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Tag Archives | Minnesota

Skinny Dip with Loni Niles

Loni Niles

Loni Niles

We interviewed Loni Niles, K-12 media specialist in the Wadena-Deer Creek public schools in west central Minnesota. She shared her thoughts about books and life.

What is your favorite late-night snack?

I love popcorn and can eat it any time during the day, even for breakfast!

Favorite city to visit?

Chicago. Even though we moved from there when I was just a baby, I still take some pride that I was born there!  Now I love to visit there because my stepdaughter and her husband are such wonderful hosts—they show us all kinds of wonderful things the city has to offer.  Oh yeah, and there’s that grandson there, too! He definitely is a draw for me to visit this wonderful city!

First date?

My husband and I do not really agree on when our first date was. Fortunately, we agree on some of the more important things in life!

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

I find myself passionately recommending the novels The Lottery Rose by Irene Hunt and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Miss Steimle, my fifth grade teacher, read both of these out loud to my class in the 1970s, but today’s kids love them, too!

The Lottery Rose, A Wrinkle in Time

This is NOT a Cat!Illustrator’s work you most admire?

Mike Wohnoutka. My favorite book of his work is written by one of my favorite authors, David LaRochelle. It’s a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards this year and called This is NOT a Cat! Check it out! 

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

Gotta have my coffee in the morning!

Favorite season of the year?

Although I love them all, it’s winter! Minnesota is the perfect place for me!  We typically get a real winter here and we definitely get four seasons!  At age 48, I started to downhill ski.  But I love to watch high school hockey, go snowmobilng and sledding, and when my sons were younger we used to love playing in the snow!

Marathon candy barFavorite candy as a kid?

Anyone remember the Marathon candy bar?! A yummy caramel braid covered in chocolate.

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

I’m in the middle of two brothers. I always told my two sons that I’m the best mom for them because I know what it’s like to have that big brother pounding on you and that little brother picking at you!  I used to lament not having sisters, but I have been surrounded by wonderful women (and girls, too—I have three granddaughters) in my life—so it’s not so much an issue anymore. 

Loni Niles and her brothers

Best tip for living a contented life?

I do live a very contented life, but I don’t really have a tip on how to do it. Seeing the good in things and people comes pretty naturally to me.  I try to remember my mom’s advice to always assume the best. This is the same woman who once told me as a teenager complaining about my acne that I should just be happy I have a face. That still makes me chuckle! 

Hope for the world?

My hope for the world is that we begin to recognize each others’ talents (and our own!) and appreciate each other—even our differences.

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A Story for the Ages

For the past two years my husband and I have had the good fortune to spend the waning days of summer in Door County, Wisconsin. There we have discovered a vibrant arts community. A bounty of theatre, music, and fine arts is there for the picking.

The Rabbits Wedding by Garth WilliamsThis year, as I scanned the possibilities for our visit, I was particularly interested in the Peninsula Players’ Midwest premiere of a new play by Kenneth Jones called Alabama Story. The play comes from actual events which occurred in Alabama in 1959. Based on the American Library Association’s recommendation, State Librarian Emily Wheelock Reed purchased copies of the picture book, The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams, for state libraries. The Rabbits’ Wedding concerns a black rabbit and a white rabbit who marry. Though Williams, an artist, chose the colors of the rabbits for the contrast they would provide in his illustrations, they became symbolic of much more when segregationist Senator E.O. Eddins demanded that the book be removed from all state library shelves. Eddins believed that the book promoted the mixing of races. Alabama Story tells this story of censorship, juxtaposed with the story of a biracial relationship.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellMy husband and I both had tears in our eyes several times throughout the August 31st performance of Alabama Story. Censorship was something we know intimately. Though Alabama Story takes place in 1959, it could have taken place in 2013 in Anoka, Minnesota, with a teen book entitled Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. My high school Library Media Specialist colleagues and I had planned a district-wide community read for the summer of 2013. Based on our own reading of the book, and based on the fact that the book had received starred reviews across the board and was on many “best” lists for 2013, we chose Eleanor & Park as the book for the summer program. All students who volunteered to participate received a free copy of the book. Rainbow Rowell agreed to visit in the fall for a day of follow-up with the participants. Shortly after the books were handed out, just prior to our summer break, parents of one of the participants, along with the Parents’ Action League (deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) registered a challenge against the book. Their complaint had to do with the language that they deemed inappropriate in the book and with the sexual content in the book. They demanded that the parents of all participants be informed that their child had been “exposed” to the book (they were not), that Rainbow Rowell’s visit be cancelled (it was), that copies of the book be removed from the shelves of all district schools (they were not), that our selection policy be rewritten (it was), and that the Library Media Specialists be disciplined (we received a letter). The story gained national attention in the late summer and fall of 2013. 

Emily Wheelock ReadOne of the most striking aspects of Emily Wheelock Reed’s story was the sense of isolation she felt. She received no support, particularly from the American Library Association who had published the list of recommendations which she used to purchase new books for Alabama state libraries. These feelings of isolation were familiar to me. Though my colleagues turned to each other for support, we received no support from the district school board or the district administration. This was the most difficult time in my thirty-six career as a high school educator. Though I had won the district’s Teacher Outstanding Performance award, was a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year, and won the Lars Steltzner Intellectual Freedom award, choosing Eleanor & Park as the selection for a voluntary summer reading program felt like a threat to my career and to my job. As Toby Graham, University of Georgia’s University Librarian, asks in a video for the Freedom to Read Organization, “Who are the Emily Reeds of today, and who will stand up with them in their pursuit to insure our right to read?” Thankfully, the media, the Southern Poverty Law Center, our local teachers’ union, and others were supportive in many ways. In addition, the American Library Association, the Freedom to Read Organization, and other organizations now offer tools dedicated to Library Media Specialists who find themselves in similar situations.

Eleanor & Park went on to be named a Michael J. Printz Honor book—the gold standard for young adult literature. It is the moving story of two outcast teens who meet on the school bus. Eleanor is red-headed, poor, white, bullied, and the victim of abuse. Park is a biracial boy who survives by flying under the radar. The two eventually develop trust in each other as the world swirls around them. They themselves don’t use foul language. They use music as a way to hold the rest of the world at bay. They fall in love and consider having an intimate relationship but decide, very maturely, that they are not ready for sex. As a Library Media Specialist, there were “Eleanors” and “Parks” who walked into my media center each and every day. Their story needed to be on the shelf in my library, so that they could see themselves reflected in its pages, to know that the world saw them and valued them, even if their lives were messy. For those more fortunate than these Eleanors and Parks, the story was important as well. By looking into the lives of others via books, we develop empathy and understanding, even when the viewpoints reflected there are not our own.

Carmen Roman as librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, a librarian who stood her ground for the right to read during the onset of the civil rights movement and refused to remove "The Rabbit's Wedding" from the shelves. Photo by Len Villano for The Peninsula Players

Carmen Roman as librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, a librarian who stood her ground for the right to read during the onset of the civil rights movement and refused to remove The Rabbit’s Wedding from the shelves. Photo by Len Villano for The Peninsula Players

As artists—teachers, writers, actors, musicians, painters, dancers, and sculptors—it is our job to tell and preserve stories, the stories of all individuals, even when they represent beliefs different from our own. Knowledge truly is power. When we censor stories, we take away power. One need only look at history, and the burning of books and the destruction of libraries by those in power, for examples of the dangers of censorship. As we celebrate Banned Books Week (September 25th–October 1st), it is important to reflect on the value of artistic freedom and on the value of our freedom to read.

Though Garth Williams did not intend for The Rabbits’ Wedding to be a story about race and, thus, become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, it did. Though Rainbow Rowell did not intend for Eleanor & Park to become a symbol of censorship, it did. Alabama Story took place in 1959 but could just have easily taken place in 2001 with a book called Harry Potter, or in 2006 with a book called And Tango Makes Three, or … in 2013 with a book called Eleanor & Park. Censorship still occurs in 2016.

Peninsula Players, Door County

Peninsula Players Theatre hosted Door County library staff to a dress rehearsal of the Midwest premiere of “Alabama Story” by Kenneth Jones. Jones was inspired by librarian Emily Wheelock Reed’s defense of a children’s book in 1959, Montgomery, Alabama. From left are cast members and librarians Byron Glenn Willis, actor; Tracy Vreeke, Sturgeon Bay Library; Pat Strom, Fish Creek Library; Holly Somerhalder, Fish Creek Library; Greg Vinkler, Peninsula Players Artistic Director; Kathy White, Sturgeon Bay Library; Harter Clingman, actor; Holly Cole, Egg Harbor Library; James Leaming, actor; Carmen Roman, actor and Katherine Keberlein, actor. Visit www.peninsulaplayers.com Photo by Len Villano.

As the audience stood that evening, my husband and I applauded the Peninsula Players’ artistic staff, cast, and crew for telling Emily Wheelock Reed’s story. It is a story that needs to be told over and over again—for every “Eleanor” and every “Park” among us.

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End Cap: Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWe hope you enjoyed reading Turn Left at the Cow, solving the mystery. Did you figure out whodunit before the climactic scene? If you love puzzles and games, we hope you have a good time solving this Word Search. 

Simply use your mouse or touch pad to draw a line over your found words and the program will mark them off for you. Words can be found forwards, backwards, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. As you find a word, it will be highlighted on the board and it will disappear from the word list.

Have fun!

Hidden Words

Puzzle by mypuzzle.org
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Lisa Bullard

Lisa BullardIn this interview with Lisa Bullard, author of Turn Left at the Cow, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked nine questions to which she gave heartfelt answers. 

Lisa, thank you for your willingness to share your writing process and your thoughts about mysteries with us. Mysteries have rabid fans and you’ve written a book that’s not only smart and funny and sassy, but it’s a taut thriller. We appreciate having such a good book to read and to share with other fans.

Turn Left at the CowAt what point in writing your novel, Turn Left at the Cow, did you know it was going to be about an unsolved bank robbery?

That’s a great question—it makes me think back to the whole exciting process of how this story evolved over time! When I first set out to write this book, I actually imagined it as a murder mystery for adult readers. And then one day, when I had about 5 or 6 chapters written, I was revising the opening to the story, and a completely different voice marched in and took over the first-person narration—and it was the voice of a young teenage boy. He had so much energy, and I could “hear” him so clearly, that I knew this was truly his story to tell. And of course he wanted to talk to other kids more than he wanted to talk to adults! But that meant I had to rethink many other elements of the novel to instead make it a story for young readers.

I thought it seemed unlikely that a 13-year-old would be able to get involved in a murder investigation in a way that felt realistic, so I brainstormed other possible mysteries. At about the same time, I read a newspaper article about a man who was convinced that infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper was actually his brother. I used one of my greatest writing tools—the question “What if?”—and started thinking along the lines of “What if my character discovers that one of his relatives was involved in a notorious robbery?”

You’ve set Turn Left at the Cow in a small, rural town. Trav’s grandma lives in a cabin on a nearby lake. Why did you decide that the “place” for this story should be in this locale?

This location was at the heart of this story from the very beginning; it stayed the same no matter what other details changed, and to me, this setting speaks so loudly that it’s like another character in the book. It’s based primarily on the location of my family’s lake cabin, which is on Green Lake (near two very small Minnesota towns, Spicer and New London), in west central Minnesota. Since my family moved around when I was a kid, it’s the one place that I’ve consistently returned to since I was a very small child, and it’s a place that has sunk deep into my bones. Our lake cabin originally belonged to my grandparents, and I’ve spent some of the most important times in my life there with family and friends. It’s even where my parents had their honeymoon, so I’ve truly been visiting there my entire life! But of course, my story is fiction, so I did take some liberties with the setting—for example, I gave the town in the book a (nonexistent in real life) giant statue of a bullhead (fish), because many of my other favorite Minnesota towns feature giant statuary.

Parade in Spicer

Travis, your protagonist, is a 13-year-old boy whose dad died before he was born. This serves as a strong motivation for him running away from his mother in California to his grandmother in Minnesota. Does your sure-footed knowledge of Trav’s motivation come from your own experience?

I have been so lucky to have a dad who has always been very active in my life. To this day, we still talk and laugh and argue with each other like we did when I was a little kid and a teenager. But many of the people I’ve been closest to throughout my life are not so lucky. I’ve been close friends with several people who lost their father when they were quite young, and my closest uncle died the summer I turned nine—so my cousins no longer had a father of their own. As my mom explained to me, that meant I needed to “share” my dad with them.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my greatest writing tools is the question “What if?” It challenges me to expand my stories beyond my own personal experiences and to live inside the experiences of a character who is very different from me. One of the biggest “What if” questions in my own life has always been: “What if I didn’t happen to have the dad that I was lucky enough to have?” I decided that this story was the place for me to try to imagine what it might be like for someone to desperately crave a relationship with a lost father.

Readers are fascinated by the “red herrings” in a whodunit, the clues that could, but don’t, solve the mystery. At what point in writing the story did you consciously work with (plant your) red herrings?

walking catfishI love quirky details, and I built a lot of them into the story: for example, there’s a human head carved out of butter, a walking catfish, and a game where the winner is chosen by a pooping chicken. But I don’t want to give away any clues to readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read my story, so I’m hesitant to tell you here which details are red herrings and which details are key clues! I’ll just say that some of the red herrings were in place before I wrote a single word of the story, some of them wandered in out of the mysterious depths of my subconscious as I was writing the first few drafts, and others were things I created quite deliberately when I was revising and reached a point where I felt I needed to mislead readers from figuring out the solution too easily.

Since that’s a really vague answer, how about this? After you’ve read the story, feel free to visit the contact page on my website (lisabullard.com) and send me an email with any questions you have about the specific red herrings in my story—I’d be delighted to send you an answer!

Your story is very tense as it approaches its climax. Did you have to re-work your manuscript to achieve this?

Yes, absolutely! The entire story required many rounds of revision, but I received some key advice that really helped me make this section more dramatic and suspenseful. The novel took me about 3 years total to write, but one year in particular was very productive. During that year I took a series of classes from mystery writer Ellen Hart, and got great advice and feedback from her and the other students in the class. One of the things I learned was that you should write in short, choppy sentences when you want to create a scene that feels chaotic and quick-moving. Those short sentences push the reader forward through the story more quickly because they read more quickly. In my first draft, I had included lots of long and meandering sentences, and those had to be broken up or deleted altogether.

No time to think!I had also written a lot of reflective passages in those tense scenes—paragraphs where my character was doing a lot of thinking along the lines of “How did this even happen?” But in real life, when something really high-action and stressful is happening, a person usually doesn’t have time to stop and think too hard—they only have time to react and keep moving. Stopping to figure out exactly where things went wrong comes afterwards. So I went back and took out all of those places where my character was “over-thinking,” and just had him responding to the danger of the moment as best he could.

When you write a mystery, how do you know that it’s mysterious enough?

Wow, that’s another great question. I’m not sure that I know how to answer it exactly, but I’ll do my best! To me, mystery stories are puzzles: as the writer, your job is to hand the reader all the pieces of the puzzle, but to do it in such a way that the puzzle isn’t overly easy to solve. So for example, I’ve never liked mysteries where the answer is something the reader couldn’t possibly have figured out—when there’s some important clue that the author has held back, and then on the last page, the detective says something like, “This letter that was locked in a bank vault until 5 minutes ago proves that the thief was Mr. Villain!” As a reader, I want a fair chance to put together all the puzzle pieces for myself—and if the writer still fools me after playing fair, then good for them!

Clue MapSo when I was writing this mystery, I knew I had to play fair—I had to give the reader all of the important clues. It was okay if I spread out the clues over the whole book. And it was totally okay if I mislead the reader into thinking that some of those clues weren’t as important as they turned out to be in the end! After all, it’s the reader’s job to put the puzzle pieces together to get the right answer—I trust my readers to be smart, so I don’t have to make it TOO easy for them!

As far as the actual writing process, I made a long list of all the clues I knew in advance, and I thought about how I could work them into the story at intervals so there would be clues all throughout. I also built in things that seemed like fake clues to heighten the suspense and to make the puzzle more exciting. Finally, as I was writing, at any point where I felt like the story was slowing down too much, I would ask myself, “What is something really unexpected or surprising that could happen to my character next?”—and that approach provided some additional clues.

I also worked to think of metaphors and setting details that would add a spooky atmosphere to the whole story, and I tried to put my character into situations that seemed dangerous. After all, another big part of mysteries is that they’re more fun if they’re kind of scary!

Do you read mysteries? How old were you when you began reading them? Can you remember some of the first mysteries you read?

Three InvestigatorsI love mysteries! They’re still some of my absolute favorite books, and they’re some of the first books I remember reading. When I was in elementary school, I was lucky enough to be given a huge box full of books that had belonged to either my mom or my older girl cousins when they were younger. The box held a lot of mystery series, some of them pretty old-fashioned but still wonderful. The different series included Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators. And some of the first “grown-up” books I ever read were Agatha Christie mysteries and suspense stories by Mary Stewart. As a kid, I loved mystery stories so much that I made up my own mysteries and forced my brother and friends to “play” Three Investigators in our basement—we even wrote secret messages in invisible ink (lemon juice) and then decoded them by holding them over the toaster.

What is there about a mystery that you think appeals to kids?

puzzleIt’s fun to get that little spine-tingly feeling that comes when something is a little bit scary, so that’s part of it. Many mysteries are action-packed and fast-moving (rarely boring), so that’s another part of it. But I think a big reason is that working to put together the puzzle of the story is kind of like a game—and if, as a reader, you manage to figure out the mystery before the story’s detective does, then you also feel pretty darn proud of yourself, and smart!

Can you share with us what you’re working on now? Is it another mystery? (We hope so.)

I’ve written several nonfiction books since Turn Left at the Cow was published, and now I’m wrestling with another mystery. My writing process is pretty slow when it comes to novels (and my life in the last few years has been really complicated)—plus I write a lot of my first draft in my head before any of it actually hits paper—so there isn’t a whole lot actually written down yet. But I can tell you that this story is set in the north woods of Minnesota, and like Turn Left the mystery has to do with a complicated family story and a lot of quirky small-town characters. Including Bigfoot, by the way—now there’s a mystery for you!

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Theater: “The Story of Crow Boy”

 

Story of Crow Boy Bruce Silcox Minneapolis Star Tribune

In the Heart of the Beast play In the Heart of the Beast, photo credit: Bruce Silcox, Minneapolis StarTribune

There are several excellent, insightful reviews of The Story of Crow Boy, on stage February 18-28, 2016, at Minneapolis’ (MN) In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. Links to these reviews are below, and I won’t restate their content here except to reiterate that the work tells the story of the Caldecott Honor (1956) book Crow Boy‘s author and illustrator, Taro Yashima (the pen name of Atsushi Iwamatsu).

Crow Boy, Taro YashimaWhat I do wish to remark upon in this literary venue is the genesis of this show, a seed planted decades ago through the pages of a picture book into the creative, brilliant, inspired mind and spirit of a teenaged Sandy Spieler (one of the founders of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, and its artistic director since 1976). The book eventually brought Spieler to the larger story of its author/illustrator, which she and her amazing collaborators bring to joyful, painful, piercing, and ultimately hopeful life on the stage.

Take heed and take heart, those of you who are makers of books for the young. Your stories matter, these works of first Art you create for children through text and through pictures. Write and draw truth and joy and friendship and power and overcoming and the exquisite natural world and human experience. Your stories burrow and blossom in still-malleable young minds; they are busy nurturing roots of strength and purpose and hope and transformation long after you have turned your own attention toward other tales.97

If you are able to attend the Heart of the Beast show, please know that there are some extremely intense and soul searing segments in the work, documenting portions of this world’s evil history that must be remembered. The staging expands our understanding of atrocities as they affect individuals and families, even though we can’t possibly comprehend the true magnitude of loss and devastation behind those flashes with which we are presented. The show is definitely not for children. (The theatre’s publicity states that the “show is recommended for age 11 and older.”)

The intricate interplay of puppetry, projections, masks, human actors, and music in the show is seamless, inspired and often magical. Small moments such as the book-loving boy puppet Taro snuggling to sleep literally between the covers of a book, and later launching into a brief moment of flight from his perch on the pages will transfix any bibliophile’s heart.

The Story of Crow BoyThe program notes cite Taro Yashima’s dedication “against all odds, to a tenacious belief in the ability of art to transform the world.” Certainly Art that is made especially for children—and actually for children—does have this capacity, since children are the ones who may be able to ultimately transform this world. Thank you, children’s book makers, for giving them seeds of inspiration and strength through your books.

At Heart of the Beast, a Children’s Book Grows Up” by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio News

Crow Boy Takes Flight at Heart of the Beast,” by Graydon Roye, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater Takes Flight with Crow Boy,” by Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press

HOBT’s Much Anticipated The Story of Crow Boy on Stage Feb 18-28,” press release, Phillips West News

A description of the play from In the Heart of the Beast’s website:

The Story of Crow Boy explores the intriguing life story of Taro Yashima who wrestled with human brutality, racial discrimination, and the ravages of WWII to build work of social conscience, compassionate insight, poetic visual form, and ultimately—of joy. Yashima reminds us what it means to be human, and offers understanding into the complexities of cultural survival. This production draws on his autobiographical and fictional books including the Caldecott Honor Award-winning Crow Boy (1956) about a young boy who learns to sing the “voices of crows” in defiance of his years of being bullied.

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Middle Kingdom: Shakopee, Minnesota

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This month’s journey takes us to East Junior High in Shakopee, Minnesota, where Lisa talks with media specialist Amy Sticha.

Lisa: What are three to five things our blog readers should know about your community, school, or library/media center?

ph_shakopeeeastAmy: East Junior High is one of two junior high schools in Shakopee, Minnesota, a rapidly growing suburb of the Twin Cities. Because of our district’s growth over the past several years, we have gone through a lot of reconfiguration of grade levels at all of our buildings. Currently, our junior highs house students in grades 7-9, but with the passage of a referendum to build an addition to our high school a few weeks ago, we will be changing to grades 6-8 by 2018.

As a result of all this shuffling, the EJH library has been split twice in the last eight years to accommodate other schools’ libraries. It has been challenging to maintain a relevant collection with the loss of so many materials, but thanks to a supportive administration and community, we are in the process of adding technology like mediascapes, charging tables, Chromebook carts, and 1:1 iPads, and updating our district’s media centers to add makerspace areas and other spaces to stay current within the changing scope of a school library/media center space. I invite you to visit my media webpage

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often? 

Amy:

  • the Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
  • the Michael Vey series by Richard Paul Evans
  • the Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
  • the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

Lisa: What book(s) do you personally love to place into students’ hands?

Amy:

  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • Bruiser by Neal Shusterman
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Swim the Fly by Don Calame
  • Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • Emako Blue by Brenda Woods
  • Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle
  • The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Lisa: Could you share some information about your most popular/successful/innovative program for promoting books and reading?

Amy Sticha's list

Amy Sticha’s list

Amy: Promoting reading is probably one of my favorite things to do as a junior high media specialist.  In addition to book talks and displays, my para and I work closely together to come up with a variety of fun and interactive reading promotions throughout the year. We use Facebook and Twitter accounts to announce contests, special events, and updates about new books or what we are currently reading. I actually just finished putting up my favorite display of the year, which is our Top 10 Summer Must-Reads and is made up of my para’s and my favorite books we have read throughout the year and would suggest for fun summer reading. Both students and staff members around the school make comments about our lists every year. Several times over the last few hours today, I have looked up from my desk to see someone taking a pic of our lists with their phone. 

Para's List

Para’s List

Every month, we have a student book club that is led by a different staff member. At the beginning of each year, I ask for staff volunteers who would be interested in leading the club for one of the months of the school year. In preparation for the upcoming month’s book club, the staff member and I decide on which book they would like to choose, and students who participate get a free copy of the book and free breakfast at the two meetings held during the month. Some months have better participation than others, but overall, it is a fun way to show students that staff members read for pleasure outside of school, too.  

We also have a Tournament of the Books every March to coincide with the NCAA basketball tournaments. Thirty-two books take on each other in our annual tournament to see which one is chosen by our student body to be the ultimate winner. This year’s winner was The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan.  

This year for the first time, we had a spring break reading competition during which we encouraged students to take pics of themselves reading in unique, strange, fun, or interesting places. Our overall winner took a pic of himself reading in front of a mountain range while visiting his grandparents in Arizona. This year we also participated in the Young Adults’ Choices project sponsored by the International Literacy Association and were introduced to a number of really great titles!  

We have a great time promoting reading to EJH students!

 

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Traveling In-Word

For this week’s writing road trip, I journeyed to the Alphabet Forest. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, the Alphabet Forest is the remarkable creation of author/illustrator/innovator Debra Frasier, who through pure passion and persistence, managed to carve out an oasis for words in the midst of the consumable craziness that is the Minnesota State Fair.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the State Fair. I just don’t think of it as a place to sit quietly and muse deeply. And yet, Debra’s love of fair lettering started her on a journey that led to creating this enchanted place: in the midst of sunburn, sore feet, and stomach aches, here is a corner where there’s shade and plenty of places to sit down and people who offer you fun for free. But better yet, there are words enough to stuff your imagination even more than those mini donuts have already stuffed your stomach.

Lisa Bullard

Last year, I watched as my niece ignored every other fair offering (okay, with the exception of that giant brownie) as she obsessively filled out her Fabulous Fair Alphabet Game Card. This year, I had the pleasure of serving as author-in-residence at the Alphabet Forest for a day. I worked with oodles of kids who settled in at my table and promptly became utterly absorbed in writing or drawing. It didn’t matter that the parade was passing them by (literally!) and that there were still corndogs and cotton candy to be eaten: when given the option, their number one priority was to lose themselves in the creative act.

It reminded me, all over again, why I do what I do: giving kids the gift of words and story is like handing them the magic key to life. Even kids who think they hate reading and writing can be won over easily once you find the right key for them. A forest full of words can beat a clutch of corndogs any day.

If you’re near Minnesota, and you’re going to the fair, you can be inspired with ideas for how to create an Alphabet Forest in your own classroom or dining room. If not, there are a myriad of amazing downloadable resources to help you, starting at this link and moving on from there to Debra Frasier’s website.

You’ll be mighty glad you made the journey.

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Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

In downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, spanning the Mississippi River, there is a “Stone Arch Bridge” that resembles a roman viaduct with its 23 arches. Built at a time when Minneapolis was a primary grain-milling and wood-producing center for the United States, Empire Builder James J. Hill wanted the bridge built to help his railroad reach the […]

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Alongside the Books We’ve Loved: Venom and the River

This week, join me as we continue to look at books that orbit the constellations of children’s series books much-loved by adults: Louisa May Alcott’s books, the Little House books, the Anne of Green Gables books, and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. A brand new novel, Venom on the River, is now available from my favorite […]

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An Artful Storyteller

In person, Gary D. Schmidt is a storyteller. Sometimes that’s an internal aspect of an author and it doesn’t extend to conversation or presentations. Gary shared a story at Spotlight on Books that came from his growing-up neighborhood on Long Island, NY. He engaged his listeners by giving them the responsibility for preserving the story, […]

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