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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Reading

The Sameness of Sheep

Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”

I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either). The age argument took the wind out of my sails. I understood the reasoning—create older characters to get the most bang for the middle-grade buck by snaring younger readers. Better yet, stick the character in middle school.

The true middle-grade novel is for readers eight to twelve with some overlap. Chapter books for seven- to ten-year-olds bisect the lower end of middle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, straddle the gap between MG and YA. If my characters are twelve, I hit the middle grade and tween target and everybody wins. Maybe not.

At our public library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG novels off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main character. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turning twelve in the next chapter. While the characters and stories were all different, there was a sheeplike sameness reading about twelve-year-olds.

It worries me. Publishers contribute to pushing elementary school children as quickly as possible into middle school. Where are the middle-grade books about a ten-year-old character? An eight-year-old character? Ah, now we’ve backed into chapter book territory.

Charlotte's WebSupposedly, kids prefer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Reading about a character who is two or three years older might generate anxiety in some readers. And they may disdain shorter, simpler chapter books.

In the past, before publisher and bookstore classifications, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main character in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern saving him. Fern is eight, a fact mentioned on the first page. Does anyone care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s richly-depicted barnyard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recently, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” barrier with his terrific middle grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Betsy Bird compared it to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Billy is seven and starting second grade, a character normally found in a briskly-written, lower-end chapter book. Yet Billy Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird praises Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Billy a second grader because that’s what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader … To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a bigger challenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the characters are seven and six. This hefty MG explores the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Neri chose fiction rather than biography because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] story was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writing a lengthy, layered book about a first and second grader.

We need more books featuring eight-, nine-, ten-year-old characters that are true middle grade novels and not chapter books. Children grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “middle” stage, find themselves in books with characters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of seasons, “the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barnyard and into middle school.

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Skinny Dip with Patti Lapp

Patti Lapp

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

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

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

When did you first start reading books?

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

Your favorite daydream?

I daydream of having time to write!

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

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

A Tale of Two CitiesAll-time favorite book?

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

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

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

What’s your least favorite chore?

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

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

Inspiration.

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

Barefoot or socks—season dependent.

When are you your most creative?

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

Your best memory of your school library?

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

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Cherry Garcia.

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

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

What’s your hidden talent?

I can weave.

jacksYour favorite toy as a child …

Jacks—Anyone remember that game?

Best invention in the last 200 years?

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

Favorite artist? Why?

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

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

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

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

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

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

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

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The Book Box

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

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

The Book Box

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

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

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

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

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

Gazing Globe

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

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

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

Book Box Interior

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Knowing My Own Mind

There are times when I don’t know my own mind. Worse, there are times when I think I know my mind perfectly well and then find an entirely different mind on a later visit to my opinions.

Which feels almost as though I have no mind at all.

Some time ago one of my favorite writers came out with a new novel. I had been waiting for her next book for years, so, of course, I signed up to have it pop into my electronic reader at the first opportunity. It did, and I read it eagerly.

I was disappointed. Profoundly.

It wasn’t that the novel was badly written. This author isn’t capable of bad writing. It was just that I didn’t care about the people she explored so deeply. And even knowing their complexities, one layer exposed after another, didn’t make me want to spend time with them.

I didn’t have to wait nearly so long for her next book. This time, though, I read it with caution, with my newly acquired discontent. (Once burned.) This novel was . . . okay. But I wasn’t in love. I had been in love with her early novels. Besotted, really.

Now another book is out. In a series of interwoven short stories my once-favorite author explored many of the characters from the previous novel, the one I didn’t dislike but that had never quite captured me.

And before I had quite decided to do so, I had finished the latest offering and gone back to reread the previous novel. The okay one. And I found myself rereading the book I had been so tepid about with new respect, even full-blown appreciation. Obviously, the book hadn’t changed on the page.

Next I intend to return to the first book that disappointed me. Will the change in me, whatever caused it, now make room for that one, too?

As someone who has for many years mentored my fellow writers, I find myself wondering. Is my opinion any more reliable, any less emotionally based when I am evaluating a manuscript than it is when I approach a published novel?

When I critique a manuscript I always try, if I possibly can, to read it twice. Sometimes a strongly held opinion from my first reading dissolves on the second. When that happens, I usually trust the second reading. And, especially if it’s a long manuscript, I rarely risk a third.

Is nothing in my mind solid, certain? Are my opinions based on anything except emotion? Is all the logic in the world simply something I pile around me to justify my mood?

When I’m responding to published work and the opinions I hold are only my own, the question is merely a matter of curiosity. Something to take out and wonder at in wondering moments. How solid is this thing I think of as self with all its supporting framework of opinion?

When I’m responding to a manuscript-in-process, the question is one of profound responsibility. My opinion will impact another person’s work. And what if my response is, indeed, a product of my mood? What harm might I do to a piece of writing in the name of helping?

The question is even more disconcerting when I face my own work. Some days I am utterly confident of this new novel I’m pecking away at. Others I’m equally convinced that my entire premise is bogus.

I have long known that nothing impacts my writing output more than my confidence. If I’m certain that this piece I’m working on is truly good and I’m loving writing it, the words flow. (The true value of what I produce is a matter for later discernment, my own and others.) When I doubt myself, each word arrives after a slog through mud.

How I wish there were a reliable way to keep my writing flowing, to keep my soul brimming with confidence.

Emotions are slippery, often hard to recognize and name, certainly impossible to keep marching in a straight line, and yet I’m convinced this supposedly logic-driven world is more accurately an emotion-driven one.

It’s a scary thought!

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Capitulate vs Conquer

Students readingAs I eagerly gathered up my ideas and insights for a follow-up article about last month’s “Mystery Reader” topic, I found myself trying to negotiate two seemingly incompatible schools of thought regarding effective literacy teaching and learning. I am a huge proponent of student choice and voice (instead of teacher- or curriculum-dictated text selections), teacher expertise (instead of reliance on scripted programs), and fostering a lifelong love and motivation for reading (instead of seeking the holy grail of high test scores). However, lately I find myself grappling with the ideal world of what literacy teaching and learning could and should look like and the reality of the world most teachers live in, one filled with constant pressure to meet the standards and produce readers who show what they know by passing high stakes tests. Searching my thesaurus for just the right words to describe this mixed feeling, I settled on “capitulate” and “conquer.” Allow me to elaborate.

Capitulate, in the strongest sense of the word is to say someone is caving in. A milder form of the word means to come to terms with something that is perceived as unsettling. It represents the negative side of the coin. Conquer, on the other hand, represents victory. It describes the ability to overcome or avoid defeat. Definitely the preferred side of the coin for most folks.

So what do these two opposing words have to do with promoting reflection and enhancing comprehension through analyzing miscues of students’ oral reading (the essence of Mystery Reader)? In sharing my enthusiasm for such a technical aspect to literacy instruction, I must confess that I expect some exceptional educators to dismiss it because it sounds too dry, too focused on judgment of a reader’s performance, with not nearly enough emphasis on igniting a passion or promoting reading joy. To those who might question the Mystery Reader approach, it just might feel a bit like capitulating, like accepting a practice that tries to quantify a process that shouldn’t be used for any kind of measurement, especially that of children.

But here’s the thing, with more than twenty-five years of experience as an educator, I can still vividly recall just about every single former student who needed more than his or her peers to discover what it means to be a reader and to find pleasure in that experience. For some kids, connecting them with the right book is paramount but equally important is providing effective instruction that builds necessary foundational skills and strategies. Skills and strategies that won’t materialize haphazardly. And that’s why I encourage you to consider sharing this activity with your students, enabling them to learn and understand the benefits of a powerful form of feedback. Flip the coin, choose to conquer the barriers that keep some kids from knowing what it feels like to get lost and found in a great story. And while it’s true that not all things that are measured really matter and not all things that matter are always measured, I am convinced that running records and miscue analysis deserve a place in our literacy teaching and learning.

As promised in the first installment of Mystery Reader, I have a few suggestions for collecting audio recordings of anonymous student readers to share with your miscue analyzers. The first is a free app I’ve used extensively, called VoiceRecordPro. With just a bit of exploring, I found the app to be user-friendly and perfect for collecting oral reading samples. Once recordings have been captured, it is easy to rename them, add notes and share them via dropbox, google drive, or email. These options make it possible to quickly swap recordings with colleagues in other grades and schools to ensure anonymity when sharing Mystery Readers with students.  VoiceRecordPro can also be used for all sorts of multimedia projects. My students first utilized it when illustrating and performing the poem, “If You Give a Child a Book” by Dr. Pam Farris. Check out our YouTube video here.

Another option for collecting oral reading samples is using the “running record” assignment tool from Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus. Though I am not one to plug commercial, for-profit sites, I have to say I am a huge fan of this feature and how it lends itself to Mystery Reader. A free two-week trial is offered for the Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus site that may be best known for its vast collection of ebooks and printable blackline master books. The annual cost for an individual teacher is close to $200, which is pricey, though discounts are offered to schools or districts signing up for 10 or more subscriptions. The running record feature on the site allows teachers to access a powerful way to record and analyze running records as well as collect oral retellings. Student recordings can be saved and shared with parents to demonstrate student growth over the year or they can be used with students during reading conferences or intervention sessions.

I invite you to submit questions or contact me for more information about how to use either method, VoiceRecordPro and Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus to implement Mystery Reader.

A third column related to Mystery Reader will be shared in Teach it Forward next month, with a focus on expanding the activity to include reflections and conversations with students about reading conferences.

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Skinny Dip with Suzanne Costner

Suzanne Costner

Suzanne Costner

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

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

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

When did you first start reading books?

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

Suzanne’s first book, a Real Cloth book.

Your favorite daydream?

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

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

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

All-time favorite book?

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

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

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

What’s your least favorite chore?

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

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

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

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

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

Toy RocketWhen are you your most creative?

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

Your best memory of your school library?

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

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

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

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

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

What’s your hidden talent?

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

CowgirlYour favorite toy as a child …

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

Best invention in the last 200 years?

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

Favorite artist? Why?

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

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

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

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

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

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

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

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Mystery Readers

In this column, I’m pleased to share a brief overview of Nurturing the Development of Reflective Readers,” a session I attended at “Echoes of Learning,” the literacy conference at Zaharis Elementary in Mesa, AZ. Kris-Ann Florence and Megan Kypke, second and fourth grade teachers, shared how they promote reflection and enhance comprehension by using a student version of miscue analysis to help readers understand the importance of meaning-making. In kid-friendly language, it’s simply called “Mystery Reader.” Kris-Ann and Megan showcased the power of this engaging and fun approach to literacy learning by demonstrating it in action. They were assisted by an eager bunch of brave students who volunteered to spend part of their Saturday showing what they know in front of a group of conference attendees. The activity is usually introduced and shared with the whole class. However, it could certainly be done with small groups of students who need extra guidance and support with decoding, fluency, self-monitoring, comprehension, or choosing good-fit books.

Teaching kids how to effectively participate in meaningful discussion about what it means to be a reader is the ultimate goal of “Mystery Reader.” You might agree that being respectful and sensitive about correcting errors and offering suggestions for improvement requires a degree of tact and finesse that may not be refined in most seven- to eleven-year-olds. To counter this, Kris-Ann and Megan stressed the importance of sharing audio recordings of oral reading that guarantee to keep the identity of the reader a mystery. They rely on an inventory of recordings of anonymous students from years gone by as well as excerpts collected from audio swapping with teacher friends from other schools or districts.

I was so captivated by this unique idea! And as much as I love working as an instructional coach, the thought of setting up this “Mystery Reader” as a routine literacy practice made me really wish I had my own classroom again. I’m hopeful that next fall I can support teachers who are interested with this innovative approach to fostering independent, confident, and motivated readers.

Mystery Reader

The steps to implementing “Mystery Reader” are simple. I’ve outlined them as if I were presenting them to students.

First, set the purpose. 

In this activity we will listen to someone we don’t know read a short passage as we follow along with a copy of the text. We will learn how to take notes about the reading so that we can talk about what we noticed and give advice to the reader. “Mystery Reader” helps us understand the text and the reader. It helps us become better readers because we also learn about how each of us reads on our own.

Mystery Reader

Second, explain and practice marking the text with students. 

  • When we read aloud it is important to read with expression, to sound the way the character would really sound. We’ll call that using “voice.” Any time a mystery reader does a great job of using voice, we will write a “V” on the paper at that spot.
  • When a reader fixes a mistake all by him or herself, we’ll call that a “self-correct” and will write down an “S/C.”
  • Sometimes readers pause because they are stuck on a word or are thinking about the text. Other times readers will repeat or reread a word or sentence to make it sound better. If either of these happen, we will write down a “P” or an “R.”
  • If the reader skips a word, we will write down an “S.”
  • Finally, we will listen and watch carefully for any words that are not said correctly. These are called “miscues.” If that happens, we will cross out the word and we will write the word the reader said instead above the one we just crossed out.
  • Later when we talk about the miscues, we will decide if the word the reader said changed the meaning or not. If the meaning was not changed, for example saying “home” instead of “house,” we will write “QM” for “quality miscue.” But if the meaning did change because of the miscue, we will write “MCM” for “meaning changing miscue.”

Guiding Questions

Third, practice, reflect on, and discuss the process using guiding questions.

This year we will be practicing, thinking about, and talking about “Mystery Readers.” We will share things we notice about what makes each reader a good reader. We will really focus on whether the reader is making meaning or understanding the text and we will decide if the text was a “good fit.” 

And finally, students demonstrate greater awareness and comprehension in their own reading. 

As we get more comfortable doing “Mystery Reader,” we will see how it helps us with our own reading. We will be able to use voice to show good expression when we read aloud. We will also get better at self-correcting our miscues. And if we do have miscues when we read, we will be able to figure out if they are quality miscues or meaning-changing miscues. All of these things will be important ways to help us learn how to choose “good fit books” and gain meaning from the texts we read.

A final note about “Mystery Reader”… For as long as I can remember, I have strived to capitalize on time spent with students in one-on-one sessions involving reading conferences or taking running records. When classrooms are filled with 25-30 students who range significantly in their reading proficiency, self-monitoring ability, motivation, and self-confidence, it is imperative that teachers bring efficiency and a sense of urgency and fun to the table. “Mystery Readers” has the potential to do all of these things in one sweet and simple swoop.

The next Teach it Forward column will offer additional ideas for implementing “Mystery Reader.” Suggestions for collecting oral reading samples and adding a comprehension conference portion to the activity will be offered.

RESOURCES

The origins of this approach date back to 1996 with “Retrospective Miscue Analysis” by Yetta Goodman. To learn more, check out these articles and handouts:

Retrospective Miscue Analysis: Revaluing Readers and Reading” by Yetta Goodman and Ann Marek

Retrospective Miscue Analysis: An Effective Intervention for Students in Grades 3-12,” presented by Sue Haertel

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Skinny Dip with Aimée Bissonette

Aimée Bissonette

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

When did you first start reading books?

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

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

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

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

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

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

When are you your most creative?

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

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint chocolate chip. Hands down.

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Spring Break 2017

I’m still relishing the memory of spring break. Surrounded by mountains and plenty of sunshine, I stumbled upon a literacy oasis that up until then, I had only visited in my dreams. Almost a month later, I am still intrigued and inspired by what I experienced. I knew instantly that this magical place would be the topic of my next Bookology contribution. In fact, I believe I have enough material for a year’s worth of articles about this very special sanctuary of learning. I invite my readers to relive the day with me, now and in the coming months, as I share my take-aways from Zaharis Elementary School, a place where people “clamor to bring their children… because of [a] unique approach to teaching and learning.”  

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome

Thanks to the wonderful world of Facebook, I seized an opportunity that I knew I couldn’t pass up. A few days before I was scheduled to kick off spring break by boarding a flight to Arizona, Donalyn Miller posted that she was also heading to the desert to present at the Zaharis Literacy Conference, Echoes of Learning, in Mesa, Arizona. Those of us who have read The Book Whisperer or Reading in the Wild or are Nerdy Book Club members knew that this would be worth investigating! I looked up the school’s website and quickly discovered that for just $50 I could attend the one-day conference that featured Donalyn along with keynote addresses from Pam Muñoz Ryan and Dr. Frank Serafini. I’ve had the privilege of seeing all three of these highly respected literacy gurus in the past and knew that I couldn’t go wrong. Spring break or not, I would be going back to school on my first day of vacation. If the conference had consisted of just these three exceptional people it would have been enough. I had no idea that so much more awaited me.

From the moment I strolled through the front doors and scanned the hallways, I could tell that Zaharis Elementary was not your average, run-of-the-mill kind of school. Throughout the day, literacy conference attendees were encouraged to take tours, visit classrooms, and meander through the hallways to get a closer look at the school and how it operates.

The very first thing I noticed was a beautiful mural of two kids reading while sitting on a pile of books. A plethora of author’s autographs filled the spines and covers of the painted books; Jack Gantos, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Patricia Polacco, Grace Lin, Mary Amato, Michael Buckley, and more than a dozen others. Clearly, I had discovered a place where literacy was alive and well.

I rounded the corner and spotted a huge wall filled with framed 8 X 10 photos of Zaharis staff members. Maybe not such an unusual display, until you consider the large heading painted above the frames: Our Legacy – A Love for Literature. Every staff member was holding their very favorite book in their school picture. “Huh!” I thought to myself, “What a simple and inexpensive way to promote a love of reading.” There is a reason Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine selected this school as one of the “25 Coolest Schools in America.” 

Our Legacy Zaharis Elementary School

Once I signed in for the day and met Nancy, one of the friendliest secretaries ever (she hails from the Midwest, having lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota), I wandered from room to room and visited with several extraordinary teachers. I learned quite a bit about this amazing school and realized that my first impression was accurate… this was truly a place where promoting a love of literacy gets top billing. I have to admit, it didn’t take long for me to think about polishing up my résumé and moving south!

Another notable display worth mentioning was a wall filled with framed book covers. Captioned Our Mentors, this sizable collection of professional learning titles showcases the commitment Zaharis staff makes to honing their craft as teachers and learners. Since opening their classroom doors for business in 2002, teachers at Zaharis have engaged in book studies with nearly three dozen mentor texts. Included are such gems as On Solid Ground by Sharon Taberski, In the Middle by Nancy Atwell, Going Public by Shelley Harwayne, Teaching with Intention by Debbie Miller, About the Authors: Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers by Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleaveland, and of course, Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller.

Our Mentors - Zaharis Elementary School

In between breakout sessions that were led by classroom teachers, I took part in a guided tour of Zaharis led by school principal, Mike Oliver.  Mr. Oliver’s unparalleled passion and expertise easily qualify him as one of the most solid literacy leaders I’ve ever encountered. His refreshing approach to teaching and literacy learning tugged at my heartstrings as I wish every educator and every child could benefit from this type of mindset. His words resonated so strongly with my personal beliefs:

“What is a reader? What does it mean to be a reader? That’s a question that we ask all the time. The reason that question is so important and our response to it, is it largely determines who our children become as readers, whether or not they pick up a book of their own choosing and how successful they are, really resides in our response to ‘What does it mean to be a reader?’ You look at schools across the country and in so many of them, they drown in a sea of worksheets… 5-6 per day is over 1,000 worksheets a year. Yet there’s no research that shows that there’s a correlation between how many worksheets kids do and how successful they are as readers.” 

I was also quite enthused about Mr. Oliver’s philosophy of how to recruit and hire top-notch teaching talent. As we paused in front of the Our Mentors wall display, he explained that the first several interview questions always center on reading. Candidates are asked to share what they are reading for personal pleasure and for professional growth. If unable to respond easily and fully, the interview is, quite frankly, over (though the remaining questions are still shared out of respect). As Mr. Oliver pointed out, how can we expect someone who doesn’t appear to value reading to be responsible for instilling a love of literacy in children?

Mr. Oliver's Office

Mr. Oliver’s Office

Oversized classrooms that look more like furniture showrooms, complete with sectional sofas, cozy reading nooks and floor to ceiling book displays would make any kid or teacher swoon. As much as I love the idea of relaxed, homey learning environments like those at Zaharis, it might be a tall order to transform most traditional classrooms into such well-appointed spaces.

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

However, the real heart of the learning that happens in this literacy oasis located in the Arizona desert, comes from the careful integration of kids and books, skillfully woven together by the teachers, not from a scripted program or pre-selected curriculum. Please check back next month for the next installment on Zaharis Elementary, a feature on using picture books with first graders to teach a civil rights timeline and an innovative approach called “Mystery Readers” to help 2nd through 5th graders learn how to analyze oral reading.

I’ll close with the words that comprise the Zaharis mission and values, every bit as eloquent and uplifting as it is child- and learning-centered! 

 Our Mission

Learning, caring, rejoicing and working together to create a more just, compassionate, insightful world.

At Zaharis…

Our school is a family. We care for one another and value each other’s voice.

We are all learners and our passions are contagious. We unite as we celebrate each other’s growth, achievements and successes.

It is important to share our stories. This is one way we merge heart and intellect.

We value children’s brilliance. Their feelings, ideas, gifts and talents are respected and shared.

Smiles and laughter make everything easier. Love serves as a motivator until desire to learn is cultivated.

 We understand that when learning travels through the heart, it inspires greater meaning and purpose.

Learning is a social experience. We make meaning together through collaborative dialogue.

We learn through inquiry. The learning in our classrooms mirrors the work that readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and social scientists do.

Students and teachers have time – time to think, time to wonder, time to explore, and time to share their findings—together.

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Everything You Need to Ace Five Subjects

bk_everything_series_300pxI’ve had this TBR pile of five very attractive, come-hither-looking books begging to be recommended for weeks now. The spines are bright primary colors so I know that even when I shelve them they will be calling to me. And I think they’ll be calling to your students as well.

I open what are for me the two scariest volumes (eat your vegetables first—oops, as an adult, I find I LOVE vegetables), Everything You Need to Know to Ace Science in One Fat Notebook: Notes Borrowed from the Smartest Kid in Class (Double-Checked by Award-Winning Teacher) and Everything You Need to Ace Math in One Big Fat Notebook: Notes Borrowed from the Smartest Kid in Class (Double-Checked by Award-Winning Teacher). Did you catch that? Borrowed from the “Smartest Kid” in the class.

When I was a kid I had encyclopedias from the grocery store of the highly visual, dipping-in-and-out variety. I could sit for hours, flipping pages, looking at something that caught my eye, devouring information.

These books remind me of those encyclopedias although they’re more focused on a subject area.

If you have kids who suck up facts and information like a vacuum cleaner, these are the books for them. They’re also self-challenging. Each chapter ends with a list of questions which you can respond to before you turn the page to find the supplied answers.

bk_everything_science_200pxSo, in the Science book, my eyes light immediately on Chapter 5: Outer Space, the Universe, and the Solar System, with subsections of The Solar System and Space Exploration (which every self-respecting Star Wars nerd needs to study), The Sun-Earth-Moon System, and The Origin of the Universe and Our Solar System.

In all of the books, important names and places are bolded in blue, vocabulary words are highlighted in yellow, definitions are highlighted in yellow, and stick figures provide the entertainment.

Looking further, I discover the first chapters in the Science book are about thinking like a scientist and designing an experiment. I need a LOT of help with those activities, so I’m glad to be put at ease.

It’s a bright and colorful book, with great eye-appeal. Even for the most reluctantly curious mind, these books hold a great deal of promise.

Everything I Need to Ace Math

In the Math book, we explore ratios, proportions, equations, probability, and more. Although my brain bawks at looking at this stuff, I find my eye resting longer and longer on some of the highly visual information, wanting to understand it better. The book is working its magic.

Everything You Need to Know American History

Volumes on American History, English Language Arts, and World History similarly offer an overview of many topics within their disciplines. The American History notebook begins with “The First People in America EVER” and ends with the George W. Bush administration, with many stops along the way for famous and not-so-famous parts of America’s history.

English Language Arts explores everything from language and syntax to how to read fiction and nonfiction, including poetry, explicit evidence, and using multiple sources to strengthen your writing.

World History covers 3500 BC to present times in 502 pages, lighting on ancient African civilizations, the Song Dynasty in China, 1830s revolutions in Europe, and so much more.

Everything You Need to Ace English Language ArtsNone of the information is exhaustive. In fact, it’s quite light. Toe-dipping is an apt description. But the information is enough to intrigue the reader and lead them on to other resources.

There are no bibliographies or sources or suggestions for further reading in the books. I can see where that would have been a monumental task. I suppose I’m going to have to look it up myself. Oh, maybe that’s part of the experience? I’m guessing it is.

Highly recommended for grades 6 through 9 (the covers say “The Complete Middle School Study Guide”) and especially for your home library. I think this would be a perfect starting place for choosing a research topic or entertaining yourself with reading an expository text. I envision whiling away many hours looking through these books. Good job, Workman and production team.

 

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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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Books for My Grandbaby and Me

Reading to my GrandbabyIt’s no secret that I am a big fan of books and reading. I am actually an even bigger fan of babies. I am instantly smitten. I can think of nothing better than cuddling an infant, blanketed by that new baby smell, reading to an audience of one. You can imagine how thrilled I am to announce that there’s a new baby in town! My incredible daughter-in-law and son are celebrating the joy of transitioning from loving couple to loving family and I am a first-time grandma.

A sweet, little baby boy (well actually, not so little, with a birth weight of 11 lbs. 12 oz. and length of 24”) to bounce on my knee as we create reading memories together! I’ve looked forward to sharing my passion for literacy with a precious grandbaby for a very long time. And so, with my heart full of  more love than I ever thought possible, I will settle into this esteemed and honorable role as grandma by reaching for a treasured stack of books. Carefully selected books that will begin a lifelong adventure of discovery, wonder, snuggles, and joy. Books filled with lessons for my grandbaby and me!   

Book and Lesson #1: On The Day You Were Born
Books help us celebrate and learn.

On tThe perfect first book to share with my grandbaby offers this sweet greeting: “Welcome to the spinning world… We are so glad you’ve come.” Debra Frasier’s lovely picture book will, without a doubt, become a tradition for us. The miracle of nature explains the miracle of a very special baby’s entrance into the world. Each year on the anniversary of his birth, we will marvel at the universe as it is depicted in page after page of charming nature collages. An extraordinary book to commemorate an extraordinary event in our lives!   

Book and Lesson #2: More! More! More! Said the Baby
Books help us cherish memories from the past and create new ones.

More! More! More! Said the BabyLittle Guy, Little Pumpkin and Little Bird, toddlers from More! More! More! Said the Baby, by Vera B. Williams, bring out the silliness and playful fun that are essential qualities for grandmas and grandpas. After reading this delightful story to my grandson, I will share another story, one about his own dad that I will call “Little Fish.”  Centered on the memory of an energetic, not quite two- year- old, I’ll reminisce and recall the giggles and squealing “I do gan, I do gan” as my son jumped off the dock into the lake, again and again. You can bet that each time I read this book it will be grandma who pleads for “more, more, more” tummy kisses and toe tickles!

Book and Lesson #3: Snowy Day
Books help us find new friends.

The Snowy DayIntroducing my grandson to a curious little boy named Peter will be the beginning of what I hope will be many friendships sprouting from the pages of a good book. While reading Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, we will get to know an adventurer who loves building smiling snowmen and making snow angels. It won’t be long before my grandson and I enjoy winter days doing the same. And though he will be too young to understand the historical significance of this book (considered to be the first full color picture book featuring a child of color as the main character), it will always be a reminder to me about the importance of providing a plethora of books with diverse characters, books that offer “windows and mirrors,” books filled with friends my grandbaby has yet to meet.

Book and Lesson #4: Four Puppies
Books help us understand life and the world around us.

Four PuppiesThis grandma’s “must read to grandbaby booklist” would not be complete without the book that was my very first personal favorite. As a kindergartener, I fell in love with this classic Little Golden Book. My hope is that my grandson will delight in the antics of this rambunctious pack of pups as they learn about the changing seasons. Eventually my special reading buddy and I will talk about the wise red squirrel and the positive life lessons he passes on to his young protégés.    

Book and Lesson #5:
The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear
Books help us have a little fun.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry BearThis delicious story by Don and Audrey Wood provides another walk down memory lane. It seems like just yesterday when my three-year old preschooler begged for another reading of this highly interactive tale. This time around, I plan to wear a pair of Groucho fuzzy nose and glasses as I read it with my grandbaby. The captivating tale that mixes a bit of fear, mystery, humor, sneakiness and, best of all, sharing with others, will likely find a spot on grandbaby’s “read it again” list!

Book and Lesson #6: The I LOVE YOU Book
Books help us express our feelings.

The I Love You BookUnconditional love is a natural phenomenon for parents and grandparents all over the world. The I Love You Book by Todd Parr describes the powerful, unwavering affection that I will forever feel for this child who has captured my heart. With bright, colorful illustrations, the message is simple: I love you whether silly, sad, scared, or brave. I love you whether sleeping or not sleeping. I love you and I always will, just the way you are!

Once Upon a Time BabyBooks for my grandbaby and me will offer a wide range of lessons on all sorts of topics. However, the greatest gift they will provide is a chance to share meaningful moments, a chance to relive fond memories, a chance to create new memories. Books for my grandbaby and me are a gift that will last a lifetime, a legacy of literacy and love, for my grandbaby and me.

Two of my favorite baby literacy gift sites:

I ordered a personalized copy of On the Day You Were Born with my grandbaby’s name printed on the cover and throughout the book.

Adorable t-shirts for my grandbaby, encouraging literacy and learning

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Books as Therapy

FrindleI confess to using books therapeutically. When my kids were little and the day had gone wonky and none of us were at our best, a pile of picture books was a sure-fire way to reset us all. It was partly the snuggles, but mostly the shared experience of reading the stories we loved. As they’ve grown, I’ve been known to read them happy books when they are sad (and sometimes sad books, just to help us lean into it) and silly books when anger and tears have had their way with us. I’ve picked “topical” books when it seemed that approaching an issue at a “slant” might be the way to go.  And I’ve picked up books and insisted we read when I didn’t know what else to do.

Recently, I heard Andrew Clements talk about his writing life and his books at the Festival of Faith & Writing. I reread Frindle, my favorite of his books, on the plane on the way to the conference. Predictably, it made me cry, just as the flight attendant came by with pretzels and juice. I was a little afraid Mr. Clements himself would make me cry just by, you know, being up there on stage; but he talked about his childhood and his early married years and finding his way as a writer…. And it was delightful! He was exactly as you expected Andrew Clements to be while presenting to a group of teachers, writers, librarians, and readers (mostly adults, some kids).

And then, at the end he rifled through some papers, saying he wasn’t sure if he’d talk about this next thing…. But he did. Or rather he read it. He’d been presenting for an hour extemporaneously, but now his eyes were glued to the page and he read us prepared remarks. He wasn’t even a full sentence in before we understood why he was reading and not telling the story “off-the-cuff.”

Not long after the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Clements was contacted with a request he both could not refuse and could not imagine. While the world watched and prayed, the school and community worked hard to piece together life for the kids, teachers and staff, and their families. Someone floated the idea of an all-school read—something for all ages, something they might enjoy  together, something besides the tragedy to help re-define them.

They needed a book that took place in a school. A book that both children and adults who were riddled with shock and terror and grief could focus on. A book that was maybe a little funny—in spots, at least. A book that did not contain the names of any of the victims of the violence that had torn apart their school community. They needed a book that could bring hope and light to their lives again.

They chose Frindle. They asked Clements to come and so he and his wife went. He told us how he was led through the police check points in the parking lot and at the school doors…. How he was escorted into the school gathering by the library worker who had shielded eighteen kids in a closet in the library during the shooting…. How they explained the importance of not making any loud noises or sudden movements…. 

And then he read Frindle to those kids and teachers. He said he and his wife agreed it was one of the holiest spaces and times they’d ever experienced.

There wasn’t, of course, a dry eye in the auditorium. Those of us in the audience could hardly breathe while he read this account. I can’t imagine the strength it must have taken for this beloved author to read his work to those children and their teachers. Such an honor, such a privilege.

Books can be so therapeutic—and the reading of them together even more so. I think the idea of an all-school read at Sandy Hook Elementary was brilliant, the choice of book and author inspired. Read your way into some holiness with a kid (or a whole group of them) today if you can. Whenever and wherever we can gather over books…holy time and space is found.

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Telling a Story the Hard Way

Space Dumplinsby Vicki Palmquist

I’ve just finished reading the graphic novel Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson, with color by Dave Stewart (Graphix, 2015). I am overwhelmed by the work that went into this book. First off, it’s an engrossing, turn-the-page story with an appealing cast of characters. As readers, we care about what will happen. That’s a good start.

Now, imagine that you are sitting down with a pencil to sketch one of the spreads in this book. Perhaps you’ve picked the pages where Violet, our heroine, first gets a look at SHELL-TAR, the interior of the space station. You start by drawing the intricacies of the gleaming steampunk time clock and then you draw all of the activity going on inside the transparent transport tubes, large enough to accommodate personal spaceships. Next you fill in the many habitats, the globular trees, the people at the beach. Then you insert our cast of characters into the scene along with the robotic Chaperdrone (a babysitter). Whew. That’s a lot of drawing for two pages.

Of course, you’re providing this as a backdrop for the fast-paced story of three new friends, quick-witted, learning to work as a team, doing their best to save the people they love and their corner of the universe. You’ve already written the story, the script, and worked through the surprises that will delight your readers, making it a tight and believable hero’s journey set in the Mucky Way.

Violet, Zacchaeus, and Eliot are unlikely heroes except that Violet has a welcoming heart, a brave outlook on adventure, and an optimism as big as outer space. She can see qualities in her new friends that they can’t see themselves. Eliot, the chicken, is studious, introverted, widely read, and somewhat psychic. Zacchaeus, the last of the Lumpkins (well, almost the last, because space whales ate his planet) is chaotic, impulsive, and ready for a fight. All three of the friends are good at problem-solving, especially when they work together. The military can’t defeat the space whales: they can only clean up after them. It’s these three who figure out the true heart of the problem.

Craig Thompson Space Dumplins ballpoint

from Craig Thompson’s website, copyright Craig Thompson

Once you’ve sketched all of this, applied ballpoint pen, then brushed ink, you ask someone else to color everything in.  Together, you’re creating a book full of these story-telling images, richly colored, highly detailed, and ultimately believable as a look at life that’s really happening somewhere “out there.”

The rest of the main cast of characters include Violet’s parents, the reformed felon Gar and the fashion designer Cera, Gar’s fishing buddies Mr. Tinder and crew, Cera’s boss at the Fashion Factory, Master Adam Arnold, and the most inventive space vehicles I’ve ever seen. Every being (they’re not all human) in this book has a unique look. No cookie-cutter, repetitive characters to save on drawing time.

It’s a movie set on paper, except that you’ve had to conceive of, write, draw, and color every bit of it. There are no cameras and crew to bring your vision to life. Exhausted yet?

Even the endpapers are attention-riveting. The constellations fill the skies of Space Dumplins and they often make an appearance, reminding us that we share the same space even though the setting feels alien and wondrous.

early concept

early concept of spaceship, copyright Craig Thompson

You know those kids who are constantly doodling in class? They’ll love this book. And the kids who stay up long past their bedtimes trying to finish a chapter? They’ll love this book. And the kids who don’t know what to read next but they don’t want it to be boring? Yup, they’re gonna love it. Space Dumplins reads like a TV series, a movie, a video game, and a solid, exciting story all between book covers. Brilliant.

Asides:

Be sure to notice the homage to a number of cultural icons in this book. H.A. Rey’s The Constellations? Strange Brew? Spaceballs? And the real Trike (it exists!).

Be sure to read Craig Thompson’s answers to Five Questions on The Book Rat‘s blog. You’ll find out how long it took him to create Space Dumplins.

For a look at what Craig Thompson is working on and where he’s appearing, visit his website.

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“Don’t get took! Read a book!”

by Vicki Palmquist

bk_bookitchI go crazy when I hear that Vaunda Michaux Nelson has another book coming out. I’m a fan. For my own reading life, No Crystal Stair: a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller, is one of my top ten books in the last ten years. I found every aspect of that book satisfying. I learned a great deal. Ms. Nelson’s writing style is well suited to narrative nonfiction: she makes it exciting. 

So, when I heard that a picture book form of No Crystal Stair was on the horizon, my expectations were high. It would be illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, whose work I have loved ever since his Stars in the Darkness (written by Barbara M. Joosse) found me sobbing. But how would they compress all of the great true stories in No Crystal Stair into a picture book?

They’ve done it. Even the title appeals to younger readers: The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda, 2015).

The book is narrated by Michaux’s son, Lewis H. Michaux, Jr., who is justly proud of his father. It opens with Muhammad Ali’s visit to the store. Jump right in!

With the longer text in No Crystal Stair, Nelson builds a depth of understanding for Michaux’s commitment to books. In The Book Itch, she knows this is not needed for young readers. We learn the parts that will interest this crowd. Michaux started with five books, selling his reading materials out of a pushcart. He couldn’t get financing from a bank because the banker said “Black people don’t read.” Michaux believed otherwise. His store became a place to find, and read, books by and about black people.

Lewis Michaux was a good friend to Malcolm X. They were both political and believed “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Nelson includes the heartbreaking scene that recounts Michaux’s reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X. His son had never seen his father cry before that day.

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This book keeps history alive and vital by connecting us to The National Memorial African Bookstore, a place which was, in Michaux’s words, “The House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda.” Christie’s illustrations are at once a record and a ribbon reaching from the past, showing us how people felt. We often forget about this in our look back … and it’s essential to remember that important historical figures were just like us, thinking, acting, laughing, hurting.

Ms. Nelson’s place in my list of Best Nonfiction Authors is firm. This is a book that belongs in every library, classroom, and on family bookshelves. Books bring us freedom.

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We Didn’t Always Know the Way

by Vicki Palmquist

How to Read a StoryA step-by-step, slightly tongue-in-cheek but mostly sincere, guide to reading a book, How to Read a Story by Kate Messner, illustrated by Mark Siegel (Chronicle Books), will have you and your young readers feeling all warm and cozy and smart.

With advice in Step 2 to Find a Reading Buddy, we are cautioned “And make sure you both like the book.” That makes perfect sense. Reading buddies, as drawn in a colorful palette by illustrator and cartoonist Mark Siegel, can be older, younger, “or maybe not a person at all.” Perhaps a blue dog will wish to read with you.

In Step 6, the suggestion is to read the dialogue by saying it “in a voice to match who’s talking.” The ink-and-watercolor illustrations take up the narrative, giving us irresistible words with which to practice, a lion, a mouse who says “I am the most POWERFUL in all the land!” and a robot who merely says “Beep.” It’s excellent practice for interpreting pictures and putting meaning into the words.

We’re invited to try our minds at prediction in Step 8, as our reader and his reading buddy, the blue dog, contemplate what will happen next.

It’s a book that will make you smile, a good match between well-chosen words and playful illustrations, yet it’s a useful book for home and school and story hour. How can children learn the way to read out loud? How to Read a Story will have them trying before you know it.

 

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Literary Madeleine: A History of Reading

by Marsha Qualey

A History of Reading coverOne of the great good fortunes of my life is that I’ve managed to create a professional life that requires I read a lot. Reading is a passion; the old bumper sticker says it all: I’d rather be reading.

But I also think reading is an interesting topic. How and why do we read? Who were the first readers? How has reading been used to oppress and liberate? How and why does reading—the physical act of reading—vary from culture to culture? Why—unlike so many outspoken proponents of one technology or the other—does my cat not care whether I read a hard copy book or use my Kindle? (He’s happy to paw or plop on either when he wants my attention.)

Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading has answers to most of those questions, and it poses and answers a great many more. Though wonderfully illustrated, the book is text-heavy, and it’s written for readers with some knowledge of world history. In other words, tough going for young readers.

However, the history Manguel weaves is chock full of gems that could entertain and intrigue readers of any age if carefully culled and presented.

Foremost among them, a centerfold: A Reader’s Timeline. Here are just a few of the items on Manguel’s timeline:

  • c. 2300 BC: The first recorded author, the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna, addresses a “dear reader” in her songs
  • c. 200 BC: Aristophanes of Byzantium invents punctuation
  • c. 1010: At a time when “serious reading” in Japan is restricted to men, Lady Murasaki writes the first novel, The Book of Genji, to provide reading material for herself and the other women of the Heian Court
Eleanor of Aquitaine, reading for eternity

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb lid; reading for eternity

Also of immediate value are the examples of the many depictions of reading in visual art through the ages, a list of which could provide a good start for a motivated young researcher.

The evolution of reading and its influence on individuals and societies provides a wonderful angle for studying history. But if that doesn’t work for your young readers, there’s always Manguel’s earlier book: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, a comprehensive and celebratory catalogue of fantasy settings from world literature.

A native of Argentina, Alberto Manguel now lives in Canada. 

 

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Reading Ahead: Levitate Your Brother!

Big Magic for Little Hands

by Vicki Palmquist

We recently hosted a Harry Potter party for adults for which everyone was asked to perform a magic trick. Some people fiercely addressed the challenge. Some people panicked. Some people bought a trick off the internet. I turned to Joshua Jay’s Big Magic for Little Hands (Workman Publishing Co).

Citing all the benefits of learning to perform magic, the author reveals that he wasn’t a reader until he needed to know about magic. Learning magic tricks and performing them gives a child confidence and helps with public speaking skills. “Others have integrated magic into their jobs, using effects to break the ice or complete a sale or relax a jury.”

There are diagrams and terminology and suggested stage setups. There are helpful hints (overcoming stage fright). There are lists of materials needed for each feat of prestidigitation.

With compelling black, white, and red illustrations, the diagrams are easy to follow, convincing even the most skeptical that they could make these tricks work.

The writing is not just step-by-step instructional–Jay writes with humor and an appreciation of what’s practical.

The materials are items you probably have on hand in your household. When one list includes a top hat, Jay writes “A top hat works great, but you could also decorate an empty tissue box and use that, or use your dad’s cowboy hat. (Note: This only works if your dad is a cowboy.)”

Perhaps most of all, I enjoyed the real-life stories of magic such as “Houdini’s Great Plane Escape.” When Houdini was filming the movie The Grim Game, a stunt required climbing by rope from one plane to the other. During the stunt, the two planes collided and crashed to the ground. What happened? Well, that would be telling. According to Jay, a good magician never shares a secret or tells how it is done. Big Magic for Little Hands will tell you but I won’t.

Highly recommended for kids aged 8 and older (and the adults in their lives who will be just as fascinated). It’s a large format book with a big heart and plenty of fascination between its covers. A great gift. A good, readable, and hours-of-fun addition to your library.

 

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I Am Cow, Hear Me MOO!

I Am Cow, Hear Me MOO!

There has been a lot written about the bravery of cows (no, there hasn’t). Some of it has startled us with the sheer audacity of amazing feats of derring-do of which cows are capable (News at 10!). Young children everywhere are pinning up cow posters on their bedroom walls, hoping to one day be as […]

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The Fourteenth Goldfish

The versatile Jennifer L. Holm pens a fantasy this time around, but it’s a story suffused with humor and science, deftly asking a mind-blowing question: is it a good thing to grow old? So what happens when a 13-year-old boy shows up on your doorstep, arguing with your mom, who invites him in, and it […]

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A Time to Dance

A Time to Dance Padma Venkatraman Nancy Paulsen Books / Penguin Putnam Disclaimer: I’m a fan of Padma Venkatraman’s books. Each one has charmed me. I know I can always expect a reading experience unlike any I’ve had before. Her new book does not disappoint. In A Time to Dance, teenaged Veda has already dedicated […]

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Gifted: Up All Night

My mother had the knack of giving me a book every Christmas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christmas Eve. I particularly remember the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accompanied the hobbits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the […]

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Books Plus: The Goods by McSweeney’s

The Goods by McSweeney’s: Games and Activities for Big Kids, Little Kids, and Medium-Size Kids edited by Mac Barnett and Brian McMullen featuring Adam Rex, Jon Scieszka, and more Big Picture Press, an imprint of Candlewick Press, 2013 For your holiday gift-giving consideration … An oversized book filled with every imaginable distraction, this should be […]

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Gifted: Walk This World

Walk This World: a Celebration of Life in a Day Lotta Nieminen, a Finnish-born graphic designer and art director Big Picture Press, an imprint of Candlewick Press, November 2013 As you consider gifts for this holiday season, we suggest … (book #2 in our Gifted recommendations) … Visit 10 countries in one book! This stylish […]

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Anatomy of a Series: Topps League Books

We’re in post-season, when a lot of fans start to look wild-eyed, wondering how they’ll hang on for three months until spring training starts in February. Here in Minnesota, it’s tough for sandlot baseball or Little League games to be played in the snow with an icy baseline. Young fans can keep up the momentum […]

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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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Behind the Books We’ve Loved: A Wilder Rose

Growing up, I loved to read mysteries, biographies, but especially series books. I didn’t read Nancy Drew or Anne of Green Gables (not until I was an adult), but I followed most every other series character. I read Cherry Ames, Sue Barton, Trixie Belden, Beany Malone, Janet Lennon, but especially Louisa May Alcott’s books, the […]

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… who taught me to love books

I’ve just begun reading Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. Many people have recommended it to me, aghast that I have not already eaten it up. I’ve gotten as far as the dedication: For my parents—Vivian Taylor Turnage and A.C. Turnage, Jr.—who taught me to love books. What a gift. How big-hearted and understanding of […]

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No book to print book to e-book to …

Publishers Weekly reported today that Neil Gaiman addressed the fifth London Book Fair Digital Minds Conference by saying, “People ask me what my predictions are for publishing and how digital is changing things and I tell them my only real prediction is that is it’s all changing,” Gaiman said. “Amazon, Google and all of those […]

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Cooking up a bookstorm

One of my favorite genres of reading is cookbooks. It all began when I was ten, the Christmas of 1963. My mother gave me Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls, originally published in 1957 by Golden Books, illustrated by Gloria Kamen, and written by, well, Betty Crocker, of course! A lot of cooking […]

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This is a wonderful book but …

I hear this all the time from our book club members. “This is a wonderful book but I could never get kids to read it.” Why? That’s my immediate and fierce reaction. Why? Some of the books we’ve discussed in Chapter & Verse are Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, The Green Glass Sea […]

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Musings of a lifelong reader, part three

When I was in college, working on a project for one of my library science classes, I wrote a proposal for educational reform. Thirty years ago (gulp) it seemed to me that school didn’t work very well … at least not for me. I was certain I couldn’t be the only person to feel this […]

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Musings of a lifelong reader, part one

In a community of readers, the dialogue will occasionally drift to “do you remember learning to read?” Do you? I don’t. I have an early memory of sitting on the floor in the bedroom at my grandmother’s house turning the pages of The Poky Little Puppy. I remember the illustrations. I don’t remember the words. […]

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A gentle nudge

Sometimes we get so caught up in discussing the literary merits of a book that we forget who the intended readers are. Sometimes we enjoy playing the game of who will win the awards so much that we forget there are all kinds of readers who are touched by books in many ways … and […]

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How lucky we are

I’m in the midst of reading Lea Wait‘s books for children (she also writes mysteries for adults). I’ve finished Finest Kind, I’m in the midst of Wintering Well, I’m eagerly looking forward to Seaward Born, and I’m on the waiting list for Stopping to Home. The two books I’ve read so far are plumb full […]

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What’s got my dander up?

I can’t decide whether I’m angry or sad. When Steve and I travel around the country, we stop in at bookstores and public libraries and schools, observing the state of children’s books in those environments. We talk with booksellers, librarians, and teachers. Some people are aware of our connection to children’s books … some are […]

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Summer isn’t over yet …

There’s still more summer reading time, whether relaxing in your favorite lawn chair, next to a burbling creek, sitting in the middle of your garden, or soaking in a wading pool. When do I read? I always read before going to sleep. I read when I first get up in the morning—it’s a great way […]

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Out of this world

We’ve been attending a family wedding in another state, catching up on the news that no one commits to e-mail, seeing faces, remembering names, and learning relationships as an entirely new family comes along for the ride. What this really means, of course, is that Steve and I are given the opportunity all over again […]

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Monday Morning Roundup

Barbara O’Connor‘s book How to Steal a Dog is a real children’s favorite. This book about a homeless girl’s plan to save her family by stealing a dog has, to date, been nominated in twenty-one states for a children’s choice award. We’ve recently learned that the book is a winner in three states, receiving the […]

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Baseball Crazy

Yup. I admit it. I am baseball crazy. I have been since my mom took me to games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, to see the newly arrived Minnesota Twins. And this year the Twins have outdoor baseball for the first time since 1982. It’s no wonder “baseball awareness” is heightened at this time […]

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Jordan Sonnenblick

Sometimes it’s about being behind in my reading. I’m finally getting to the level in my reading pile occupied by Jordan Sonnenblick’s Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie. In truth, I’ve moved the book down a few times, not feeling strong enough to read a book about leukemia. I’m sure you understand—there are certain times when […]

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Award winners, award criteria

Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato Red Reading Boots 1 Several years ago, a mysterious package arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire family with a return address “TMVDP.” The package weighed almost nothing. It weighed almost nothing because the box contained four lunchbox serving-size […]

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Controlled vocabulary

These two words always make me shudder. I know there are sound pedagogical reasons for this concept, but it arouses images of fences and cattle prods and all matter of uncomfortable constraints. Vocabulary is the last thing we should control. One of my earliest memories is walking around the house repeating a word over and […]

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