rather than up windy hillsides, but the impetus is the same.

When King Shabazz’s teacher talks about spring, he whispers, “No such thing.” When his mother talks about spring, he demands, “Where is it at?”

One day after his teacher has talked about blue birds and his Mama had talked about crops coming up, King Shabazz has had enough.

“Look here, man,” he tells his friend Tony Polito, “I’m going to get me some of this spring.” They set off through their urban neighborhood, searching for spring. They look around the corner, by the school and playground, by the Church of the Solid Rock, past a restaurant and apartment buildings until they come to a vacant lot walled in by tall buildings with an abandoned car sitting in the middle.

 When the boys go to investigate a sound coming from the car, Tony Polito trips on a patch of little yellow pointy flowers. “Man, the crops are coming up!” King Shabazz shouts. The sound turns out to be birds who fly out of the car, where the boys discover a nest with four light blue eggs.

 “Man, it’s spring!” says King Shabazz.

As do picture books by Vera B. Williams, Ezra Jack Keats, and Matt de la Peña, Clifton’s book celebrates the city where so many of us live and where spring arrives, as well, even if you don’t yet believe in it.

Lucille CliftonJackie: I loved this book so much that I had to do a little research on Lucille Clifton, who wrote more than twenty books for children. You mentioned celebration, Phyllis. Here’s what New Yorker magazine writer Elizabeth Alexander said of Clifton after her death in 2010:

Clifton invites the reader to celebrate survival: a poet’s survival against the struggles and sorrows of disease, poverty, and attempts at erasure of those who are poor, who are women, who are vulnerable, who challenge conquistador narratives. There is luminous joy in these poems, as they speak against silence and hatred.

There is luminous joy in this book—joy in the characters who are best friends and wait at the stoplight, which they have never gone past before, to see what the other will do; joy in the discovery of a bird’s nest on the front seat of a beat-up car. This is a story of survival, too. The boys do cross the street, even though Junior Williams has said he will beat them up if he sees them. They will survive. They have courage, each other, and appreciation for spring.

and then it's springPhyllis: Julie Fogliano’s book and then it’s spring is another story of waiting, this time in a more rural setting, told in second person in one long extended sentence whose syntax captures the feeling of waiting and waiting and waiting.

“First you have brown,
all around you have brown,

the book begins, and proceeds to seeds, a wish for rain, rain, a “hopeful, very possible sort of brown” but still brown. As time passes (and the single sentence continues) the child gardener worries that the birds might have eaten the seeds or bears tromped on them, until finally the brown

“still brown,
has a greenish hum
that you can only hear
if you put your ear to the ground
and close your eyes…”
until finally, on a sunny day,
“…now you have green,
all around you have green.”

Jackie: I love Julie Fogliano’s language: “…a hopeful, very possible sort of brown.” And the brown with the greenish hum just makes me smile. I know this is a blog about writing but I have to mention Erin Stead’s illustrations. Her possible-birds-eating-seeds painting is full of jokes—there’s a bird wearing a bib, a bird flat on its back, birds billing (as in billing and cooing) a bird trilling. It would be worth giving up a few seeds to see these lively birds in one’s yard.

Phyllis: And the sign to keep bears away (which the bear is using to scratch under his arm) made me laugh out loud: “Please do not stomp here. There are seeds and they are trying.”

Iridescence of birdsThe Iridescence of Birds, A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan also uses the syntax of an elongated sentence to heighten a sense of yearning and show how Matisse’s love of color and light might have bloomed from his childhood “in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray and the days were cold” and his mother brightened their home with painted plates and flowers and red rugs on the dirt floor, and his father raised pigeons “with colors that changed with the light as they moved.” The single long interrogative sentence is answered by another, shorter question:

“Would it be a surprise that you became
A fine painter who painted
Light
And
Movement
And the iridescence of birds?”

Jackie: This book does for me what all good picture books do, it makes me want to know more about Henri Matisse—and his remarkable mother. She knew that a red rug trumps a dirt floor any day—and she must have had a lode of artistic ability herself. And this book makes me want to try to write a story in one sentence.

Waiting-for-Spring StoriesPhyllis: Waiting-for-Spring Stories by Bethany Robert was a baby gift to my first daughter, and it continues to enchant. Papa Rabbit, “like Grandpa Rabbit before him and Great-Grandpa Rabbit before that,” helps to pass the time with his little rabbits until Spring arrives by telling stories, seven in all. And true to a child’s sensibility of the world, wind talks, a star yearns to sing, the little rabbit’s too big feet complain about the ways he tries to shrink them, a worm reassures a rabbit, and, in my favorite, “The Garden,” vegetables rebel against a farmer who plans to eat them for supper.

“’Get him, boys,’ called the onion.” And they do. The onion makes him cry, potato trips him, the carrot whacks him on the head, and they escape by rolling out the door.

“After that, the farmer rabbit always ate pancakes for his dinner.”

Jackie: Those vegetables could be in a horror picture book, for sure. But maybe they are too funny for a horror picture book.

Phyllis: The book and the storytelling end with sunlight pouring in the window and the snow beginning to melt from the windowpanes.

“Spring is here at last!”

Jackie: These stories remind me of Arnold Lobel’s work in their sure portrayal of characters I care about in just a few words. And I so love the talking grass and the talking feet and the feisty onion, carrot, and potato. I don’t know why but I found myself wanting to hear something from the little rabbits between the stories, something about the waiting or the upcoming spring. But that’s another book. These stories are cozy and charming and just right to read while we wait.

pasque flowers trilliumPhyllis: Last week I saw pasque flowers and snow trilliums. This week I found green leaves growing in my garden. This year’s time of yearning is over. It’s time to go outside and glory in springtime, here at last.

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Celebrating Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack KeatsJackie: This is the time of year when I read the Travel Section of the Sunday paper. I just want to go away from gritty snow, brown yards and come back to Spring. Well, there are no tickets on the shelf this year so Phyllis and I are taking a trip to the city created by Ezra Jack Keats. And why not? This month, this year marks his one-hundredth birthday.

As our travel guide we’re taking The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats (Yale University Press, 2011), written by Claudia Nahsen to coincide with The Snowy Day’s 50th anniversary and the showing of many of his works at the Jewish Museum, New York

Last Stop on Market StreetI’ve been thinking of Keats since I read Last Stop on Market Street, this year’s Newbery Award winner, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Robinson’s wonderful depictions of the urban landscape and the text’s suggestion that beauty is all around us, reminded me of Keats’s city scenes. Often they are set in his childhood home in Depression Era Brooklyn but enhanced with Keats’s brilliant collages, sketches, and jazzy palette.

A bit about his life, which I learned from Nahsen’s beautiful book: Jacob Ezra Katz was born in New York, on March 11, 1916. He was the youngest of three children born to immigrant parents in a “loveless marriage.” He grew up in a family marked by strife and unhappiness. He felt invisible as a child and believed “’life was measured by anguish.’” (Nahsen,p. 5). Art saved him. And in his art he gave life and validity to the streets he remembered from his childhood and to the kids, often invisible to society, who live on those streets.

The Snowy DayPhyllis: And up until publication of A Snowy Day, the first full-color picture book to feature an African American protagonist, those kids were virtually invisible in picture books as well. I especially love how Keats makes us see the city and the children and grown-ups who live in it with fresh eyes—his art includes graffiti, trashcans, and the struggles and celebrations of childhood. Nahsen quotes Keats: “Everything in life is waiting to be seen!” While some people criticized Keats, a white writer, for writing about black characters in The Snowy Day, the poet Langston Hughes wished he had “grandchildren to give it [the book] to.” Keats felt the criticisms deeply but continued to tell and illustrate the stories in his world “waiting to be seen.”

LouieJackie: Keats wrote and illustrated twenty-two books in his career. The ones I know are just as fresh, just as in tune with the lives of children as they were when he wrote them. We all know Peter of A Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, A Letter to Amy. But Keats’s Louie is not quite as familiar. Louie is a quiet, kid who hardly ever speaks. But when he sees the puppet Gussie (Keats’s mother’s name) at Susie and Roberto’s puppet show, he stands up and yells “Hello!, Hello! Hello!” Susie and Roberto decide to have Gussie ask Louie to sit down so they can get on with the show. After the show they bring Gussie out so Louie can hold the puppet. Then the boy goes home, eventually sleeps and dreams he is falling and kids are laughing at him. When he wakes up, his mother tells him someone slipped a note under the door—“Go outside and follow the long green string.” At the end of the green string is—Gussie! There is so much to love about this story—a sensitive portrayal of a child who is somehow different, gets laughed at, yelled at by some kids; two kids, Susie and Roberto, who treat Louie with great kindness; and a hopeful ending.

Nahsen says: “…neglected characters, who had hitherto been living in the margins of picture books or had simply been absent from children’s literature take pride of place in Keats’s oeuvre.” She quotes from his unpublished autobiography: “When I did my first book about a black kid I wanted black kids and white kids to know that he’s there.” So it is with Louie. Keats reminds readers that the quiet kids, the kids who march to a different drum, the kids who live behind the broken doors, or on broken-down buses and can only have a cricket for a pet (Maggie and the Pirate) are there.

Maggie and the PiratePhyllis: Just as Keats portrays the real lives of kids who live in buses or city apartments without “even any steps in front of the door to sit on,” he doesn’t shy away from the small and large griefs and troubles of childhood. In Maggie and the Pirate, Maggie’s pet cricket, taken by a boy who admires the cricket’s cage, accidentally drowns in a river. Maggie and her friends hold a cricket funeral, and when the “pirate,” a boy who didn’t mean for the cricket to die but wanted the cage “real bad,” brings Maggie the cage with a new cricket, the children

                “all sat down together.
                Nobody said anything.
                They listened to the new cricket singing.
                Crickets all around joined in.”

Tragedies and consolation in the death of a cricket—a world seen through children’s eyes.

The Trip, Louie's Search, Regards to the Man in the Moon

Jackie: Keats came back to Louie with three other books and used this character to help him present some of the other problems of childhood—The Trip (1978), Louie’s Search (1980), and Regards to the Man in the Moon (1981).

The Trip tells us that Louie and his Mom move to a new neighborhood. Louie’s Search takes place after Louie has moved to a new neighborhood. “’What kind of neighborhood is this?’ thought Louie. “Nobody notices a kid around here.” He puts on a paper sack hat and paints his nose red and goes out for a walk. Eventually he picks up an object which has fallen off a junk wagon and so encounters the scary junkman Barney. Barney is huge and thinks Louie has stolen this object. “’Come back, you little crook,’ Barney bellowed.” They go to Louie’s house where Barney tells his Mom, “Your son’s a crook!’”

What Louie had found was a music box. When he holds it the box makes music. When he drops it, it stops. Barney decides to give the music box to Louie and stays for tea with Louie and his mom. It’s the beginning of a wonderful relationship that ends with a wedding and Louie finding the Dad he hoped for.

The Trip, Jennie's Hat, Dreams

Phyllis: Another thread throughout Keats’ work is the power of imagination. Louie in The Trip imagines a plane flying him to his old neighborhood. Jennie in Jennie’s Hat imagines a beautiful hat instead of the plain one her aunt has sent, and the birds, who she feeds daily, swoop down and decorate her hat with leaves, pictures, flowers (paper and real), colored eggs, a paper fan, and a pink valentine. In Dreams, Roberto imagines (or does it really happen?) that when a paper mouse he has made tumbles from his windowsill, its shadow “grew bigger—and bigger—and BIGGER” until it scared off the dog terrorizing his friend’s kitten on the sidewalk below.

Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-book MakerWe haven’t really even talked about his art and his brilliant use of collage and color. Just as Keats’s books celebrate the power of the imagination, Anita Silvey says that Keats took “absolute joy in the creative process.” We can share that joy in his books in stories and art that recognize that everyone needs to be seen, everyone has a place, and everyone, joyously, matters.

Jackie: Brian Alderson in Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-Book Maker writes that in The Snowy Day Keats “came home to his proper place: a colorist celebrating the hidden lives of the city kids.” I would add that that can be said for most of his works. And we are the richer for it.

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Heather Vogel Frederick: Borrowed Fire

In Absolutely Truly, my new middle grade mystery set in a bookshop in the fictional town of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, a first edition of Charlotte’s Web goes missing. There’s a reason this particular book features so prominently in the story—it’s a nod to my literary hero, E. B. White.

E.B. White

E.B. White and friend

E.B. White and I go way back. He’s one of the reasons I became a writer, thanks to Charlotte’s Web, which was one of my all-time favorites as a young reader (it still is). It tops a short list of what I consider perfect novels—a list that includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, among a handful of others.

The year I turned 12 and declared my intention of becoming an author, my dad slipped a copy of Elements of Style into my Christmas stocking. It was an inspired present, as the book on writing and grammar that Mr. White co-wrote with William Strunk, Jr., made me feel both validated and grown-up. I displayed it prominently on my desk, and if I read it with more enthusiasm than comprehension, at least I felt very sophisticated as I did so. Later, in college, I would discover White’s collected letters and essays, which helped inspire my early career as a journalist.

Of all the gifts that E. B. White has given me, though, the one I treasure most are his characters. I can’t even imagine a world without Charlotte and Wilbur, or without Fern Arable, and Lurvy, and Templeton the rat. Memorable characters such as these are what make for memorable stories. Sure, setting is important, research is important, and a story without a plot is a hot mess (anybody sat through Waiting for Godot recently?), but for me, memorable characters are the main course, the engine that drives the train, the beating heart of a book.

Charlotte's Web coverCharacters like Charlotte and Wilbur don’t just spring full-blown onto the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, however. Writing is a deliberate act. It is artifice; it is craft; it is intentional. While the concept for a character may come to a writer in a flash, the construction of that character is the result of much effort and care.

So how does a writer go about creating characters that walk off the page and straight into a reader’s heart?

It comes down to something I call “borrowed fire.”

There are other tools writers employ in creating characters, of course—tools such as description, dialogue, and voice. But all of these ingredients would be nothing without borrowed fire. Without this elemental flame, characters remain as lifeless and cold as the paper on which they’re printed.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, just a few miles from the end of the Oregon Trail. While reading about the early settlers at one point, I learned just how crucial fire was to survival. The pioneers depended on it for warmth, for cooking, for light, and for cheer. If a campfire or cook stove went out in a log cabin or along the wagon train, someone would be rapidly dispatched to a neighbor’s with a lidded pan to “borrow fire”—a few embers or coals with which to rekindle their own.

In writing, we, too, need fire. We need the blaze of emotion to light up our stories and stir our readers, igniting in them a sympathetic response. 

But from whom do we borrow this fire? 

Fiery HeartFrom ourselves. From our own lives, our own experiences. Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Writers have to be willing to dig deep. I’m not talking about spilling dark secrets onto the page. I’m talking about tapping into your own unique well of emotional experience and sharing it with your reader. We all know what it’s like to be anxious about something, to be envious or fearful or alight with happiness or crazy in love. Investing our characters with these emotional truths creates the point of connection. That’s the moment at which a character walks off the page and into a reader’s heart.

E.B. White was never an eight-year-old girl named Fern. He was never a worried piglet or a literate spider or a scheming rat with a soft underbelly of kindness. But he knew about friendship, and love, and loss, and he borrowed those embers from his own life to kindle his characters, and the light and warmth they radiate have touched the hearts of readers down the years.

Borrowed fire is where the magic happens in a story. It’s by the light of this fire that memorable characters are made.

 

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Of Knitting and Books and Tattoos

I met her while knitting. She worked at the children’s bookstore next to the yarn store I frequent. I was knitting with the usual group gathered around the table at the yarn store when she came in. “Cat!” my tablemates called out that day. (I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know if she spells it […]

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Gifted: The Matchbox Diary

When a young girl visits her great-grandfather for the first time, her imagination swirls with everything she sees in his antique shop. He asks her to pick out her favorite item and he will tell her a story about it. She chooses a cigar box filled with match boxes. As it turns out, this is […]

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Discussing the Books We’ve Loved: Déjà Vu

As I ready this article for publication, I am sitting in the coffee shop where I first met Heather Vogel Frederick, now a much-admired author of some of my favorite books. I still enjoy getting caught up in a series, accepting the likeable and not-so-likeable characters as my new-found circle of friends, anticipating the treat […]

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Boy Reading

Doing it Yourself

In the ten years that CLN has existed, one of our greatest challenges has been self-published books. Do we include them or don’t we? The rules of publishing are changing in seismic ways. We’re watching the shifting trends. CLN believes in presenting books that can fit the credo “the right book at the right time […]

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