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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

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Re-claiming Women’s History—Still

At a meeting at the Dallas Public Library one day, a retired chief executive explained to me his vision for a permanent display on a soon-to-be-renovated floor honoring the men who built up the city’s downtown after World War II.

I looked at him skeptically. “What about the women?”

“There aren’t any,” he snapped back.

Of course there were! But because a group of white men controlled politics in the city for decades, few people know them.

How ironic it was to have this conversation in the Dallas Public Library, which was created only after May Dickson Exall and her women friends raised money for it and convinced Andrew Carnegie to support it. That library, which opened in 1901, housed books on the first floor and a public art gallery on the second, which would later morph into the Dallas Museum of Art.

With every research project, I discover again and again little-known or misrepresented women who made important things happen. This is an old story that’s even more familiar to Native Americans and people of color. But decades after the second women’s movement began, I am still stunned when I encounter it in recent books.

This matters because denying women credit for past accomplishments makes it easier to deny them credit today. And since many readers assume nonfiction books are fact, stereotypes get repeated again and again.

Consider Carry Nation, the woman best know for smashing up saloons in the turn-of-the-century run-up to prohibition. Newsmen at the time ridiculed her, questioned her sanity, and portrayed her as some kind of oversized freak.

Carry Nation, reading the Bible circa 1900, appears to be of medium height.

Carry Nation, reading the Bible circa 1900, appears to be of medium height. (courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society)

So did more recent authors. She “was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache,” wrote author Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010), the book that was the basis of Ken Burns’ prohibition documentary.

Edward Behr, author of Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America (1996), wrote that she was “so unbalanced and out of control” that she “might well have been confined to a mental institution.”

Bootleg by Karen BlumenthalIn reality, photos (and other writers) show Nation couldn’t possibly have been six-feet tall, although and the State Historical Society of Missouri also say so. Though her actions were radical, I concluded in my book Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition that they grew out of personal experience with an alcoholic first husband, ministering to people in jail with drinking problems, and a deep religious conviction. She was angry, no doubt.  But a thoughtful biography by Fran Grace, Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life (2004), portrays her as committed, not crazy.

As Nation famously said, “You wouldn’t give me the vote, so I had to use a rock!”

More recently, I’ve been steeped in Bonnie and Clyde lore for a nonfiction book out in August. Bonnie Parker is a complicated character and every writer struggles to define her: Was she the leader, a follower or a co-conspirator?

But there’s another temptation for male writers, familiar to every female who ever went to high school. That’s to call her a slut or even a prostitute.

The implication that she may have engaged in prostitution likely started with detective magazines of the 1930s, which embellished stories much like supermarket tabloids today. Some contemporary authors allude to it, but in Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, The Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde (2016), author John Boessenecker simply states she worked as a part-time prostitute before she met Clyde, and that Dallas police “knew Bonnie as a street-walker but never arrested her.”

His source? A 1991 local history column in the Seguin, Texas, newspaper written by a barber, who attributed the information to unnamed “old Dallas policemen.” Since Bonnie and Clyde had been dead 57 years by then, those policemen must have been very old.

Bonnie Parker during her waitressing days. (courtesy of Buddy Barrow)

Bonnie Parker during her waitressing days. (courtesy of Buddy Barrow)

To be sure, Bonnie was a married woman living on the road with a man who was not her husband. But there is no evidence that Bonnie ever worked as a prostitute.

A lot, of course, has changed. More and more children’s books are highlighting ground-breaking women. Just a few days ago, the New York Times printed a special section of women whose obituaries were previously overlooked, with a promise to keep adding names. I know for a fact that the Dallas Library director will never have an all-male display in her building.

But stereotypes persist. Here are a few things that writers, educators, and librarians might do to give women their due:

Consider the source. I love primary sources, including documents and contemporary newspapers and magazines. But they have to be put in the context of their times. Women were legally considered their husbands’ property for hundreds of years. They couldn’t borrow money or own land. They were denied entrance to law schools, medical schools, and graduate schools because of their gender. Many of these laws didn’t change until the 1970s. Don’t assume today’s standards when reading or writing about women from a different era.

Question, Question, Question! Were girls really weak? Did women really faint? Would her temper or impatience have mattered if she were a man? Is her hair, attractiveness, or body shape relevant? Do female writers tell a different story?

Include women in every unit of study. In almost every topic area these days—the Civil War, both World Wars, science, the environment, math, technology, politics, art, music and so on—there are good kids’ books about what women contributed. Share them.

Do your own research. Consider a class project to identify and research a lesser-known woman or person of color who made a difference in your community. While highways and big buildings are usually named after men, there’s probably a name on a local park, school, or nearby street to get you started. Your local library or historical or genealogical society would probably be thrilled to help.


Unexpected Wonder

Last September, we drove to an empty lake deep in the Appalachians for a short vacation, a much-needed chance to relax.  I longed to escape writing and house chores and cats and reconnect with nature. 

When we arrived, clouds draped over the peaks and our room was gloomy. I missed civilization instantly and forced my husband to drive the seven crooked miles back down the mountain to the nearest hamlet so I could hit the Dollar store (the biggest concern). I raced through the aisles grabbing snacks, notebooks, pens, and word-search puzzle books. We’d come to unwind, but I’d dragged my Restless Self with us. 

I chose this spot not just for its seclusion but also because of the lake’s mystery. Every 50 or 100 years, Mountain Lake performs a disappearing act.  Scientists believe it drains itself and, when conditions are right, fills again by springs beneath the lake bed. Yet after years of tests, they still aren’t sure. Well, I wanted to know for sure. In addition to Restless Self, I also brought along Nosy-Got-To-Learn-More-Right-Now Self (yes, the car was crowded). Why did the lake empty? I grilled the poor guy running the gift shop. When was it coming back?

Like many of us, I look up stuff before I’ve finished thinking of it. Lack of a smartphone doesn’t slow me down—I run upstairs to my computer so fast I could medal in track. But the satisfaction of ferreting a fact in seconds doesn’t last and sometimes flat-out ruins the wonder of not knowing. 

Gone-Away LakeOn the edge of sleep that night, I realized why I’d picked such a remote place: a children’s book, of course. Gone-Away Lake (1957) by Elizabeth Enright was one of my favorite books, along with its sequel Return to Gone-Away (1961). A community of summer houses were built around a lake in the late 1800s. The lake dried up in 1905 and the houses were abandoned. Present-day kids (well, in the ’50s) discover the “ship-wrecked” houses and two elderly people living there. These aren’t slam-bang, cliff-hanger stories, but a rich, luscious summer idyll with just enough mystery and the most gorgeous writing in children’s literature.

Each day, rain or shine, is packed with wonder at Gone-Away Lake. Brimming with curiosity, the kids discover plants, animals, insects that changed the landscape after the lake vanished. They listen to stories about the good old days when the community was in full swing. They pick out a not-too-falling-down house and make it their own.

When I woke up our first morning at Mountain Lake, the sun was bright. I left Restless and Nosy to the word-search puzzles and went exploring. I waded into the 55-acre site, marveling at the variety of plants and tiny critters that had adapted within the last five years.  I paused by dry-docked rocks with strange formations. Overhead, the sky was paint box blue and I felt content. I didn’t need to identify that slug, or those purple flowers, or the snake that whipped nearly across my shoes. It was enough to let unexpected wonder wash over me.

Suddenly I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to explore every inch of that dried-up lake and wander the back roads that crisscrossed the mountain. I wanted to give myself over to wonder.

In Gone-Away Lake, ten-year-old Portia weeds the garden with her Aunt Hilda. 

“If you could just hold onto it,” said Portia, sitting back on the warm grass. “Summer starting to be.  Everything just exactly right.”

“But if it were this way every day, all the time, we’d get too used to it,” said Aunt Hilda. “It’s because it doesn’t and can’t last that a day like this is so wonderful.”

 “Good things must have comparers, I suppose,” said Portia. “Or how would we know how good they are?”

Those few, perfect days at Mountain Lake became my comparer. I didn’t find a vacant colony of Victorian houses, but I gathered odd pebbles from the bottom of the lake bed, possibly created millions of years ago. I took some photos. I did not take notes. 

Back home, I fell into my busy routine. Yet I made sure I checked the morning sky when I fetched the paper, watched starlings at stoplights, lingered at the door to catch a rare southeast breeze. I quit looking up every single question that flashed through my mind. Some things should remain a mystery.

E.B. White quote


The Hate You Give


This past weekend, Darling Daughter and I participated in a parent-teen book discussion about The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. This book has won many awards, received fantastic reviews, and is a hot topic of discussion in both the book and teen world—especially where those worlds overlap. It’s about the aftermath of a police shooting of an unarmed black teen. It covers various racial issues, grief, friendship, economic disparity, and political activism, just to name a few of the challenging thematic elements.

The conversation over pizza and salad was excellent. I came with a list of questions, but we really didn’t need it. We wondered together about all we don’t know and can’t know about another person’s situation. We wondered if differences make it harder to understand one another…and/or if there’s a way to use those differences somehow to strengthen what we have in common. We reflected on how complicated life can be—how so many traps can catch a kid, an adult, too. We talked about the difference one caring adult, or one good friend, can make in a kid’s life. And we talked about when that isn’t enough. We discussed institutional and systemic racism. And they provided real life illustrations from school that week.

It was pretty eye opening. These teens are white students at very diverse urban high schools (three different ones.) We parents had gone to high schools, back in the day, without nearly as much diversity in terms of culture, language, skin color, religion, and socio-economic status. It was clear they thought we’d missed out. Speaking for myself, I think we did, too.

Our kids are pretty fluent in things we never thought about as high school students because of the rich make-up of their student bodies. Their lunchrooms accommodate an array of dietary restrictions and economic necessities. The scheduling of tests has to take into account various religious observances. There are sometimes heated discussions and even fights happening in languages the bystanders and staff don’t understand. There are cultural values they find mysterious, but want to respect, even as they wonder about the source of their own values. There are racial issues that play out in both ugly and interesting ways. It’s quite a mix of people and issues they navigate each day in their classes, hallways, and lunchroom.

Our kids loved The Hate You Give—for the “realness” of it, the contemporary feel, for what it helped explain, and for the questions it made them ask of themselves, their schools, and their communities. When we talked about “mirrors and windows”—whether a book mirrors a reader’s life situation or provides a window to see into another’s life situation—they all said they thought this was a window book. It was written for white people, they said, to help them flesh out stories in the news, help them build empathy. I asked if they had black friends reading the book. They did. They did not speculate as to whether their black friends read The Hate You Give as a mirror or window book, but they said everyone who reads it is talking about it.

We parents loved The Hate You Give, too—for the peek inside our kids’ days and thoughts, for explanations of things we’re not familiar with (like rap lyrics), and for its complexity. The situations and the characters in this book are enormously complicated. Our days are filled with tweets and posts and headlines that grossly simplify things, thereby causing further harm. This books blows open issues of race and family and community by showing their complexity. It makes for a rich, heart-breaking story that somehow manages to give a glimmer of hope at the end.

The Hate You Give is a heck of a cross-over book. Some of us read YA and kidlit books regularly, but many adults do not. This one works for adults. And if you have a teen you can read it with—well, sit back and listen to them. They also give you a sense of hope.






How Infographics Can Help Students Avoid Plagiarism

My book Pinocchio Rex and Other Tyrannosaurs, is chockful of text features, including this fun infographic:

The process of designing it began with a VERY rough sketch by me.

Let’s face the facts. My drawing skills leave a lot of be desired, but this sketch was enough to give the talented folks in the HarperCollins art department an idea of what I had in mind—a grouping of visual elements that work together to show that the tyrannosaur family lived on Earth for 100 million years, and while it’s final members were gigantic, fearsome predators, they’re earliest ancestors were about the same size as us.

Pinocchio Rex and Other TyrannosaursBasically, the infographic summarizes one of the book’s central tenets by drawing on information presented on many different pages. The process of conceptualizing it was very similar to the process students engage in as they analyze and synthesize research notes while preparing to write a report.

In this article, I discuss the reasons students plagiarize instead of expressing ideas and information in their own words and offer some solutions. By third grade, children know that they shouldn’t copy their sources, but they struggle to evaluate the information they’ve collected and make it their own. We need to offer students a variety of ways to think carefully and critically about their research notes, and infographics is one tool we can offer them.

Here’s a terrific infographic that summarizes the information in my book No Monkeys, No Chocolate.

No Monkeys, No ChocolateThis wasn’t a school assignment. The student did it in her own in her free time because she really wanted to understand the process described in the book. I especially love the bookworm dialogue she wrote. It perfectly captures the voice I used in the book. It also shows that she understands the function of these characters—to add humor and reinforce the ideas in the main text. In Common Core lingo, she understands my author intent. See how powerful infographics can be?

When students take the time to represent their notes visually as infographics (or other combinations of words and pictures) during their pre-writing process, they will find their own special way of conveying the information. Instead of being tempted to plagiarize, they’ll write a report that’s 100 percent their own.


Skinny Dip with Lester Laminack

Lester Laminack

Lester Laminack is sought after as a speaker in school districts all over the country. A retired professor, actively involved in literacy on many levels, he’s thoughtful, articulate, and has a sparkling sense of humor.  We’re pleased that this very busy author and speaker took time to share his thoughts with Bookology‘s readers this month.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever read a book? 

Well, it isn’t really all that weird, but most of my reading happens on airplanes. I fly a lot to work with kids and teachers around the country.

Do you keep your bookshelves in a particular order? 

I do. Most of my books are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s last name. However, I have several sets of books that I like to keep clustered by theme. I have some books on shelves next to my desk and those rotate depending on the project I’m working on at the moment.

How many bookcases do you have in your house?

I have a room for books. I call it my library. Then, there is my office and it also has lots of books. And I have books in crates at my house.

Lester Laminack: bookcases and art

Lester Laminack meeting table

Lester Laminack: a meeting table surrounded by books

Lester Laminack books in crates

Lester Laminack: Books in crates

Lester Laminack: desk

Lester Laminack a place to read

Lester Laminack: a place to read

What’s the predominant color in your wardrobe?

Blue. I like lots of colors and wear reds and orange and pink and green and gray and black, and I have mostly plaids and checks, but the color you’ll see most in my closet is blue.

Which library springs to your mind when someone says that word? What do you remember most about it?

I have spent a lot of time in many libraries, but that word most often conjures memories of the library in the elementary school I attended as a child—Cleburne County Elementary in Heflin, Alabama. I can still hear the voice of Mrs. Hand, our librarian, reading The Boxcar Children. She had the best read aloud voice.

Which book you read as a child has most influenced your life?

Hmmmm, I think that would be The Wizard of Oz. When I was in the fifth grade my family moved to Key West for a year. In that year I read The Wizard of Oz and for the first time I fell inside and lived in the book. It was an amazing experience to be there, in the story, with that cast of characters. That experience changed the way I read.

What’s your food weakness?

Hmmm, bread. Oh, and did I say bread? OK, and éclairs. I do love a good éclair.

What’s your favorite form of exercise?

Walking and yoga, but I have fallen out of the habit of doing yoga. So, if you don’t do it, does it still count as a favorite? Hmmm, I need to get back into that again. Maybe I’d lose that 20 pounds I found. Note: If you have lost 20 pounds in the last 24 months please contact me. I think I found them.

What do you consider to be your best accomplishment?

My son.  He is a kind, decent, caring young man with a lovely, confident, intelligent wife and a beautiful young daughter.  He is also a college English professor. 

What’s your favorite flower?

Daylilies. And dahlias. Oh, and Azalea and rhododendrons and mountain laurel and dogwood and camellia and peony. I almost forgot crepe myrtle. Say, did I mention zinnias?


Have you traveled outside of your state? Which state draws you back? (How many states have you visited?)

I have traveled in 47 of the 50 states, all but North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. But, I’m going to speak in Montana in 2018. I grew up in Alabama, but I have lived in North Carolina since 1982. North Carolina is my home now and no matter where I travel I am always delighted to return to these mountains. With that said, I do love the area around Sedona, Arizona,  and Taos, New Mexico.

Have you traveled outside of the United States? Which country is your favorite to visit? Why?

I love Italy. The language is music. Dining is an experience. Art is an essential part of life. I adore Paris. And I’m traveling to Scotland in about three weeks, so I may have a new favorite.

Who’s your favorite artist?

Any child who makes art with joy and abandon. I have long admired the art of Mary Cassatt. I greatly admire the art of Jonathan Green in  Charleston, South Carolina. At present I collect the art of two artists from the South Carolina Lowcountry.  Mary Segars and Cassandra Gillens.

What’s the last performance you saw at a theater?


What’s your favorite word because you like the way it sounds?

Dénouement and asparagus and corduroy and bourbon …

What would you wear to a costume party?  

I’m not a costume party guy. I’m sort of a character in regular clothes. When I’m working you’ll almost always find me in Levi jeans, a button down shirt, and a bow tie. Otherwise I’m likely to be in jeans and a sweatshirt or t-shirt.

Who’s at the top of your list of Most Admired People? 

Mr. Rogers.

When you walk into a bakery, what are you most likely to choose from the bakery cases?

Hands down I will go directly to the éclair. And a really good looking slice of carrot cake can easily get my attention.

What are your favorite pizza toppings? 

Mushrooms, green and black olives, ham, lots of cheese.

Do you remember your dreams?

Sometimes, not always. I don’t usually make any sense out of them, but I can sometimes remember snippets. About once a year I will have a dream that I am rushing like crazy and finally get to school with all the kids busy at work not even noticing that I’m late.

What foreign language would you like to learn? 

I took French in high school. I wish I could speak fluently. I love the sound of Italian and I’d love to have it flow from my mouth like a waterfall. But, to be practical I would like to learn Spanish because I believe it would be most useful. 

Do you read the end of a book first?

Never. And I never eat dessert before dinner either.

If you had a choice, would you live under the ocean or in outer space, and why? 

Neither. I am just figuring out how to live on this earth. I’ll stay right here if you don’t mind.

Peace symbolIf you could write any book and know that it would be published and tens of thousands of people would read it, which book would you write?

A memoir written for adults. 

If you could be granted one wish, what would you wish for?

Peace on this globe. If I could have one wish granted it would be for all people to have enough, to live in kindness and harmony with others and to be good stewards of this earth.


Take the Next Turn

A while back, a big hunk of concrete cracked off of the front edge of a step leading to my terraced yard. I knew that it was too cold for any kind of concrete repair to hold, but I wanted to mark the potential hazard so that people would notice it despite the snow and ice that are still a risk here in March. So I set a concrete block over the hole, and then I adorned it with a blaze orange hat. Until I can get it fixed, you’re not likely to miss the problem and hurt yourself.

I thought it was a practical temporary solution. It wasn’t until my neighbors and our mail carrier provided commentary that I realized it might also be viewed as a little wacky. And I’ll just add that this isn’t the first time my untrained approach to home maintenance has caused more seasoned handy people to laugh out loud.

One of the reasons I love working with kid writers is that they don’t yet have a pre-programmed set of writing fixes; the go-to solutions that more seasoned writers habitually fall back on aren’t yet built-in for them. If a student writer doesn’t know how to patch the big crack in their story, they throw in something wacky. Or they take words and phrases that a grown-up might take for granted, and set them on their ears. Sometimes this turns out to be funny, but it can also be fresh and exciting.

One of my all-time favorites is a scene where a student writer had her main character successfully crossing a river only to be confronted by a threatening “herd of turtles.” “Herd” is not the proper collective word for turtles; it should be “bale.” But I would argue that “herd of turtles” creates a great visual for the reader and it’s a lot more fun to read. To me, this is a case where wacky wins out.

As a writing warm-up, why not ask your students to create a fresh new spin on a tired old way of saying something? Brainstorm common idioms with your classroom (use a Google search for a starter list if you’d like), and then ask students to invent new possibilities that paint more vivid pictures or fall more trippingly off their tongues.

In other words, ask them to turn a “turn of phrase.”


Wandering Aimlessly

Photo by nycsjv at

When I worked as a publishing professional, I got to visit New York twice a year as part of my job. I loved it: the people, the pace, the movie-set landscapes. So I gawked. I meandered. I stopped and stared up at the skyscrapers. I was a stranger in a strange land.

All that seemed to make New Yorkers unhappy.  Finally a kind magazine editor explained to me what was going on.

“They seem…irritated,” I said.

He looked me up and down and shook his head.  “You’re walking slowly, right?  You’re stopping to look at things? They’re not mad, they’re in a hurry.”

Then he leaned way forward and whispered so no one else could hear.  “Trust me.  I’m from Michigan. They can tell you’re a Midwesterner, and you’re in their way.”

I did fine in New York once I learned to stay out of the way. But here’s the thing: I would never want to shut down that “country yokel in the big city” side of myself, because in many ways, it’s my single most valuable trait as a writer. Nothing has come in more useful than my pleasure at wandering aimlessly—whether it’s through city streets or a long conversation or the Internet—the whole time collecting the shiny bits of life as if I were a magpie.

Sometimes I pick up somebody’s life story. Sometimes I collect trivia. Sometimes it’s an odd expression.  They pile up in my crow’s nest of a brain, and then seemingly out of nowhere, pop up and insert themselves into my writing. They suggest stories. They combine and mutate in strange and wonderful ways.

So despite the fact that it’s probably the most common question young writers ask me, I’m always a little surprised when I hear, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas are everywhere, I tell them: you just have to wander and gawk long enough to notice them.

As a brainstorming activity for your student writers, I encourage you to offer them meandering time.  Take a nature walk. Go to the media center and tell them to grab nonfiction books on any topics that catch their fancy. Allow them to browse Internet sites from museums or zoos. Ask them to bring in three curious facts about their own family’s history.

Information I discovered while researching one of my nonfiction titles, about the walking catfish, turned out to provide the entire thematic basis for my mystery novel. You really never do know where a great story idea might come from.

Maybe even from the streets of New York.


The Limo’s on the Way

I’ve found there’s an alarmingly close correlation between the topsy-turvy emotions of a high school crush and a writer’s feelings during the process of submitting a manuscript to publishers.

As the writer waiting for an answer from The Perfect Publisher, you go through the same hopeful highs and “why doesn’t anyone love me?” lows. The manuscript that just last week looked pretty darn good has somehow overnight developed a hideous zit. Rejections begin arriving, and you drive your family crazy with your obsessive speculation about whether The One will ever call.

For the past few years I’ve been working on a manuscript that’s a whole new kind of writing for me, and more recently I’ve been living all of these emotions throughout the submission process. One night in a restaurant, I actually found myself wailing to my good and patient friends, “All I want is for somebody to ask me to the prom!”

Guess what? The limo’s arrived! I had plenty of time to buy the right dress, but in Fall 2013 the limo appeared to take me and my middle grade mystery novel to the Big Dance.

Getting published is great; there’s no way I’ll pretend to you it isn’t. I’ve had a whole week of flowers and cupcakes, and this isn’t even my first dance! But the pursuit of getting published can also be tougher and more humbling than new writers imagine. So when kids approach me with that hopeful gleam in their eye and ask, “How do I get my story published?” I always feel a little ping of protective worry for them.

Then I work hard to instill in them a love of writing for the sake of writing, not just for the joy of seeing their name on the cover of a book.

And then I remember that having an audience for my work matters to me, too, and I come up with ways for students to share their writing. After all, part of the urge to see one’s name on a book cover is the fact that on the other side of the writing seesaw, there’s a reader who will find you—and your words—remarkable.

I’ll be describing the importance of giving students a chance to share their work out loud in an upcoming post titled “Driven to Write Bett‚er.” But there are also practical ways to allow students to “publish” their work. You can find affordable blank books in educational supply stores and online. You can have students choose for themselves the role of either “writer” or “illustrator,” and then pair them off to create their own picture books together. One school I visited arranged for older students to pair off with first-graders, and then the older kids interviewed the younger students about their personal preferences and created a book designed especially for them.

When the hard work of writing is done, everybody’s ready to dance!


A Porcupine Named Fluffy

It’s Read Across America Week this week and I had the privilege of hauling a bag of books to a local elementary school and reading to five different classes—K-2nd grade—last Tuesday. A truly wonderful way to spend the afternoon, I must say.

#1 Son’s 21st birthday was Tuesday, which made me all nostalgic for the days of picture books, and so I’d packed a bag full of his long-ago favorites (and a couple newer ones, too). In each class we’d chat for a few minutes and I’d kinda suss out what they might like most. Small Walt was a hit with a kindergarten class, The Odious Ogre with the second graders. One Dog Canoe works for just about any age, of course. As does A Porcupine Named Fluffy. I think I read A Porcupine Named Fluffy by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, in three of the five classrooms. It never fails.

When #1 Son was small, we used that book to get things done. “When you’re all done with bath and have brushed your teeth…we can read Fluffy.” “Just as soon as you finish your lunch, we can read Fluffy out in the hammock….” He loved Fluffy.

The book opens with Mr. and Mrs. Porcupine taking a stroll with their first child in a stroller. They’re trying to find exactly the right name for him. They consider Spike. Too common. Lance? Too fierce for their sweet little guy. Needleroozer?

It’s Needleroozer that gets the kids laughing—it’s almost like a magic word that unlocks something.

“Needleroozer?!” they say.

“That’s a terrible name!”

“It’s hard to spell!”

Prickles? I say. They shake their heads. Pokey? More head shakes. How about Quillian?

“What kind of name is that?” said one little boy.

Then together Mr. and Mrs. Porcupine have an idea. “Let’s call him Fluffy. It’s such a pretty name. Fluffy!”

 Lots of giggles at this. Porcupines aren’t fluffy! They all know this and so the name is hilarious! It’s a pretty wonderful introduction to irony, if you ask me.

So Fluffy grows up, beloved and somewhat protected, with his ironic name. At some point he begins to suspect he’s not fluffy—things happen. The illustrations carry the humor in these instances and kids love love love it. And so he embarks on the challenge of making his sharp quills fluffier—more hilarity ensues.

And then one day, Fluffy meets a very large rhinoceros. And the rhinoceros tells him right out that he’s going to give Fluffy a “rough time.”

“What’s your name, small prickly thing?” the rhinoceros asks.

“Fluffy,” says Fluffy.

And this just slays the rhino—he can hardly breathe he laughs so hard. By then, everyone is laughing—a proper reading depends on the laughter in fact.

“And what is your name?” Fluffy asks, despite his embarrassment.

And then we find out the rhino’s name, which I shall not divulge here. Suffice to say, it gives the irony of Fluffy’s name a run for its money.

The books ends with the two as fast friends, of course. And the book ends with readers—young and older—smiling and laughing. There’s just something about this book! If you haven’t read it, or don’t remember it (it was published before I graduated from high school!) look for it in your library. I saw it there just a few weeks ago—it is still very much in circulation.



Spend the Day with Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

Phyllis: February is the month of valentines and lovers, and we spent a day (through his books) with someone we love: Arnold Lobel.

He wrote easy reader stories that help children crack the code of reading, give them fun stories with characters who remind us of people we know and that give readers of all ages plenty to think about. In his fifty-four years, he illustrated almost a hundred children’s stories and wrote many of them.

An editor once, when asked if Arnold Lobel was more like Frog or Toad, responded, after thinking about it, that he is more like Owl.

Owl at HomeJackie: Sometimes I read Owl at Home just to myself. What do we love about owl? Owl is always on the edge of sadness. He has a young child’s partial understanding of the world. Kids can see themselves in Owl—and sometimes they can see that they even know more than owl. Part of the joy of the story “Strange Bumps” is that kids know what the bumps are. When the two strange bumps at the foot of Owl’s bed obsess him, Owl looks under covers. No bumps. He pulls the covers back up and there are the bumps. He jumps up and down yelling, “Bumps. Bumps. Bumps, I will never sleep tonight.” And when the bed collapses, he leaves it to the bumps and goes downstairs to sleep in a chair. He never identifies the bumps. But readers do.

Phyllis: “Tearwater Tea” is another story that always satisfies. One afternoon Owl decides to brew a pot of tearwater tea. He thinks of things that are sad– chairs with broken legs, songs that cannot be sung because the words are forgotten, books that cannot be read because some of the pages have been torn out. After a while he has accumulated sufficient tears. He puts his tea kettle on and makes the tea. That cheers him up because, even though it tastes salty, “Tearwater tea is always very good.”

In the last story, the moon seems to follow Owl home despite his protestations that he has nothing to give the moon for supper and has a very small house. When the moon disappears behind a cloud, he says, “It is always a little sad to say good-bye to a friend.” But the moon reappears at his window and Owl says, “Moon you have followed me home, what a good round friend you are.” Owl doesn’t feel sad at all In these brief chapters. So, Owl goes through sadness to the other side. A progression.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsJackie: When we read the Frog and Toad stories to our children we read them with joy and the pleasure of sharing with our kids and didn’t necessarily look deeper into them. The Frog and Toad books are a primer on the ups and downs of friendship—including the foibles and quibbles of being a good friend. In “Spring” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Frog tricks Toad into waking up early from his winter nap because Frog is lonely without Toad. Frog is not above laughing at his friend. In “A Swim” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Toad refuses to come out of the water because, he says, “I do not want [anyone] to see me in my bathing suit.” He is worried they will laugh. Eventually the turtle, lizard, snake, dragonflies, and a field mouse sit on the riverbank waiting to see if toad looks funny. Eventually Toad has to come out of the water. He is catching cold. As Toad predicted, everyone laughs, including Frog, who says “You do look funny in your bathing suit.” “’Of course I do,’ said Toad, and he picked up his clothes and went home.”

They don’t always see eye to amphibian eye. In “Cookies” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog, in pursuit of willpower so as not to eat all the cookies Toad has baked, ends up giving them to the birds. “Toad goes into the house to bake a cake.”

Phyllis: And who doesn’t recognize themselves in “The List,” where, when the list blows away, Toad claims he can’t run after it because “Running after my list is not one of the things I wrote on my list of things to do?”

In “The Story” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog is sick (“looking quite green”) and he asks Toad for a story. Writers will recognize what Toad does when he cannot think of a story. He walks up and down, he stands on his head, he pours a glass of water over his head, but he still cannot think of a story. He bangs his head against the wall. By then Frog feels better, Toad feels worse and asks Frog for a story. Frog tells Toad the story of the Toad who could not think of a story. We can’t help but think this delightful tale is perhaps based on a day when Lobel could not think of a story.

Frog and Toad TogetherIn “The Dream (Frog and Toad Together),” Toad has a dream where he cannot fail. He plays the piano, he dances, he walks on the high wire while a voice proclaims that he is “The Greatest Toad in the World.” Each time he asks Frog if he, too, could do these wonderful things. Each time Frog says no and shrinks a bit until Toad says, ”Frog, can you be as wonderful as this?” There is no answer. Frog has shrunk so small that he cannot be seen or heard. Toad shouts at the voice proclaiming his greatness to shut up and says, “Come back Frog. I will be lonely.” He is desperate. Then Toad wakes from his dream to see Frog, who says, “I am right here, Toad.” “I am so glad you came over,” says Toad. “I always do,” said Frog.

Forty years later their friendship is still comforting to readers of all ages.

Uncle ElephantJackie: We can’t leave this appreciation without a mention of Uncle Elephant, in which a wise Uncle Elephant comforts his lonely elephant nephew when his father and mother do not come back from sea. On the train to Uncle Elephant’s, they eat peanuts, count houses and telephone poles, and finally peanut shells, which are much easier to count. Uncle Elephant introduces his nephew to the flowers in his garden, his favorite place in the world. They make crowns of flowers and trumpet the dawn together. Uncle Elephant tells him a story about a king with many wrinkles and a prince who was young and smart. When they meet a lion, they trumpet so loudly every one of the lion’s teeth pop out. When little elephant gets sad, Uncle Elephant puts on all his clothes at once to make the little elephant smile. They end up laughing so hard at the “pile of clothes with two ears” that they forget to feel sad. They sing a song together, and they dance for joy when little elephant’s mother and father are found and return home. On the train Uncle Elephant counts the wonderful days that they had spent together, and they promise to see each other often. Uncle Elephant is the calmest, best-listening uncle ever there was. He hears what the little elephant can’t even say about fear and sadness.

Charlie & MousePhyllis: He offers small comforts in the face of great of loss. We hope you all get to spend a day with Arnold Lobel and Frog and Toad and Grasshopper and Owl and Mouse and Uncle Elephant—soon—for silliness and comfort and friendship.

Sidebar: We just want to mention stories written in the same spirit as Arnold Lobel’s stories, Charlie and Mouse, easy readers by Laurel Snyder, which was just named winner of the Geisel Medal, the ALA prize for Best Easy Reader of 2017.


Skinny Dip with Laura Purdie Salas

Laura Purdie Salas

Laura Purdie Salas

Laura Purdie Salas is a poet, a researcher, and a popular visiting author in elementary and middle schools. Several of her books have turned heads and stirred up a buzz, including Water Can Be … and If You Were the Moon. She has published many books about writing for children and frequently speaks at conferences. We’re pleased that this very busy author is spending some time with Bookology this month.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever read a book?

Perched in a tree and lying underneath a trampoline in the shade were two favorite spots when I was a kid growing up in Florida. I have also read books on boring carnival rides, during recitals (don’t tell!), and while canoeing. There is pretty much no place I would not be happy to read a book.

Laura Purdie Salas, reading in a tree

Laura Purdie Salas, reading in a tree

What is the predominant color in your wardrobe?

Black, but that sounds so sad! I live in yoga pants in my daily life, and black ones are the most flattering. My top half is usually more colorful—I swear!—and blues and purples are my favorite colors to dress in.

Which library springs to your mind when someone says that word? What do you remember most about it?

The original Winter Park, Florida, Library. I would ride my bike to the small, ancient-looking building once or twice a week. When I would walk between the tall white columns to go inside, it was like entering another planet. Big wooden card catalogs. The bustling hush of people walking purposefully around. The children’s area, where I knew I was supposed to be. The rest of the library, where I wandered around and learned about the world beyond the happy little children’s books. I can still picture the wall around the corner that had all the mysteries, where I worked my way through the Agatha Christies. I felt like everyone there was smart and happy, and I knew books were the reason. l always checked out as many books as I could juggle home. Halfway through my childhood, they built a new library, which was very nice and modernized and bigger. I know I used that one constantly, too. But my memories are all of the first one—my very first library.

Which book that you read as a child has most influenced your life?

The Figure in the Shadows John BellairsI devoured books like they were potato chips, and I went for quantity—and escapism. I lost myself in books, and they were sort of like lost dreams afterward. I don’t remember too many individual books, but The Figure in the Shadows, by John Bellairs, was a big favorite. It showed me that family isn’t restricted to your biological family. And it scared the bejeebers out of me—I loved it! Two others I read around (I think) 7th grade, Crooked House, by Agatha Christie, and Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, still haunt me a little. SPOILER ALERT: In Crooked House, the murderer is a child, which totally shocked me. Not a misunderstood child. Not a mentally ill child. A greedy, selfish child the same age I was when I read the book. It made me think about the enormous capacity for good and evil human beings have. Flowers for Algernon, which I recently reread, shaped my thoughts about love, intelligence, kindness, and the limits of science. And it broke my heart.

Have you traveled outside of the United States? Which country is your favorite to visit? Why?

In the past ten years, I’ve gotten to visit Scotland twice, Ireland, France, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Iceland. So far, Scotland is my favorite—so beautiful and with so much history. Familiar enough to be comfortable, but foreign enough to be an adventure. But seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland was my favorite single event while traveling. This world is just so amazing.

Laura Purdie Salas, on the shore of a loch in Scotland

Laura Purdie Salas with her husband, Randy Salas, touring a lava tube cave in Iceland

the northern lights as viewed from Iceland

What’s the last performance you saw at a theater?

Improv comedy at ComedySportz in Minneapolis. Improv is so much fun—watching people create stories, live, in the moment, is incredible. It’s like being thrown into a thunderstorm of a first draft, and you never know when lightning will strike.

When you walk into a bakery, what are you most likely to choose from the bakery cases?

Something frosted! Or with gooey caramel. Or with a mousse. When I buy cupcakes, I always ask the baker to choose the one with the most frosting for me. It drives me nuts on baking shows when a judge will say with disdain, “This cream cheese frosting is just too sweet.” Or “You have way too much buttercream on this cake.” Scientifically impossible statements, in my opinion.

If you had a choice, would you live under the ocean or in outer space, and why?

Outer space fascinates me, but I’d want to live in the ocean. The idea that there are still so many mysteries and unexplored places on our very own planet is crazy! Plus the ocean is so … watercolory and gorgeous and tranquil. Outer space seems less hospitable—all darkness and sharpness and empty space.

If you could write any book and know that it would be published and tens of thousands of people would read it, which book would you write?

I would write a picture book, maybe a poem, that would reassure kids that they are who they choose to be. They are not defined by their home, their family, or their family’s jobs, income, cars, education level, illnesses … But without sounding preachy, of course! :>)


In Memoriam: Wendy Watson

Wendy Watson was a third generation author and artist. Her grandparents, Ernest W. Watson and Eva Auld Watson, were painters and pioneer color block printers.  Ernest was also founder and editor of the magazine American Artist, co-founder of Watson-Guptill Publications, and co-founder of one of the first summer art schools, the Berkshire Summer School of Art. Wendy’s father, Aldren A. Watson, is an author, and also the illustrator of more than 175 books, including many children’s books written by Wendy’s mother, Nancy Dingman Watson.

Wendy received her primary education and early art training from her parents. She later studied painting and drawing with Jerry Farnsworth, Helen Sawyer, and Daniel Greene, and received a BA in Latin Literature from Bryn Mawr College.

Wendy was the author-illustrator of twenty-one books for children, and the illustrator of over sixty books for other authors. Her books have received many awards and honors, including: The National Book Award, nominee; The Koret Jewish Book Award; The Sydney Taylor Honor Book Award; Best Books of the Year, The New York Times; Best Books of the Year, American Library Association; Best Books of the Year, School Library Journal; Best Books of the Year, Publishers WeeklyKirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice; Notable Children’s Books, American Library Association; Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children, National Science Teachers Association/Children’s Book Council; Pick of the Lists, American Bookseller’s Association; and Notable Children’s Books in the Field of Social Studies, Children’s Book Council.

Wendy’s artwork was exhibited widely, and included in numerous national and international shows, including: “The Biennial of Illustration,” Bratislava, Yugoslavia; “The Original Art,” The Society of Illustrators, New York; and “The Annual Exhibition of American Illustration,” The Society of Illustrators, New York. She was one of 106 artists represented in the exhibition and book “Myth, Magic, and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children’s Book Illustration.” Wendy’s work is part of numerous private and institutional collections.

Wendy was also a member of the Author’s Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and The Society of Illustrators. She lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She passed away in February 2018 and will be held dear in the hearts of many friends and relatives.

Here are Wendy Watson’s published works:


Bedtime Bunnies
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Clarion Books, 2010
ISBN 9780547223124

It’s always somebody’s bedtime, somewhere in the world. In this book it’s bedtime for five little rabbits. They come in from outdoors, have a snack, brush their teeth, take a bath, put on nightclothes, and listen to a story before being tucked in for the night. Outside, we see snowflakes falling. In the bunnies’ home, all is warmth and coziness and playfulness and love. Four words per spread narrate the evening routine, and delightfully soft and spirited illustrations take readers into the bunnies’ world. Young children who have this book as a bedtime companion are lucky indeed, especially if their own getting-ready-for-bed rituals are as familiar and tender as those of the five bunnies.


written by Karen Hesse

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Scholastic Press, 2008
ISBN 9780439879934

Ma’s been working so hard, she doesn’t have much left over. So her three kids decide to do some work on their own. In the dark of night, they steal into their rich neighbor’s potato fields in hopes of collecting the strays that have been left to rot. They dig flat-bellied in the dirt, hiding from passing cars, and drag a sack of spuds through the frost back home. But in the light, the sad truth is revealed: their bag is full of stones! Ma is upset when she sees what they’ve done, and makes them set things right. But in a surprise twist, they learned they have helped the farmer….


The Cats in Krasinski Square
written by Karen Hesse
illustrated by Wendy Watson
Scholastic Press, 2004
ISBN 9780439435406 

In luminous free verse, Hesse’s latest picture book tells a powerful story of a young Jewish girl who, together with her older sister, ingeniously fights the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. After escaping from the Jewish ghetto, the girl avoids detection…. She finds joy in playing with the city’s abandoned cats, who show her holes in the ghetto wall, which the girl’s older sister and their resistance friends will use to pass supplies shipped by train to Warsaw. The Gestapo learns of the scheme, and soldiers wait at the train station with dogs. Luckily, the cats inspire a solution; they distract the dogs and protect the supplies. It’s an empowering story about the bravery and impact of young people, and Hesse’s clear, spare poetry, from the girl’s viewpoint, refers to the hardships suffered without didacticism. In bold, black lines and washes of smoky gray and ochre, Watson’s arresting images echo the pared-down language as well as the hope that shines like the glints of sunlight on Krasinski Square. An author’s note references the true events and heartbreaking history that inspired this stirring, expertly crafted story.


Father Fox’s Christmas Rhymes
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003
ISBN 9780374375768

A cozy collection of holiday verse.

Who is that knocking at the door?
It’s old Father Fox with surprises galore!
Licorice & lollipops, lemons & limes
A bundle of toys & a bag full of rhymes . . .

Over thirty years ago, Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes became an instant classic and was a National Book Award Finalist. Now Father Fox returns with new rhymes especially for yuletide that conjure up the excitement and mystery of the season: playing in the snow, making hot apple cider, hiding presents—all at the warm and loving home of the Fox family.

The verses feel like classic children’s rhymes, and rich paintings capture all the cheer and beauty of Christmastime.


Rabbit Moon
written by Patricia Hubbell

illustrations by Wendy Watson
Marshall Cavendish, 2002
ISBN 9780761451037

Consider Rabbit snowmen in February! Can you imagine Rabbit pipers in March?! An engaging collection of poems for preschoolers and early readers, this unique almanac celebrates the holidays and good times enjoyed by young Rabbits and children alike. From Rabbit Leaders Day to Rabbit Thanksgiving, from Rabbit fireworks in July to Rabbit trick-or-treat in October, all the special days of the year are here. And, as Big-Rabbit-in-the-Moon looks on, all are enjoyed. Adding to the fun are playful illustrations (rendered in acrylics and India ink) of Rabbits here, Rabbits there, Rabbits everywhere!


Holly’s Christmas Eve
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
HarperCollins, 2002
ISBN 9780688176525

On Christmas Eve, Holly is ready to join the other ornaments in celebration. But disaster strikes when naughty Bad Cat bats the tree’s branches: Holly loses her wooden arm! Cloth Bear and Tin Horse rush to help her find it, meeting danger and becoming good friends along the way.

Wendy Watson’s paintings glow with excitement as the trio hurries to get home safely before Santa arrives.

This heartwarming story, filled with adventure, is perfect for reading aloud by the light of your own tree at Christmastime.


Is My Friend at Home?: Pueblo Fireside Tales
written by John Bierhorst

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001
ISBN 9780374335502

Here are seven interconnected stories about making and keeping friends, jewel-like tales originally told to the youngest listeners at Native American firesides in the Hopi country of northern Arizona. In John Bierhorst’s authentic re-creation of a Pueblo storytelling session, readers and listeners will find out how Coyote got his short ears, why Mouse walks softly, and how Bee learned to fly.

Snake, Mole, Badger, Beetle, and Dove also have roles clever and foolish, friendly and not so friendly, and all are depicted with humor and finesse by illustrator Wendy Watson.


Love’s a Sweet
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Viking Penguin, 1998
ISBN 9780670834532

Animals of every sort quarrel and kiss, laugh and lullaby their way through the pleasures and pitfalls of everyday love in this new collection of short rhymes written and illustrated by sisters Clyde and Wendy Watson. Each of Clyde’s “pennyrhymes” is illustrated with funny, often tender scenes featuring Wendy’s fuzzy farm animals. Love’s A Sweet is the perfect book for children to share with moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and especially with grandma and grandpa!

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Du Store Verden (orig. Norwegian ed.)
written by Katherine Paterson et al.
illustrated by Wendy Watson
J.W. Cappelens Forlag a-s, 1995

No synopsis yet.


Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night
edited and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1994
no ISBN yet

An illustrated version of the folk song in which a fox travels many miles to get dinner for his wife and ten cubs.


The Big Book for Our Planet
edited by Ann Durrell, Jean Craighead George, and Katherine Paterson
illustrated by Wendy Watson
Dutton Children’s Books, 1993
ISBN 9780525451198

More than forty acclaimed children’s book authors and illustrators join together to create an anthology—whose proceeds will benefit environmental organizations—of stories, poems, essays, and pictures that celebrate Earth and call attention to environmental destruction.


Happy Easter Day!
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Clarion Books, 1993
ISBN 9780395536292

A family prepares for a traditional American Easter by making hot cross buns, getting new clothes, and decorating eggs. On the holiday, they hunt for baskets, go to church, have dinner, and play games. Songs and poems are interspersed throughout the text.


Boo! It’s Halloween
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Clarion Books, 1992
ISBN 9780395536285

A family gets ready for Halloween by preparing costumes, making goodies for the school party, and carving jack-o’-lanterns. Halloween jokes and rhymes are interspersed throughout the text.


Hurray for the Fourth of July
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Clarion Books, 1992
ISBN 9780618040360 (Sandpiper ed., 2000)

In a small Vermont town a family celebrates the Fourth of July by attending a parade, having a picnic, and watching fireworks.


Thanksgiving at Our House
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Clarion Books, 1991
ISBN 9780395699447 (Sandpiper ed., 1994)

A spirited collection of traditional rhymes woven into an original story.


A Valentine for You
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Clarion Books, 1991
ISBN 9780395536254

A lively collection of traditional Valentine rhymes celebrates the fun a family can have preparing for the holiday.


The Night Before Christmas
written by Clement Clarke Moore

edited and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Clarion Books, 1990
ISBN 9780395665084 (Sandpiper ed., 1993)

The familiar verse about a visit from Saint Nick is depicted in a late-twentieth-century small town setting, which brings to life the traditional American celebration of a beloved holiday.


Wendy Watson’s Frog Went A-Courting
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
piano arr. by Paul Alan Levi
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1990
ISBN 9780688065409

Presents the well-known folk song about the courtship and marriage of the frog and the mouse. Includes music.


A, B, C, D, Tummy, Toes, Hands, Knees
written by Barbara Hennessey

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Viking Penguin, 1989
ISBN 9780670817030

A rhythmic, rhyming text lists objects, ideas, and actions; simple vignettes and full-page drawings provide the definitions by showing familiar activities and games enjoyed by a mother and child in the course of their day together.


Valentine Foxes
written by Clyde Watson

illustrations by Wendy Watson
Orchard Books, 1989
ISBN 9780531070338 (Orchard, 1992)

The Fox family’s genial disarray is enlivened as the cubs prepare a special surprise. The book includes a recipe for Valentine Pound Cake.



Wendy Watson’s Mother Goose
edited and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1989
ISBN 9780688057084

In this comprehensive, lavishly illustrated volume, Watson shares her beguiling vision of the timeless world of Mother Goose. A wonderful introduction to the rich folklore of childhood. Full-color illustrations.

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How I Feel: Happy
written by Marcia Leonard

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Bantam, 1988
no ISBN yet

No synposis yet.

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How I Feel: Silly
written by Marcia Leonard

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Bantam, 1988
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.

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image available

How I Feel: Sad
written by Marcia Leonard

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Bantam, 1988
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


How I Feel: Angry
written by Marcia Leonard

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Bantam, 1988
ISBN 9780553054828

Describes, in simple terms, situations which make us angry and how to cope with feelings of anger.


Tales For a Winter’s Eve
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988
ISBN 9780374474195 (Sunburst ed., 1991)

When Freddie Fox injures his paw in a skiing accident, his family and friends distract him with stories about the animal inhabitants of their village.


Doctor Coyote, A Native American Aesop’s Fable
written by John Bierhorst

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Macmillan, 1987
ISBN 9780027097801 

Coyote is featured in each of these Aztec interpretations of Aesop’s fables. The illustrations are set in the twentieth century.


Little Brown Bear
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Western Publishing, 1985
ISBN 9780307030429

Little Brown Bear would like to go fishing with his father, but his parents think he’s too small.


Belinda’s Hurricane
written by Elizabeth Winthrop

illustrated by Wendy Watson
E.P. Dutton, 1984
ISBN 9780525441069

While waiting out a fierce hurricane in her grandmother’s house on Fox Island, Belinda has a chance to get to know her grandmother’s reclusive neighbor Mr. Fletcher.


I Love My Baby Sister: Most of the Time
written by Elaine Edelman

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1984
ISBN 9780140505474 (Puffin ed., 1985)

A small girl looks forward to the time when her baby sister will be big enough to play with and be friends with.


Happy Birthday From Carolyn Haywood
written by Carolyn Haywood

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Morrow Junior Books, 1984
ISBN 9780688027094

A collection of nine stories revolving around the birthday celebrations of a variety of the author’s characters, old and new.

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Christmas at Bunny’s Inn
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1984
ISBN 9780399210907

Pop-up book: A three-dimensional Advent calendar.


Father Fox’s Feast of Songs
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1983
ISBN 9780399208867

Here is a joyous collection of songs for every family to enjoy together. Clyde Watson has chosen her favorites from the best-selling nursery rhyme books, Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes and Catch Me & Kiss Me & Say it Again, and set them to music in easy-to-play arrangements for voice, piano and guitar. Wendy Watson has illustrated her sister’s songs with humor and affection. Gather around the piano and sing— here are songs to celebrate every aspect of happy childhood and loving family life.


Betsy’s Up-and-Down Year
written by Anne Pellowski

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1983
ISBN 9780399209703

The further adventures of Betsy on her family’s Wisconsin farm including her struggles with sibling rivalry, an encounter with a rattlesnake, a birthday party, and coping with the death of her grandfather.


The Bunnies’ Christmas Eve (pop-up book)
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1983
ISBN 9780399209680

Bunny learns the true meaning of Christmas as she takes part in a special ceremony and family holiday traditions, as depicted by stand-up illustrations with moving parts.


Applebet, An ABC
written by Clyde Watson
illustrated by Wendy Watson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982
ISBN 9780374404277

A is for apple as everyone knows
Can you follow this one wherever it goes? 
B is for Bet in the top of the tree
Who picked it & shined it & gave it to me.

A Library of Congress Children’s Book of the Year.


The Biggest, Meanest, Ugliest Dog in the Whole Wide World
written by Rebecca C. Jones

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Macmillan, 1982
ISBN 9780027478006

Jonathan is terrified of the dog next door, until one day he throws his ball at it in defense and their relationship changes.


First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story
written by Anne Pellowski

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Macmillan, 1982
ISBN 9780884895374 (St. Mary’s Press ed., 1998)

Anna, the American-born daughter of Polish immigrants, longs to escape the rigors of Wisconsin farm life to visit the romanticized Poland of her dreams.


Winding Valley Farm: Annie’s Story
written by Anne Pellowski

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1982
ISBN 9780399208638

Life for six-year-old Annie Dorawa on Winding Valley Farm just down the road from the Pellowskis’ first farm in the valley is busy and happy. Then one day, Annie hears her father speak about not planting that year, but instead moving into town. Is it really possible that they might leave their beautiful farm? What could her father be thinking about? This new anxiety, along with that inner imp of mischief always threatening to get her into trouble (and which finally does when brother John is killing chickens at the chopping block), hover over Annie as she works and plays with her sister and five brothers immersed in the vigorous life of their American-Polish community. Despite the discovery that life is not always easy or as she d like it to be, Annie begins to realize what warm security is to be found in a hardworking family rooted in faith and love.


Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story
written by Anne Pellowski

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1981
ISBN 9780884895367 (St. Mary’s Press ed., 1998)

In the late 1930s, Annie’s daughter Anna Rose, as well as her other children, can make almost any chore an occasion for fun. But Anna Rose, who is busy enough with the farm work and a new baby sister, dreams of starting school.


Willow Wind Farm: Betsy’s Story
written by Anne Pellowski

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1981
ISBN 9780399207815

Anna Rose’s seven-year-old niece Betsy has a special year, one in which all the relatives from near and far gather for a family reunion at her grandparent’s farm. Betsy then discovers how nice it is to live at the heart of a large and loving family.


Jamie’s Story
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Philomel, 1981
ISBN 9780399207891

Portrays a day in the life of a toddler as he helps his mother and father, plays, and discovers the world around him.


Button Eye’s Orange
written by Jan Wahl

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Frederick Warne, 1980
ISBN 9780723261889

Taken to the market to be sold, a toy dog tries to return with an orange to his boy who wears a leg brace.


How Brown Mouse Kept Christmas
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989
ISBN 9780374334949

On Christmas Eve the mice feast and make merry around the family’s Christmas tree, in full view of the sleeping cat, and Brown Mouse inadvertently does a kindness for the family.

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Jenny’s Cat
written by Miska Miles

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Dutton, 1979
ISBN 9780553151251

Lonely in their new town, Jenny is delighted when a stray cat comes to their house, but her mother doesn’t want the cat to stay.


Catch Me & Kiss Me & Say It Again
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978
ISBN 9780399219948

Thirty-two rhymes for the very young including counting rhymes, lullabies, and games.


Has Winter Come?
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson

Philomel, 1978
ISBN 9780529054395

Although the children don’t recognize the faint smell of winter in the air, a woodchuck family begins preparing for long snowy nights.


written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978
ISBN 9780690013269

When Mom and Dad make plans to move to a new house, Muffin decides to remain in the old one.


Binary Numbers
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watsoni
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977
ISBN 9780690009927

Introduces the principle and uses of binary numbers.


Maps, Tracks, and the Bridges of Konigsberg
written by Michael Holt

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976
ISBN 9780690007466

Offers a basic explanation of graph theory.

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Christmas All Around the House:
Christmas Decorations You Can Make
written by Florence Pettit

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976
ISBN 9780690010138

Instructions for making a variety of Christmas decorations, crafts, and foods that originated in different parts of the world.


Hickory Stick Rag
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976
ISBN 9780690009590

Recounts, in rhyme, the good and bad events of a school year for the young animal children.


written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976
ISBN 9780690007688

Bunny goes through a lot before he finally gets his lollipop.

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Heart’s Ease, A Little Book of Tender Thoughts
written by ???????

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1975
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


Quips & Quirks
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Crowell, 1975
ISBN 9780690007336

Briefly defines a number of names used to tease or insult for a hundred years or more. Includes rubberneck, flibbertigibbet, trollybags, and many more.


Muncus Agruncus: a Bad Little Mouse
written by Nancy D. Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975
ISBN 9780307125408

Always fond of adventure, Muncus Agruncus spends much of his time pursuing and escaping from mischief.


Sleep Is For Everyone
written by Paul Showers

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974
ISBN 9780064451413

Bedtime often seems to come too early, but what would happen if you never went to sleep? When scientists decided to find out, they discovered that your brain needs a rest after a long day of thinking, just as your muscles would need a rest after a long day of work.
A different kind of bedtime story, this book is the perfect response to the question—Can’t I stay up a little longer?’


The Birthday Goat
written by Nancy D. Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson 
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974
ISBN 9780333174838

The Goat family enjoys its outing to the Carnival until Baby Souci goat is kidnapped.


Upside Down and Inside Out
written by Bobbie Katz

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Franklin Watts, 1973
ISBN 9781563971228

Speculates in verse on the many ways the world could be turned upside down, inside out, and otherwise mixed up.

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Animal Garden
written by Ogden Nash

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Andre Deutsch, London, 1972
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


Open the Door and See All the People
written by Clyde Robert Bulla

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972
ISBN 9780690600452

After losing everything they own, including their dolls, when their house burns down, two sisters learn about a place where they can adopt dolls.


Tom Fox and the Apple Pie
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972
ISBN 9780690827835

Tom Fox goes to the Fair to bring back an apple pie for his family.


written by Charles Linn

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972
ISBN 9780690656015

Simple experiments with easily available materials explain the theory of probability and how it is used by scientists, poll-takers, and industrialists.

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A Gift of Mistletoe
written by ?????

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1971
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.

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America! America!
written by ???????

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1971
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


Life’s Wondrous Ways
written by ???????

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1971
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes
written by Clyde Watson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1971
ISBN 9780060295011 (HarperCollins ed., 2001)

(Synopsis for the 2001 edition.)

Life proclaimed this long-unavailable classic the “first authentically colloquial and breezily American nursery rhyme” when it was published in 1971. Now it is back for new generations to enjoy!

All of Clyde Waterson’s verses have what School Library Journal calls the “foot-stomping rhythm of an American square dance call.” Some feel cozy and nostalgic; others are silly. Many evoke the pleasures of changing seasons. But they all keep readers and young listeners entertained, page after page. Wendy Watson’s fully imagined and finely detailed pictures of the splendid fox family, at home and on joyous outings, will make children giggle. As The New York Times Book Review explains, “Put it all together—rhymes and pictures—and the book is like a breath of fresh air.”


Happy Thoughts
written by Louise Bachelder

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1970
no ISBN yet 

No synopsis yet.


How Dear to My Heart
written by Louise Bachelder

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1970
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


Lizzie, the Lost Toys Witch
written by Mabel Harmer

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Macrae Smith, 1970
ISBN 9780825541254

The Lost Toys Witch goes around and gathers up all the toys that are left on carousels, in Killiwiddy chuckholes, or in old man Twiddledink’s tomato red pushcart.


Magic in the Alley
written by Mary Calhoun

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Atheneum, 1970
no ISBN yet

Cleery finds a box with seven magic items in it and even though the magic is soon spent it brings three friends something of value.


Helen Keller
written by Margaret Davidson

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Scholastic Book Services, 1970
ISBN 9780590424042

The bestselling biography of Helen Keller and how, with the commitment and lifelong friendship of Anne Sullivan, she learned to talk, read, and eventually graduate from college with honors.

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The Jack Book
written by Irma Simonton

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Macmillan, Bank Street School of Education, 1969
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


God Bless Us, Every One!
written by Louise Bachelder

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1969
no ISBN yet

Christmas-themed anthology of sayings, poetry, proverbs and Bible quotes.

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The Hedgehog and the Hare (the Brothers Grimm)
re-told and illustrated by Wendy Watson
World, 1969
no ISBN yet

This is the Grimm Brother’s version of one of the best-loved of all folk tales now retold and illustrated by Wendy Watson. The hare taunts the hedgehog for the shortness of his legs. The hedgehog suggests a race– and the hare is surprised when the hedgehog wins. The clever hedgehog had made a plan…


When Noodlehead Went to the Fair
Written by Kathryn Hitte

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Parents’ Magazine Press, 1968
no ISBN yet

A cute story about Noodlehead going to the fair to win a prize for his carrot.


Uncle Fonzo’s Ford
written by Miska Miles

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Atlantic-Little Brown, 1968
no ISBN yet

A ten-year-old girl is very much embarrassed by her uncle who intends well but always does things wrong, so that everyone laughs, especially the boy next door.


The Best in Offbeat Humor
written by Paul B. Lowney

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1968
no ISBN yet

A collection of humorous quips presented by noted humorist, author, and comic book writer Paul B. Lowney.


Fisherman Lullabies
music by Clyde Watson

edited and illustrated by Wendy Watson
World, 1968
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


The Cruise of the Aardvark
written by Ogden Nash

illustrated by Wendy Watson
M. Evans, 1967
ISBN 9780871315700 (1989 ed.)

The aardvark is on a cruise and paints pictures of everyone–and they all look like him. After all, don’t they want to be improved? NO!

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Daughter of Liberty
written by Edna Boutwell

illustrated by Wendy Watsoni
World, 1967
ISBN 9780529036506 (1975 ed.)

The experiences of Polly Sumner, a French fashion doll in Boston during the American Revolution who once brought a note to Paul Revere and is now residing in the Old State House.


The Poems of Longfellow
written by H.W. Longfellow

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1967
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


The Strawman Who Smiled by Mistake
written by Paul Tripp

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Doubleday, 1967
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


Love Is a Laugh
written by Margaret Greenman

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1967
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.

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Rosabel’s Secret
written by Alice E. Christgau

illustrated by Wendy Watson
William R. Scott, 1967
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


A Comic Primer
written by Eugene Field

illustrated by Wendy Watson
Peter Pauper Press, 1966
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.

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The Spider Plant
written by Yetta Speevak

illustrated by Kurt Werth
Atheneum, 1965
no ISBN yet

No synopsis yet.


Very Important Cat
written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
Dodd, Mead, 1958
ISBN 9781258369187

No synopsis yet.


In Her Own Words:
The Impact of Personal Accounts on Biography

I admit it. I am a history nerd.

Like all biographers, I am fascinated by the past. I love learning about the world of long ago: what people wore, what they ate, the jobs they had, the wars they fought.  And nothing thrills me more when I am researching than to discover a firsthand account, a personal writing … a primary source.

How do firsthand accounts help biographers? Here are some examples.

Biographers put their readers “in the moment’ when they use a subject’s own words.

Bold Women of MedicineIn her book, Bold Women of Medicine, author Susan Latta describes the filthy, rat infested hospital Florence Nightingale encountered when she treated soldiers during the Crimean War. Latta details these desperate conditions for her readers, infusing her description with Florence Nightingale’s own words from letters written at the time:

“We have not a basin nor a towel nor a bit of soap nor a broom—I have ordered 300 scrubbing brushes … one half of the Barrack is so sadly out of repair that it is impossible to use a drop of water on the stone floors, which are all laid upon rotten wood, and would give our men fever in no time … I am getting a screen now for the amputations … “

When Latta includes this candid account in her writing, she makes readers sit up and take notice. There is no disputing how awful things were. Nightingale’s own words make the conditions real.

Biographers use personal writings to get a glimpse into their subject’s personality, which helps with the portrayal of the subject.

In my book, Aim for the Skies, I tell the story of an air race between two women, Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith, in the 1960’s. Because the 1960’s are fairly recent history, I was able to find a great deal of information about the race—from both primary and secondary sources—when I conducted my research. But I wanted more. I wanted to know the pilots. What were they really like? What made them tick?

Three-Eight CharlieJerrie Mock’s autobiography, Three Eight Charlie, gave me the insight I desired.  It gave me a much needed glimpse into Jerrie’s personality. Newspaper accounts portrayed Jerrie as business-like and capable, which she was, but passages from her autobiography revealed more. Not surprisingly, Jerrie had a keen competitive nature:

“I had just kept quiet about the burned-out motor, so that no one would try to stop me. And since I couldn’t maintain radio contact all of the time, I was careful to stay clear of clouds, so I wouldn’t run into another plane. I didn’t know how far back Joan Smith might be, and I didn’t intend to lose a race around the world because of a stupid burned out motor.”

But she also was vulnerable and second guessed herself at times:

“I didn’t like to admit it, but I was nervous. There must have been an overcast, because I couldn’t see any stars. There was no moon either. The soft red glow from the instrument lights was a solitary pool of light in the black night. Outside, Charlie’s three navigation lights and bright, flashing-red beacon would be burning in the empty sky. But they weren’t where I could see them. I felt terribly alone … I said a prayer. Lots of prayers.”

As I researched, I discovered articles authored by Joan Merriam Smith, too. In those writings, Joan provided her own—sometimes very different—account of the race.  Talk about interesting! It was apparent from all these personal writings that Jerrie and Joan were two smart, feisty women.

Biographers use personal writings to reveal the flavor of the times. 

Miss Colfax's LightAs a biographer, getting a sense of the era and my subject’s place in it may be my favorite thing about personal accounts. That certainly was the case with Harriet Colfax, the lighthouse keeper I wrote about in Miss Colfax’s Light.

As part of her lighthouse keeping duties, Harriet Colfax had to keep a daily log. Harriet’s log entries were a treasure trove of information about her life, her work, and the dangers of Great Lakes shipping in the late 1800’s. They were full of Harriet’s musings—and occasional complaints. I read through decades of Harriet’s log entries, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the refrain I used in the book of “I can do this,” was something Harriet definitely would have repeated over and over.

In addition to providing great facts, though, Harriet’s log entries showcased the language of the day: traditional words and phrases, and an overall formality.  A number of log entries are included in the book so young readers can get a sense of how differently people spoke in the late 1800’s.

Miss Colfax's Light

Miss Colfax's Light

Personal accounts allow biographers to add richness and authenticity to their work. They provide a true sense of a subject’s view of the world. They provide historical facts and context. All of which makes the biographer’s job easier.

And, let’s face it, personal accounts are just plain fun to read.

They are a little gift to the history nerd in all of us. 

Tips for Students

How can students learn to mine the rich territory of a firsthand account (and experience the thrill biographers get when they are lucky enough to discover such a source)? Here are some questions students and teachers can ask that will help them glean more than just the facts:

  1. What was the writer’s purpose for writing this personal account? Does this purpose make you think the writing is more or less truthful?
  2. What historical facts does the writer include in the personal account? How is the writer’s world different from today? How is it the same?
  3. What do the language, grammar, and word usage in the personal account tell us about the writer? Was the writer poor, rich, well-educated?  
  4. If the writer is describing an event from history, why is the writer’s point of view important?
  5. What else can you tell about the writer from this personal account?

With My Hands

Sometimes, a book comes across my desk that sparkles like a gem, attracting my attention, insisting that I stop what I’m doing and read it. This happened when With My Hands: Poems about Making Things arrived last week. I thought I’d take a peek. Next thing you know, I was closing the last page of the book, sighing with contentment. And then I knew I had to read the book all over again.

I’ve been interested in making things since I can first remember. Whether I was creating a pegboard town with my Playskool set or helping my grandmother make pie crust or giving my grandfather a hand in his shop, or sewing small items to decorate my Barbie doll house … I still feel best when my hands, mind, and heart are busy. When creativity is awake and satisfied.

This book will serve as inspiration, recognition, and encouragement. It will awaken a dormant maker and help a persistent maker sit up and feel good about what they do.

VanDerwater’s poetry is understandable. It reads out loud well. It is often brief. Her word choice is palpable … I find myself cheering her selections.

The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher are brilliant. From the first spread, “Maker,” with the art based on fingerprints (I can do that!) and a hillside of clover, to the last spread “Shadow Show,” with its example of a shadow puppet that echoes spirals, the inspiration for art-making is full of detail and subtle ideas to launch your own work. I particularly enjoy those spreads where two disparate poems are united by the illustrations. That provides inspiration, too!

My excitement level after reading this book was high. Much like the Olympics create possibilities in young minds, this book encourages the can-do spirit.

Poetry? Give the different forms a try. Craft with words. Origami? Leaf pictures? Making a piñata? Tie-dying? Soap carving? The subtle humor in VanDerwater’s poetry and the Johnson Fanchers’ art keeps readers’ spirits high.


“I cut a parachute from plastic
tied my guy on with elastic
threw him from a window (drastic)
watched him drift to earth—fantastic!”

The Army Guy tied to the plastic parachute, drifting down to the boat featured in the next poem … this is the kind of poetry everyone can enjoy, the inspiration everyone needs.

With My Hands: Poems about Making Things
written by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Clarion Books, March 27, 2018


Backseat Drivers

Some of the best advice you can give student writers is also some of the easiest for them to carry through on: to write better, they should read better.

Read better, as in: Read more. Read widely. Read outside their usual reading “type.” Read carefully. Read for fun.

Read first for story, and then read as backseat writers.

I’ll warn you that there is a risk in “backseat writing,” in second-guessing the author’s decisions without first allowing ourselves to savor their story. If we read only to analyze every decision the author made, it can strip all the pleasure out of the reading experience. So I encourage students to put the story first, simply asking themselves if the book worked for them on the most elementary level: did the act of reading it bring them a payoff of some kind? Did reading the book give them an adrenaline rush or warm fuzzy feelings or make them cry or fall in love? Did it cause them to examine their world in a whole new way, or illuminate something about their life?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then after savoring for a while, I challenge them to think as a backseat writer. What tricks do they think the author used to accomplish those reactions? Are they tricks they could try in their own writing? How would the story be different if the writer had made different choices? Changed point of view? Used a different setting? Given the character a different motivation? Pointed the plot in a different direction?

It’s that time of year when “best of the year” book lists and children’s and young adult book awards are dissected and debated and detailed on blogs far and wide. In other words, it’s the perfect time to easily steer your young writers towards a whole year full of great reading. Ask them to pick up books—any good books will do—and then read them like backseat writers.

Before they know it, they’ll be teaching themselves how to drive.


The Human Alphabet

At my local library, a couple of weeks ago, I flipped through the books that were for sale by the Friends of the Library. These are mostly books that have been removed from the shelves for one reason or another. The kids’ books cost $.50—fifty cents, people! I’ve found some great ones in these bins.

The find this time: Pilobolus Dance Company’s The Human Alphabet. I snapped it up. As in I dropped the other books I was holding, I grabbed it so fast. It’s in pretty good condition. You can tell it’s been read hard, but frankly it might be the very copy that was read hard in our house, so I don’t mind the evidence of previous reads.

This book regularly found its way into our library bag when #1 Son was young. He hated alphabet books with an almost pathological hatred, being a child who could ferret out an adult’s agenda (learning letters, for instance) quicker than you could open a book. He disdained any books that were designed to help a young person learn letters or numbers. Except for Pilobolus’s alphabet book. For this reason, I consider this book magical.

It opens with this simple invitation: Here are 26 letters of the alphabet and 26 pictures—all made of people! Can you guess what each picture shows? And what follows are the most amazing pictures. Each letter is made of people, and so is a picture that goes with each letter—a line of ants for A, butterfly for B etc. They are astounding, each and every one.

Something about these letters made of people spoke to our boy who was “not so very fond of letters and numbers.” (A direct quote, age four—we read a lot of Winnie-the-Pooh, hence the British syntax.) Occasionally he would humor me and we would make letters with our bodies. But only occasionally. Mostly he just flipped through the book, studying each letter, each picture. Sometimes I’d position myself so I could see his eyes as he looked at the book. He’d take in the whole page, lean in a bit…and then the recognition! His eyes would widen almost imperceptibly, and a little smile would come—he’d discovered something. The letter N! Or an ice cream cone! (MADE OF HUMANS!)

I tried so hard not to ruin it by having him trace the letters, or say them out loud, or wonder together what other words might start with that letter. I bit my tongue, and we just enjoyed. Regularly.

The copyright on this book says 2005. In my memory, he was much younger when we were looking at this book. But he was a later reader (you can read more on that adventure here), so perhaps it fell in that time when he already “should’ve” known his letters, but gave no indication he did on any of the usual tests and performances.

When I showed him my find, #1 Son, who will be 21 years old in a couple of weeks, smiled with recognition. Maybe I’ll send it to him for his birthday….


Behind the Sign

I came down with the flu. After weeks of dragging myself to the computer, I finally listened to the doctor and let myself be sick. One afternoon I pulled out my old journals. I haven’t kept a journal in the last few years, instead a planner dictates my days. My composition notebooks are a mishmash of thoughts, memories, observations, scribblings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s conferences. I’ve never been a dedicated diary keeper, but carrying around a handmade journal felt less like “being a writer” and more like staying in touch with the world.

Candice Ransom's Journals

Back then, I didn’t frequent Starbucks or museums or university libraries. My observations were made in diners where the first course for the special is cole slaw with Saltines, in general stores that carry weekly newspapers reporting a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where people live in abandoned gas stations. I captured scenes like this:

In Goodwill today, a mother and daughter came in talking sixty to the minute. Naturally I eavesdropped. Mother: Look, they got Dale Earnhart glasses. Daughter: No, I seen ‘em before. I remembered shopping trips with my mother and sister, how we’d “find” stuff for each other.

The daughter was ahead of me in the check-out line. One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced. Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fitting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daughter. “Pardon me, sweetie,” she said. The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daughter said and paid for her other things.

Her mother set down two glasses, the Dale Earnhart ones. She pulled two dollars folded into tiny squares from her wallet. I wondered if she purchased the Earnhart glasses for her daughter, knowing she wanted them but didn’t have enough money. She thanked me again for letting her cut in front. The women talked all the way out the door. I wondered where they were headed next. I longed to go with them.

I know families like that. They’re everywhere, but most of us living our busy, forward-focused lives don’t notice the margin-dwellers. I see them because I once existed on the periphery. Deep inside, I still do. People at the ragged edge will give you their time and anything else, even if they can’t spare it. When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.

Reading my journals made me wonder where I’ve been lately and why my recent work feels so … safe. I was once on track to tell the stories of kids who have fallen through the cracks. Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trailer-and-Daddy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dignity and even humor. After several failed attempts, I quit because I knew the stories I wanted to write would hardly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.

Oct. 3, 2014: Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t written a word. Not my words. I’m reminded how much I want to say, how little time I have to do it.

So I stopped keeping a journal. Stopped driving down back roads to get lost on purpose. Worse, I faced forward and ignored the edges where the lovely, important things are.

No Outlet signI found advice from Jack Gantos’s opening speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-winter conference. The slide on the screen showed the cover of his Newbery award-winner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title written on a road sign and a boy standing behind it.

Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gantos said. “It’s where the real stories are.” I already do that.

When I finished reading, I stacked the notebooks, reluctant to put them back on the dusty shelf. If I did, I’d bury a treasure trove of stories, sketches, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self. I moved them to the bedroom to dip into, hoping my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of forgotten voices.

I’m the only one standing in the way. No one will beg me to tell the stories I’ve already shot and declared dead without writing a syllable, hearing an editor say, No, I have seen this before. It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my confidence. To get lost on purpose and slip behind the sign. To see what I’m really part of.


Working with an Editor

“What’s it like to work with an editor?”is a question I often get from teachers, students, and aspiring authors and it’s one that takes some time to fully answer. In the best situations, an editor’s relationship to her author is like a coach’s relationship to an athlete: knowing her author’s personality, talent, and potential, she encourages her strengths, while tactfully pushing her toward improving on her weaknesses. When the relationship is working well, the writer feels supported, yet independent, and the editor trusts that the writer is carrying out her suggestions, moving the book toward their common goal of making it the very best it can possibly be.  

When I began my writing career in 1989, things were a lot different in our industry. Submissions were made through the regular mail. I wrote my drafts long-hand on legal pads and then typed them into a huge, monochrome-screened computer using MS-DOS. I spoke with editors in person and by phone about current and future projects. Publishers did all of the promotion for my books (self-promotion? author marketing? What was that?) and I reviewed and approved every book contract myself.

Those times are long gone … and with them, some of the pre-digital age advantages of really knowing your editor as an individual (and vice versa) and being able to concentrate almost exclusively on writing. But some things about the author-editor experience have not changed at all: editors are still, at least the ones that I have worked with, very dedicated to making good literature, extremely hard-working, and serve as an author’s #1 collaborator through the production process.

But they are also individuals. Although their roles at the various publishing houses (acquiring manuscripts, offering guidance to the author as he/she shapes the story, working with the art director to choose an illustrator or cover artist, shepherding the book through the production process, helping to plan marketing strategies) may be similar, their execution of that role can be very different. Even so, the most important aspect of a successful author-editor relationship is communication. Let’s say an editor (we’ll call her Susan) has acquired a picture book biography manuscript I’ve written. It’s 75% done—which is to say, it’s a full story that shows good potential, but it needs some reworking and some additional back matter material. Susan will go over the draft several times, marking it up and making suggestions that she feels will improve the final text. She will send it back to me (email these days) and I will read her comments and do my best to address the issues she has highlighted. Some of these issues might be large ones (“Can we make the little brother more of an active character in the narrative?”) and some are small ones (“I think we can delete this whole line—the art will show this.”)

The manuscript bounces back and forth between us a few, several, many times—depending on how much work it needs. The clarity of communication between editor and author is paramount: I cannot make the necessary changes to the story if I have no idea what the editor is suggesting. Most editors are very, very good at this; it’s the focus of their training and they take this part seriously. Once the manuscript has been “accepted and delivered” (i.e., it’s a final draft that’s ready to go into production, where it will increasingly look like a book …), there is usually a period wherein there is less communication as the text is being illustrated. Normally, there is little, if any, communication between the author and the illustrator (a fact that never fails to astound at school visits) unless the illustrator needs help finding an original source, photograph, or has an accuracy-related question.

At this point, a good editor will keep in touch periodically to update an author about his/her book’s progress and to reinforce the rhythm of their relationship. Even if it’s just a quick email every few weeks to check in, share any questions from the illustrator, or just to say “everything’s on track for our publication date.” Remember: a good author and a good editor usually make an excellent book—and like all relationships, personal and professional—both partners need to invest time and attention to it. If they don’t, then you can bet that author will be more than happy to look elsewhere with her next manuscript. This is not rocket science, obviously, but in my own experience—and especially now that digital communication has largely displaced in-person and phone communication—it’s the editor who lets his/her author know that “I have your back”; “I am taking good care of your manuscript here as we search for just the right artist”; “I’m spending time thinking about how we can best position this book for some extra sales”; “I’m in touch with illustrator John Smith, and all is going really well”; “I saw this new book XYZ and I think we may want to do something similar in yours regarding sidebars and author’s note”…it’s that kind of editor with whom the author will want to keep working.

Being an editor is a tough job—always has been and always will be. They work long hours, wear many hats, juggle more deadlines and projects than we can imagine. Yet all the good ones know that it’s clear and consistent communication that keeps the good authors coming back.

Editor reflecting


The Magic Misfits

The Magic MisfitsI’m one of those people that often reads a celebrity-written book because I’d like to find one that defies the odds. How about you? Did you get over the wondering at a certain point? Or do you still give a new star-powered book a try?

Sadly, I don’t often find a celebrity book I can recommend. This time, though, I’m practically shouting: Read this book! It’s that good.

Neil Patrick Harris wrote The Magic Misfits. As president of the Academy of Magical Arts from 2011 to 2014, I suspected the “magic” might be more than a word for fantasy. It’s an integral part of this mystery, woven deftly into the story. What’s more, there are magic tricks after many of the chapters, providing step-by-step instructions and tips for making the illusions seem real. And Harris introduces the book by letting readers know there are codes and ciphers within the text. Pay attention!

Carter Locke is a young boy who loves magic … and he’s taught himself to be good with illusions. When he’s quite young his loving parents disappear, after which he goes to live with his uncle … who is a crook! Sylvester “Sly” Beaton is selfish and cruel. He demands that Carter act as his shill in confidence games. Carter learns all of Uncle Sly’s moves but Carter makes a firm rule that he will never steal. He has a strong compass for right and wrong. Life is intolerable with Sly and Carter runs away, without having any idea where he’s going.

Riding the rails, he ends up in Mineral Wells (There’s a MAP! I love maps.) where he meets Mr. Dante Vernon, which is a very lucky happenstance. Carter is introduced to five other young people his age, all of them practicing some form of magic. They are the Magic Misfits, the first friends of his young life.

Mineral Wells is currently caught up in the fervor over B.B. Bosso’s Carnival Spectacular. Tempting people with circus acts, sideshow oddities, and promises of prizes, Carter quickly realizes the show is all based on fakery. When Bosso invites him to be a part of the Spectacular because of his magic skills, Carter feels uncomfortable. He refuses. Carter and the Magic Misfits are determined to save Mineral Wells from Bosso’s spell. There’s a strong sense of danger in Harris’ story. He’s written a true page-turner.

I enjoyed the way the author speaks directly to the reader. From the beginning of Chapter Two:

“Surprise! It’s time for a flashback!

“I understand how frustrating it is to pause a story right in the middle of the action, but there are a few things you should know about Carter before I tell you what happens next. Things like: Who is this kid? And why was he running? And who is the man he was running from? I promise we’ll get back to Carter’s escape soon enough. And if we don’t, I’ll let you lock me up in a tight straitjacket with no key. Oh, the horror!”

The book reads like a movie: Lissy Marlin’s illustrations are peppered throughout, helping the reader visualize just enough. Her characters’ faces contribute depth to the story.

I hope this book wasn’t ghost-written. I want to know that Harris wrote the whole thing. I could hear his voice throughout the story, so I’m choosing to believe this is a celebrity-written book that far surpasses other star-powered efforts. It’s a solid middle-grade book. It’s charming, funny, compelling, and a testament to the power of friendship. And I can learn magic. Magic Misfits: The Second Story comes out in September 2018. I already have it on order.

Magic Misfits
Neil Patrick Harris
Little,Brown Books for Young Readers
November 2017
ISBN 978-0316391825


The Secret Kingdom

The Secret KingdomThis book is irresistible. For all kinds of reasons.

Remember when you were a kid, or maybe you do this now, how you’d take whatever was at hand and create a house, a camp, an entire setting for you to play in? Where you could act out your stories? Did you do this with found items from nature? Or things your family was throwing away? Did you scoop up cool fabric or papers to use when you needed them? Then this book is for you.

The author and illustrator tell the story of Nek Chand. It begins this way:

“On the continent of Asia, near the mighty Himalayas, in the Punjab region of long ago, sat the tiny village of Berian Kalan, the place Nek Chand Saini called home.”

Claire A. Nevola, who is, I confess, one of my favorite illustrators because she knows how important the details are and seems to read my mind about what I need to know, begins with this illustration.

from The Secret Kingdom, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

sculpture by Brian Marshall

As you can see on the cover of the book, there are broken pots and ribbons and warped bicycle wheels, just the sort of thing you and I might have collected. Perhaps you still do. (Another confession, I have a Pinterest board where I keep examples of characters made from Found Objects, so collecting bits and scraps is always on my mind. Here’s one of the characters I find so charming.)

Barb Rosenstock tells the story. Nek Chand is born a storyteller. He notices the people and the world around him. He appreciates his village and the people, the community, with whom he lives. Until the Punjab is split into two countries, Pakistan and India. Nek’s village is in Pakistan, which is now Muslim. His family is Hindu. “The Saini family fled at night, walking for twenty-four days across the new border into India. Nek carried only village stories in his broken heart.” 

We have seen current photos. The nightly news tells us stories (not enough of them) of the people who are leaving their much-loved homes. The Secret Kingdom takes place in 1947. It could be taking place today.

What is most important about this book is that it the true story of what one man does to wrap himself in the memories of home. With much effort, Nek finds a spot in the jungle near his new town. Patiently, he begins to clear a space, collect discarded treasures and boulders from riverbeds, and “half-dead plants from the city dump.” He began to tell his stories by creating art, a sanctuary, a place he could feel at home. 

He’s built all this on government land. After many years, he is discovered, and the government intends to demolish all of his artwork. 

“Everyone in Chandigarh learned his secret. Officials were outraged. Nek Chand Saini should lose his job!

His Kingdom would be destroyed.

Until the people of Chandigarh came.”

That stopped my breathing. It was the people who recognized immediately how important this secret kingdom of Nek Chand’s truly was. And it was the people who worked to save it. 

At the end of the story, there is a truly appropriate fold-out section with photographs that will have you saying, “Yes! I understand why this had to be saved. I would have worked with the community to do this.”

Nek Chand (photo: Gilles Probst, Wikimedia Commons)

A biography of Nek Chand is in the Author’s Note, helping the reader understand how important and vital this man was. He died at age 90 in 2015. His art remains.

This is the story of what one person can do to preserve our stories. It is also the story of how a community of people can protect, defend, and preserve what is truly important to them. It is an irresistible true story.

Highly recommended for school and home.

The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art
written by Barb Rosenstock
illustrated  by Claire A. Nivola
published by Candlewick Press, 2017
ISBN 978-0-7636-7475-5


Capers and Cons

When you (or your students) want a book that keeps you turning the pages for your weeknight and weekend reading, here are some suggestions for books with that nimble pacing and what-are-they-up-to plots. Many of them are just right for middle grade or avid younger-than-that readers, with a couple of teen titles added. (And, of course, all are suitable for reading by adults.)

Adam Canfield of the Slash  

Adam Canfield of the Slash
written by Michael Winerip
Candlewick Press, 2005

This book is by turns funny and serious, but Adam Canfield is always interested in discovering the truth. Written by a New York Times columnist (on education) who won a Pulitzer Prize, Winerip knows what his readers will find interesting. Adam reluctantly accepts the position of co-editor of their school paper. He’s skeptical when a third-grader uncovers a possible scandal. Adam and his co-editor, Jennifer, take the story to the principal, who forbids them to investigate. Adam and Jennifer can’t help themselves and they’re soon uncovering secrets.  Even though school papers are mostly digital now, this book will motivate readers to be truth seekers.

Con Academy  

Con Academy
written by Joe Schreiber
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015

For teen readers: Senior Michael Shea has conned his way into one of the country’s elite prep schools. He’s an old hand at cons, but he’s unprepared to meet Andrea, his competition. When the two of them set up a competition to con the school’s Big Man on Campus out of $50,000, the stakes are high. One twist after another, a full crew of grifters brought in to effect the con … this book reads cinematically and moves along quickly.

Eddie Red Undercover: Doom at Grant's Tomb  

Eddie Red Undercover: Doom at Grant’s Tomb
written by Marcia Wells, illustrated by Marcos Calo
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016

Having just finished the third book in the series, I’m a fan of the youngest investigator working for the NYPD. There’s a back story for that, of course, but Eddie has an eidetic memory and a quicksilver mind … he’s good at solving crimes. The police are always reluctant to involve Eddie because he’s only 12 years old, but the kid’s good at what he does. In this installment, it appears that Eddie is being targeted for serious consequences by international art thieves whom he’s foiled before. The thieves are stealing valuable items from well-known landmarks. Can Eddie psych them out before they catch up with him?




written by James Ponti
Aladdin, 2016

Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie’s house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.

Illyrian Adventure  

Illyrian Adventures
written by Lloyd Alexander
Dutton Books, 1987

This is the first of six books about 16-year-old Vesper Holly who, in 1872, in the company of her guardian, Binnie, travels to Illyria on the Adriatic Sea to prove one of her late father’s theories. She’s a girl with modern sensibilities set against Binnie’s conservative concerns. Vesper gets caught up in fast-paced intrigue with a rebellion against the king, all the while managing to search for the legendary treasure. With Mr. Alexander’s characteristic humor, and a touch of romance, this series is fun to read and definitely qualifies as a turn-the-page adventure.

Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush  

Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush
written by Peter Lourie, illustrated by Wendell Minor
Henry Holt, 2017

Teens will enjoy this one. When Jack London turns 21, the Gold Rush of 1897 compels treasure seekers from around the world to trek through life-threatening conditions to get to the gold fields in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Jack is swept up in the excitement, assembling a team of adventurers and supplies to withstand the cruel journey. That someone this young could command respect and camaraderie speaks loudly about his character. This true story serves as an excellent companion books for Call of the Wild and White Fang, Jack London’s Klondike stories. A real page-turner.

Magic Misfits  

Magic Misfits
written by Neill Patrick Harris, illus by Lissy Marlin
Little, Brown Books, 2017

This thoroughly enjoyable book follows Carter when he runs away from his crooked, thieving uncle to the New England town of Mineral Wells, a surprisingly welcoming place. Convinced that magic isn’t real, and yet a talented street magician, Carter is soon befriended by a group of Magic Misfits who set out to expose a circus that’s a front for a well-orchestrated, and dangerous, team of grifters. Adventurous, funny, heartwarming, this will capture readers’ imaginations. 

Mighty Jack  

Mighty Jack
written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
First Second, 2016

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
First Second, 2017

In the first book, Jack’s sister Maddy persuades him to trade their Mom’s car for a box of mysterious seeds … and the adventure begins. These are not, of course, ordinary seeds. They grow strange, otherworldly creatures and the kids, including next-door-neighbor Lilly, are challenged to deal with creatures run amok.

In the second book, an ogre snatches Maddy into another world with Jack and Lilly determined to rescue her. Along the way, we meet goblins (good) and ogres (bad) and Lilly fulfills a prophecy. It’s all very exciting and well-told with vibrant, engrossing illustrations.

Parker Inheritance  

Parker Inheritance
written by Varian Johnson
Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic, 2018

In modern-day Lambert, Candice discovers a mystery in her grandmother’s letters. In the 1950s, her grandmother left Lambert in shame, but it’s soon apparent to Candice and her friend Brandon that racism was behind those events … and they reflect that things haven’t changed that much. Reading this book will bring your creative problem-solving skills into play. There’s intrigue, humor, and a lot to think about in this story. 

Player King  

Player King
written by Avi
Atheneum, 2017

In 1846, young Lambert Simnel slaves away in a London tavern, completely unaware of the politics of the land.  When he’s purchased in the middle of the night by a friar, he’s astounded when the man reveals, “You, Lambert, are actually Prince Edward, the true King of England!” King Henry VII has just claimed the throne of England, but only after Prince Edward, who has a truer claim, disappears. Could Lambert be the real prince? How could he not remember this? Based on a blip in history, this is a fascinating look at a confidence job planned by politicians whose lives are at stake.

Riddle in Ruby  

Riddle in Ruby
written by Kent Davis
Greenwillow Books, 2015

In an alternate history colonial Philadelphia, Ruby Teach is training to be a thief and a guardian of secrets. It isn’t until she meets young Lord Athen that she begins to understand that her entire life has been kept secret from the powers that be. In this world, those powers use alchemy to fuel the Industrial Revolution. It’s a fast-paced, funny, and compelling book, the first of a trilogy, with The Changer’s Key and The Great Unravel providing the rest of the story.

Supernatural Sleuthing Service  

Supernormal Sleuthing Service
written by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe,
illustrated by Glenn Thomas
Greenwillow Books, 2017

Stephen and his dad are moving cross-country so Dad can be the new executive chef at the New Harmonia, a New York City hotel for supernormals (read: monsters!) It isn’t long before Stephen discovers he’s part supernormal himself! When Stephen is framed for stealing a valuable heirloom, he teams up with two new friends to prove his innocence. It’s a spooky story, filled with humor and hijinks, and there’s a second book, The Sphinx’s Secret. You know the right reader for these books!


Laughing Matters

This month, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root, the usual hosts of this column, have invited Kari Pearson to share her recommendations for funny picture books.

Kari Pearson

Kari Pearson

Let’s play a game! It’s called Funny/Not Funny. It goes like this:

Funny: Eating greasy bloaters with cabbage-and-potato sog (see: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen)

Not Funny: Shoveling gigantic snowdrifts out of my driveway into piles almost as tall as myself.

Laughing matters, as anyone who has survived a Minnesota winter will tell you.

Whether you’re snowbound or not, I hope you will enjoy the warmth and wit this quirky collection of picture books has to offer. Some of them are old (look for them at your library or online through Alibris), others are newer. Most importantly, all are guaranteed to be more hilarious than discovering you have to kick your own front door open from the inside because it has frozen shut overnight in a blizzard (file under: not funny). Not that that happened, because that would be ridiculous.

The Big Orange SplotThe Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater (Scholastic, 1977)

It all starts with The Big Orange Splot. More specifically, with a seagull who is carrying a bucket of orange paint (no one knows why), which he drops onto Mr. Plumbean’s house (no one knows why). Unfazed, Mr. Plumbean allows the splot to remain and goes about his business, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. On this neat street such things simply aren’t done. Eventually, Plumbean agrees that this has gone far enough. He buys some paint and gets to work correcting the problem.

Overnight, the big orange splot is joined by smaller orange splots, stripes, pictures of elephants and lions, steamshovels, and other images befitting a rainbow jungle explosion. “My house is me and I am it,” Plumbean tells his flabbergasted neighbors. “My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.” But Plumbean doesn’t stop there. Palm trees, frangipani, alligators…nothing is too outlandish for his new dream house. “Plumbean has popped his cork, flipped his wig, blown his stack, and dropped his stopper” the neighbors exclaim in dismay. They go about hatching a plan to get things back to normal on their neat street. But as they soon discover, once a Big Orange Splot appears, there’s no going back. Plumbean’s unbridled imagination far outstrips even their most ardently held pedestrian sensibilities. Wigs have only begun to flip.

Nino Wrestles the WorldNiño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales (Roaring Brook, 2013)

“Señoras y Señores, put your hands together for the fantastic, spectacular, one of a kind…Niño!” So begins the most improbable lucha libre wrestling competition of all time. Our hero is Niño, a diminutive boy in a red mask with more than a few tricks up his (non-existent) sleeves. Armed with little more than a popsicle, a decoy doll, and assorted puzzle pieces, Niño prevails against a colorful array of foes. La Llorona (the weeping woman), Cabeza Olmeca (a sculpted basalt head from the Olmec civilization), and the terrifying Guanajuato Mummy are just a few of the characters in this winning tribute to the theatrical world of lucha libre. Certain illustrations might be a bit scary for the youngest readers, but they are presented in a silly way that make them less frightening and more fun. And lest you think that Niño has no serious competition, rest assured that all bets are off once his little sisters, las hermanitas, wake up from their nap…

Slow LorisSlow Loris by Alexis Deacon (Kane/Miller, 2002)

If you’ve ever been to the zoo, you probably noticed that some animals are just not that exciting. Or are they? This story delves into the daily life of Slow Loris, an impossibly boring animal who earns his name by spending ten minutes eating a satsuma, twenty minutes going from one end of his branch to the other, and a whole hour scratching his bottom. But Slow Loris has a secret. At night, he gets up and does everything fast! When the other zoo animals get over their surprise at how wild Slow Loris really is, they don’t hesitate to join his all-night party, which includes (among other things) a multitude of hats, colorful ties, dancing, and an epic drum solo (by Slow Loris, of course). As you would imagine, it’s a slow day at the zoo after that as the party animals sleep off the previous night’s shenanigans. Boring!

Stop That Pickle!Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour, illustrated by Andrew Shachat (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)

As fast as Slow Loris may be by night, I’m guessing he still couldn’t catch the runaway pickle from Mr. Adolph’s deli. Rather than be eaten by one Ms. Elmira Deeds, this plucky pickle leaps out of the jar and makes a break for it. Stop That Pickle! is a delightfully wacky story of one pickle’s daring escape and ultimate triumph over a host of other foods trying to catch it. (And if you were wondering if there is any solidarity in the food world, this book answers that question with a resounding NO.) 

When Mr. Adolph is immediately overwhelmed by the pickle’s speed, a disgruntled peanut butter and jelly sandwich joins the chase. “Everyone knows that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is not the fastest sandwich in the world, but it does have great endurance.” Page by page tension builds as more foods join the pack, all shouting: Stop That Pickle!. By the end of the book the pickle is being pursued by not only the sandwich (hello, endurance!), but also a braided pretzel, green pippin apple, seventeen toasted almonds, a crowd of raisins, a cake doughnut, a cool grape soda, and an elegant vanilla ice cream cone. How will our pickle prevail??? The story culminates in a back alley moment of truth which I won’t spoil for you, but rest assured that this pickle lives to run another day. With its satisfying (yet totally ineffectual) refrain, Stop That Pickle! is a great read aloud book and will definitely make you think twice about the moral advisability of skewering the last pickle in the jar.

Sophie's SquashSophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013)

When Sophie spots a butternut squash at the farmers’ market, it is love at first sight. Her squash is “just the right size to hold in her arms. Just the right size to bounce on her knee. Just the right size to love.” Finally, Sophie has found the perfect friend! Except…her parents seem to want to eat her friend. “Don’t listen, Bernice!” Sophie cries at the suggestion of cooking Bernice with marshmallows. And so Bernice becomes part of the family. She goes to story time at the library, rolls down hills, visits other squash. Everything is fine until one day Bernice is not quite herself. She starts looking spotty and her somersaults don’t have “their usual style.” What to do? This heartwarming story is has a simple, funny sweetness to it as Sophie learns about being a loyal friend and what it means to let go. Don’t miss the illustrated endpapers which feature Sophie in her unparalleled squashy exuberance! This book also offers a seasonally appropriate lesson: winter might seem like the end, but sometimes it is only the beginning.  

How Tom Beat Captain NajorkHow Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Atheneum, 1974)

No self-respecting list of funny picture books would be complete without How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen. This gem is from an era where picture books were a bit longer, but that just means there is more hilarity here to enjoy. Tom is a boy who knows fooling around. He fools around “with sticks and stones and crumpled paper, with mewses and passages and dustbins, with bent nails and broken glass and holes in fences.” You get the idea. He’s an expert.

This deeply troubles Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, a formidable woman in an iron hat who believes boys should spend their time memorizing pages from the Nautical Almanac instead of doing things that suspiciously resemble playing. So she calls in Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach Tom a lesson in fooling around. As you might imagine, Captain Najork has wildly underestimated Tom’s expertise in these matters and gets his comeuppance accordingly. Quentin Blake’s wonderfully zany line drawings are the perfect accompaniment to the hijinks of this weird and totally satisfying story. Greasy bloaters, anyone? There’s also some cabbage-and-potato sog left. Somehow.


Skinny Dip with Lisa Bullard

Lisa Bullard

Lisa Bullard (photo: Katherine Warde)

Lisa Bullard is a well-respected writing teacher in Minnesota and beyond, having shared her wisdom and her sense of humor about writing with classrooms full of adults and children (usually not at the same time). She has two books on writing, one for adults (Get Started in Writing for Children) and one for children (You Can Write a Story! A Story-Writing Recipe for Kids), as well as a series of Insider Guides co-written with Laura Purdie Salas. She has written Bookology‘s popular Writing Road Trip column for several years.

Lisa Bullard's READ Bookcase

My favorite bookcase!

How many bookcases do you have in your home?

Based on my house, this question is open to interpretation. What qualifies as a bookcase? For example, if the baker’s rack in my kitchen holds dozens of cookbooks (despite the fact that I don’t cook), does this qualify as a bookcase? Does it influence the judging if I explain that one of my absolute favorite books as a child was Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book? I spent hours “reading” the book and inventing stories to go along with the cookie creations pictured there.

But okay, back to the original question. In addition to the “kitchen bookcase” described above, I have six-and-a-half bookcases.

What’s your food weakness?

My food weakness is that I love food far beyond its nutritional purpose. It represents so much more than just that to me. Food is sneaking into the kitchen late at night with Grandma to eat pickles while Mom looks askance. Food is spitting watermelon seeds into the lake and getting brain freeze from homemade ice cream on the 4th of July. Food is the brownie you lick so that your brothers don’t eat it first.

Licking the brownie

If you’re asking about my favorite food rather than my food weakness, it’s any food that somebody else has cooked. I am fortunate enough to have several friends who love to cook, and who express their affection by cooking for me. Now that’s love!

Have you traveled outside of the United States? Which country is your favorite to visit? Why?

I’ve been lucky enough to travel outside of the U.S. to England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Canada. I found things to love in all of those countries, but I most loved how different I became in Italy. For some reason I transformed into a whole other person there. Someone who knows me well once described me as a “cheerful pessimist;” growing up, I was heavily influenced by my stoically Scandinavian mother; and I’m typically very cautious. But under Italy’s influence, I transformed into a risk-taker who gamboled from one romantic city to the next with hardly a care in the world. I really liked that person, but she only seems to exist in Italy!

Juliet's balcony in Verona

Juliet’s balcony in Verona

A gondolier in Venice

A gondolier in Venice

What’s your favorite word because you like the way it sounds?

I love saying the word “collywobbles.” It’s such a wonderful, roly poly word, and it sounds so much more joyful than its meaning. Whenever one of us kids was sick, my mom’s first question was: “Do you have the collywobbles?” Few of my friends knew what the word meant, so they usually looked blank when I asked them the same question. For a long time I thought it was a word that belonged to my family alone; that you had to have access to some kind of Bullard Family Dictionary to be able to decode it. This was also true, by the way, of one of my most dreaded words: “potch.” My mom threatened to “potch” us when we were naughty, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to figure out that this “Bullard family word” was (surprisingly, given our heritage) in fact Yiddish.

What foreign language would you like to learn?

I don’t know if it’s defined as a “foreign” language or not, but one of the things on my bucket list is to learn American Sign Language. When I attend a performance or presentation where someone is interpreting into ASL, I’m riveted—I’d love to be able to make my words dance in the air the same way that I try to make them dance on the page when I write.

Do you read the end of a book first?

I’m actually perfectly happy to start a book somewhere other than the beginning, and then to read it in sections completely out of order. But now that I’m a writer, I’ve made a rule to allow other writers the chance to tell me their story in the fashion they think is best (in other words, I make myself read it in the order it’s presented, from beginning to end). But if I grow bored a couple of chapters in, the rules change, and I revert to random reading order. In that case, I usually dip into the middle and read a bit to see if the story seems more exciting at that point. If not, I’ll read the end as my way of giving the author a final chance to sell me on their story. If I like the ending after all that, I sometimes go back and read earlier bits, dipping in and out of the story in random fashion until I get back to that end again.


The Pushcart War

I first heard of  Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War in grad school. I read it because a fellow student spoke with absolute glee about it. I’ve not heard a book recommended with such laughter and vigor before or since. And I fell into the book just as she insisted I would. Fell, I tell you. Lost my head, really.

My kids did, too. I handed it to them with a casual, “It’s really good and I think you’ll like it…” sort of recommendation. I wanted to see if they would, as I did, google “pushcart war” to see when this had happened and why we didn’t know more about it. They did. Well, the little one said, “Wait…did this really happen?!”

Apparently, we each read over the dates of the forward and the author’s introduction. Both are dated in the year 2036, which would’ve been a clue, of course…but so absorbed were we in the “reporting” of the Pushcart War—in the struggle, the unfair tactics and politics of the truckers, and the plight of the pushcart vendors—that we missed the clues, I guess.

When The Pushcart War was published in 1964, it was set in New York City in 1976. When it was republished in 1974, it was set in 1986. The 1985 edition is set in 1996—always the not-so-distant future, in other words. When the New York Review Children’s Collection published the 50th anniversary edition a couple of years ago, the date changed to 2026 (this is the edition I have). This book has had political resonance in each of the eras in which it has published and republished, and the plight of the pushcart vendors certainly still rings True, hilariously and poignantly, today.

The story could be categorized as “narrative journalism,” published ten years after the events of the war. The forward, written by one Professor Lyman Cumberly of New York University says “…it is very important to the peace of the world that we understand how wars begin….” The Pushcart War shows us. Kids understand the issue at hand—the big trucking companies want the roads cleared for trucks and only trucks. The trucking industry cites the importance of deliveries being on time, the general agreement that traffic is awful etc. The pushcarts—the little guys—are the first target.

But they fight back! And the fight is glorious and one that anyone who has ever been bullied or witnessed bullying or has bullied will understand. There’s The Daffodil Massacre, which starts it all off, and then we’re quickly introduced to Morris the Florist, and Frank the Flower, and Maxie Hammerman, the Pushcart King. Movie star, Wanda Gambling, sees the danger signs—don’t we all? I mean, the taxi drivers grew cautious in their driving!—and pretty soon there are famous speeches and secret meetings, triggering words and secret weapons. Then there’s an all out War. It’s basically David and Goliath all over again.

But there’s something about the way it’s written—I guess it’s the “narrative journalism” tone—before you know it, you’re searching Wikipedia to get the details nailed down.

If I were a teacher of fourth graders, I’d read a chapter of this timeless classic every day. And I’d notice, and ponder, as I did and do, that this book, a story for children, has only the briefest mention of any kids. The main characters are entirely adults.

Fascinating, don’t you think?



The Good Thing about Bad Words

It’s mid-January, I have this Nonfictionary deadline, and all I can think about is President Trump’s latest vulgarity.

His recent word choice about certain countries jumped from my phone like an electrical charge, literally and physically jolting me backwards. For the rest of the day and beyond, my soul hurt and my spirit sagged.

But it was just a word. 

Let’s be honest.  I have a pretty good vocabulary of inappropriate words and I’m not all that careful about using them in adult company. My mother was so fond of “damn” that I didn’t know it was considered a curse word until I got to school. (Somehow, I’m still surprised that it’s verboten!)

I worked in several newsrooms where blue language was just the way we described events and chatted with each other. And my dog is definitely familiar with a few four-letter exclamations.

Oh please, they’re just words. 

Still, there’s a line. Despite the colorful banter of the workplace, newspapers have a clear standard about what goes into print: Profanity is allowed only sparingly, even today. If the offending language is in a quote, perhaps you paraphrase it into something more printable or just work around it. Any exceptions must be important and usually require special permission from the higher-ups.

In the old days, The Wall Street Journal regularly used what was called a Barney dash, after the paper’s arrow-straight keeper of standards, Barney Calame. That was a first letter, followed by a long dash. It still reserves the Barney dash for especially egregious words.

No s—, you knew what it was. But you didn’t have to actually ingest it along with your Wheaties.

If the president of the United States said something coarse, or the VP let something obscene slip out on a hot microphone, well, that was a different situation. Then, the words might actually appear in all their ugliness.

You’ve got to have some standards.

As a writer of nonfiction for young people, I’ve run into these kinds of language issues more than I expected. After all, real people do use real words. And sometimes they have real impact on a subject.

Bootleg by Karen Blumenthal“Hell,” for instance, was a big concept during the debate over liquor before, during, and after Prohibition. It was impossible to ignore it in my book Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, though some people think that word doesn’t belong in a children’s book. (Apparently, the Bible is exempt.)

One reviewer called me out for using “damned” in a quotation in Mr. Sam, my biography of Sam Walton, and then questioned the appropriateness of the book because of that single word. (Thanks, Mom!)

Steve Jobs, however, posed the biggest challenge. As a colorful entrepreneur, he had quite the wide-ranging adult vocabulary. Walter Isaacson’s long biography for grown-ups is peppered with four-letter saltiness. But writing for young adults required a choice.

Steve Jobs by Karen BlumenthalIt wasn’t too difficult to decide what to do in Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different. I realize that teens (and younger kids) know those words and that they use them, too. But I’m in Texas, and I also know there are school libraries that will shy away from a book just because of a profanity. If I wrote fiction, I might choose differently, since avoiding those words might make a teen character less authentic. But as a teller of true stories, I had access to plenty of words that effectively made clear what Jobs wanted to say when he was, for example, demolishing someone’s hard work.

There was one quote, however, where one of those dastardly bombs exploded. Some commenter somewhere wondered aloud why I didn’t use the obvious real word.

True story: the original source had used a long dash—and so did I.

Words matter.

Hillary Rodham Clinton by Karen BlumenthalHillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History introduced me to a new kind of language. There are certain words I absolutely won’t use in any context, primarily those that I consider racist or hateful, including a couple of especially crude ones aimed at women. A few people found it necessary to share those words in describing how they felt about the presidential candidate I profiled. (Thanks, Twitter!)

In tapping on my social media, I had the same response I had to President Trump’s January word choice, a bracing, slap-in-the-face reaction.

It was painful and upsetting—and I think that’s okay. We should never lose the ability to viscerally feel the impact of language, good or bad. We should never grow so complacent that words don’t move us. They should spark horror, spur tears, convey outrage, hurt, heal, or propel us to be something better.

Words are powerful. Choose carefully.


Skinny Dip with Brenda Sederberg

Brenda SederbergBrenda Sederberg is the current facilitator of the Chapter & Verse Book Club in Duluth, Minnesota. She’s an enthusiastic reader and wonderfully avid about sharing the books she reads. A retired teacher, she continues to inspire learning wherever she goes.

How many bookcases do you have in your home?

Oh … soooo many! When I retired from 34 years of teaching I brought very little home from my classroom, but I did bring 24 boxes of children’s books! I’m just not ready to part with them. They take up bookshelves on an entire wall in my house. From time to time I will be chatting with someone about something, and end up saying, “oh … you should see this book by ….”, and I find the book and loan it out. When guests with children visit they often end up reading books from my shelves.

I also have shelves of books in another room in our house, organized:

  • nature and outdoors books
  • books by Hispanic authors (I taught middle and high school Spanish for a number of years … before teaching elementary school)
  • travel books
  • an assortment of Nobel Prize winning literature
  • children’s books from places I’ve visited (Maine, Texas, Rhode Island, France, Germany)
  • favorite fiction and nonfiction books I’ve read or want to read

Brenda Sederberg's bookcases

Have you traveled outside the United States?

I love to travel, and when I do I look for children’s books from the area I’m visiting, or read a book while I’m there that was written by an author from that region. I read Heidi in Switzerland last fall, and Pinocchio in Italy the year before. I enjoy hiking and biking in the wide open spaces in these countries, the small towns … and I stay away from the big cities.

Mt. Royal Public Library, Duluth, MN

Mt. Royal Public Library, Duluth, MN

Which library springs to mind when someone says that word?

It’s hard to choose one! We lived in a small town in North Dakota when I was young, and I biked to the Public Library there and checked out as many books as the book clamp on my bike would hold. It was a beautiful building, of course, as libraries are! There were large steps leading up to the door, and columns alongside the steps. The old public library near Lincoln Park School was a favorite when I went to school there, and now I LOVE the Mt. Royal Library in Duluth. When I was in college in Duluth, I worked 10 hours a week in the Children’s Library at UMD, run by Lorraine Bissonette. She arranged books beautifully, with stuffed animal book characters next to books, colorful mobiles hanging above the shelves, green and flowering plants throughout, and comfortable chairs in which to sit and read. It was a library like no other, to be sure … more like some of the wonderful children’s bookstores … the Wild Rumpus, for example.

Do you read the end of a book first?

NEVER. I do not usually read any information on the flap or the back, either. I like to start with the dedication, and then the first line of the book, and continue from there. I want to read it and let it speak for itself, I don’t like to know much at all about a book before I read it! First lines are important to me … I sort of “collect” first lines!

"In the Carpenter Shop," Carl Larsson

“In the Carpenter Shop,” Carl Larsson

Who is your favorite artist?

It is hard to choose one … I like the art of Carl Larsson, Swedish painter, and visited his home in Sweden where one can see the painting he did IN his home, above doorways, around walls. I copied a “saying” he painted in his house, above a doorway in our home: “Whef Du Vad, Var God Och Glad,” in Swedish (forgive any errors!), in English: “I’ll tell you what, be good and glad.” I love Betsy Bowen’s woodcuts, and the prints of Rick Allen, who has a studio in Canal Park in Duluth and each spring releases a new print of “The Trapper’s Daughter”! He has practically written a book in printing her many adventures! The lettering and text he sometimes incorporates in his work is wonderful, and often humorous.


A Wrinkle in Time

It was a dark and stormy night. 

When I read this aloud one chilly fall evening on the porch to my kids, I laughed out loud. It was Banned Books week and we were “celebrating” by reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, one of the perennial repeaters on banned books lists. #1 Son was in fourth grade, which is when I’d been introduced to A Wrinkle in Time. Darling Daughter was a little young, but she was accustomed to coloring while we read books that were supposedly “over her head”—books that she often quoted later.

I can’t imagine I laughed the first time I heard the opening line of this important book. But as an adult, it struck me as terribly clever—taking the most clichéd opening line ever and starting an astounding, break-all-the-rules book with it.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Henderson read us A Wrinkle in Time. I remember the hair on my arms standing up as she read a chapter each afternoon after lunch and recess. I could hardly breath I loved that book so much. Meg was a Smart Girl, a Strong Girl—a smart and strong girl in ways not always recognized, but frequently squelched, in my experience. There were not nearly enough Smart/Strong Girl protagonists when I was in fourth grade. I adored her. I wanted to be her. Plus, I had a mad crush on Calvin.

The book was smart, too—filled with languages Mrs. Henderson could not pronounce, peppered with sayings from people I did not know (like Seneca), and there was math and science and space adventure! Oh my! (I wanted desperately to be a scientist when I was in fourth grade.) Reading time after lunch and recess was always my favorite part of the school day, but during those few weeks that we read A Wrinkle in Time, I was in the highest reading heaven.

When we reached the chapter called “The Tesseract,” Mrs. Henderson declared it “too difficult conceptually” and she skipped it. I can’t decide whether to never forgive her for this, or be terribly grateful. Because I went to the library and found the book so I could read the skipped part. I was determined to understand it, and I did. (The drawing of the ant on the line helped.) I understood it sitting on the floor in the library at age nine better than I did when I read it to my kids on the porch during Banned Books Week thirty years later, I think. Darling Daughter copied the picture of the ant in her artwork. #1 Son studied it after we’d finished reading.

I don’t remember reading ahead once I’d found the book in the library—I probably didn’t, since I enjoyed hearing the chapter installments each day. In fact, I don’t remember reading A Wrinkle in Time on my own at all—and there were plenty of books I read in a compulsive manner again and again.

But it was like I’d never left it when I read it to my kids. I remembered it all—the excitement…the terror of IT…the fast-paced dialog between all the smart smart people…the identical children bouncing balls in front of identical houses, which I think of every time I’m in a suburban development with only beige/grey houses and townhouses… Most of all: Meg’s frustration and fear, fierce strength and smarts.

The hair on my arms stood up again when I saw the preview to the movie of A Wrinkle in Time that’s coming out this March. It’s going to be wonderful, I can just tell. This groundbreaking, unusual novel that couldn’t be categorized when it was published and continues to resist categorization nearly sixty years later … this book that has been banned again and again and again … this book is about to take the world by a storm again, I predict, even as it’s never lost favor (except with those who would ban it, I guess). I open its pages and the hair on my arms stands up still—it remains incredibly relevant, I believe. Perhaps more so now than when it was published. I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.


A Science Rookie: Learning to Craft a Science Narrative
When You Know Next to Nothing about Science

Enter the freshman chemistry tutor dressed in torn jeans and a flannel shirt. His job? To get me through entry level chemistry at Iowa State University. My first college plan was to major in Hotel and Restaurant Management because my father owned a company that did business with these types of institutions. So, what the heck, I didn’t know what else to study so I declared that my major way back in the fall of 1977.

ScienceNo one told me that since these kinds of institutions serve food, I had to take courses in food and nutrition. And since food and nutrition were science based, I must take chemistry. Three quarters of chemistry! Ugh. Back to the tutor’s and my results; C+, and that was after a lot of hard work. My new major; journalism and mass communications, and forty years later the stars have aligned. Science is drawing me in now.

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the proposal for Bold Women of Medicine, it did not occur to me that I would have to write about science. Well … what did you think, Susan? Write about these courageous doctors, nurses, midwives, and physical therapists, and there wouldn’t be any science? Oh, dear. I flashed back to freshman chemistry and biology, and suspected I was in big trouble.

Along the way I discovered that not having this knowledge was a good thing, and in my case, it almost helped me. I could write from a position of innocence and explain the women’s medical careers without a condescending tone to my readers: I was one of those readers.

Take for example one of the women in my book, Helen Taussig and her part in treating the blue baby syndrome. I barely knew how the human heart worked when it was healthy, and now I’d have to explain how brilliant medical researcher Mr. Vivien Thomas, and Drs. Taussig and Blalock, discovered how to fix the defect. (Hint: Vivien Thomas practiced on hundreds of dogs, the most famous of which is Anna, whose portrait hangs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.)

heart doctorOff to the library I went to check out books on the human heart—first adult books, then books for children. I studied the healthy heart and heart defect jargon and tried to explain it to myself first, and then write it down. Fortunately, I have medical professionals in my life so, after a few drafts, I had them read it to see if I had explained it correctly and without intense medical language. Did you know the normal child’s heart is about the size of their fist? I didn’t know that.

The tiny babies were not getting enough oxygen and in Dr. Taussig’s mind the fix seemed to be a simple case of improved plumbing. The narrative tension was built right into the story. Specifics always work better so I wrote about the first operation on one of the babies, little Eileen Saxon, and later another operation on a six-year-old boy.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

In the profiles of Dr. Catherine Hamlin and Edna Adan Ismail, the science writing was more challenging knowing my audience was young adult (12 and up). Writing about medicine automatically lends itself to topics we don’t want to hear about—in this case, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and Obstetric Fistula. One young woman came to Dr. Hamlin for help by walking almost 280 miles. Ten years earlier, because of a prolonged labor, she had suffered two holes in her bladder (an obstetric fistula) and lost all control. At first Dr. Hamlin did not know how to help her, but she talked to other physicians and studied up on procedures. After the successful surgery, Dr. Hamlin presented the young woman with a new dress in which to go home. The woman waved good-bye with hope and said “God will reward you for all you have done for me.” Presenting the image of an optimistic woman with a new dress helps readers understand Dr. Hamlin’s important work.

Edna Adan Ismail

Edna Adan Ismail with a class of nursing school graduates at Edna Adan Ismail hospital.

As I wrote about science for the first time, I learned a few things along the way:

  • Every famous surgery or discovery or treatment has a story. Find that story, find the human part of that story.
  • Character, setting, and the five senses can help science dribble into the story.
  • Keep your wonder and gross-out mindset alive. Kids possess this mindset naturally and many appreciate the guts (no pun intended) of the details.
  • There are no stupid questions when interviewing experts. Be curious, and if you can, experience the science first-hand.
  • Know that your audience is smart, just inexperienced in the subject.
  • Double (and triple) check your science writing with the experts. The last thing you want to do is send out incorrect information.
Future bold women of medicine?

Future bold women of medicine?

Because the women of medicine were accomplished, it was easy to assume they knew all the answers. They did not … but they were curious and that curiosity led them to answers. Science often comes up with negative results, people just trying to understand how something works. This doesn’t always make the news. Building on these negative results leads scientists to the flashy news and the successes.

I built on my (limited) knowledge, and learned right along with my audience. I had a lot of false starts, not really knowing what I was writing about. Fortunately, for the patients, I never had to actually perform the difficult procedures and surgeries.

And to that chemistry tutor in the flannel shirt, wherever you are: thanks for the help. I probably did learn something. Next up: seismology. Know any good tutors?


Poetry from Stones


[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating. 

Candice Ransom

[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

In November, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county. I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside. Without specific details, writing is lifeless. More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter. In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical.  If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds.

When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks. I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership. Instead, I felt connected to the planet. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dictionary. I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchanted by new words. My parlor trick was spelling antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the dictionary. Kids can Google the longest word in the English language, but the experience isn’t the same as browsing through a big book of words. 

Emerson wrote, “… the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker … The poets made all the words, naming things after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another’s.” I believe young children are poets, assigning names and making up words to mark new discoveries. After they become tethered to technology, they parrot words from commercials, programs, and video games. That fresh language is lost.

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.

On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals. On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape. By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.


Ammonite [photo credit: Candice Ransom]

“Language is fossil poetry,” Emerson continues in his essay, “as the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Rock rasps, what are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jacket and the boxer’s swagger,
Stronger and older than peak and than boulder, raps Raven in reply.

From The Lost Words

Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rubble of STEM-worthy terms. Feel the shape of them, polish their shells, let them shine.


Signal Your Intentions

turn signalIt wasn’t so unusual that my teenage nephews were sending me signals that translated to: “Will you take us to the store right now so we can spend these Christmas gift cards from Grandma?”

What was new this year was that they also wanted to do the driving. Brand-new permits in their pockets, I agreed to let one twin drive us there, and the other drive us home. And one of the things that most struck me was how careful they were to use their turn signals, even with no other cars for seemingly miles around.

It made me realize that as a seasoned driver I am sometimes a little lax about using my blinker—but that signaling one’s intentions is a really good habit to develop in student writers as well as in student drivers.

When kicking off a story, or titling it, sending the reader a signal about what to expect promises them a payoff. For example: “Hey, reader, do you love fantasy? Do you see how in Chapter One I’ve snuck in this bizarre detail? It’s a little hint that the world of this book is going to hold a lot more surprises than the everyday ‘real’ world that you’re used to.”

Foreshadowing is another effective use of signaling: a shadow (metaphorical or not) falling across the character’s sunny day can send a li‚ttle shiver down the spine of a reader as they anticipate that as-yet-unidentified trouble is coming.

And when I review the work of writers at all stages and ages, one of the most common things I see is that there are obvious holes in the information presented to the reader. Not intentional holes, meant to build tension. But unintentional holes, because the writer has things clear in their own head and doesn’t see that the reader isn’t being told enough. This is why peer review can be so valuable a part of your classroom’s writing process. You don’t even need to ask students to offer each other full-fledged critiques; simply encourage them to ask each other questions about their stories, and to point out where they are confused in their reading. These are great signals to the writer about where they might have unintentionally left holes in their story.

Flipping that blinker on is so easy—I find myself doing it much more often now that I’ve seen the student drivers in action.


Skinny Dip with DeDe Small

DeDe Small

DeDe Small shares her enthusiasm about books, reading, and literacy with her students at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. We invited DeDe to Skinny Dip with us, our first interview in the New Year.

When did you first start reading books?

I don’t actually remember learning to read but I do always remember having books. I even came up with my own cataloging system in the later elementary grades.

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

I don’t know where it is but I know I am eating a really good steak and we need a big table because I am inviting Barak Obama, JK Rowling, Buck O’Neill, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Jane Goodall, my parents, and my aunts.

All-time favorite book?

This is really hard because there are too many to name! I loved it when my mother read The Secret Garden to me. As a young child, I loved reading Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn. In upper elementary, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell was my favorite. All-time favorite might have to be the entire Harry Potter series because it speaks to choosing kindness, love, and integrity over power and fame.

DeDe Small's favorite books

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

I was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Doing the laundry.

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

I love the feeling when everything starts clicking and you can sense where the project might go. That sense of potential is energizing.

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

Barefoot in warm weather and socks when it is cold. You will most often find me curled up on my couch with a book, doing school work or watching a movie. The activity changes but my location does not.

When are you your most creative?

I am most creative when I step back and take the time to let an idea percolate a bit.

Your best memory of your school library?

My strongest memory is actually of my public library. We would go once a week. It became a great bonding experience with my mother and I came to think of the library as a special place. I now have four library cards.

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint Chip.

Book(s) on your bedside table right now?

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, and La Rose by Louise Erdrich.  I recently read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Refugee by Alan Gratz and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.

Best invention in the last 200 years?


Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

Spiders. Way too many legs and eyes.

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


Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

I find hope in the characters of good books and real-life stories. Lloyd Alexander was specifically referencing fantasy but I think it is true of all good stories: “Sometimes heartbreaking, but never hopeless, the fantasy world as it ‘should be’ is one in which good is ultimately stronger than evil, where courage, justice, love, and mercy actually function.” Books allow us to recognize our own humanity in others and that makes me hopeful. If we read more, connect more, and understood more, the world would be a better place.


Gifts from the Trenches

Gifts from the TrenchesLife in the trenches, a/k/a the classroom, is not for the faint of heart. In previous Bookology articles I’ve shared my take on many of the challenges faced by teachers in today’s educational climate. Lack of meaningful opportunities for the teacher’s voice to be heard, mounting pressure to produce students who perform well on high stakes tests, district mandates to teach from a scripted curriculum, a desire to be all and do all for students, the list goes on and on. And that list can be exhausting. Yet so many of us continue to pursue the sometimes elusive and ultimate goal; to make a positive difference in the lives of our students. At times, it feels like the balance between give and take is incredibly lopsided.

Yes, lopsided. Completely disproportionate. It’s not even a contest when I compare how much my bucket has been filled to the number of buckets I may have filled. You see, in my 30 years as a teacher, the gifts I have received far outnumber those I have been lucky enough to share with others. And so, in the spirit of the season, rather than share a list of what I wish for this Christmas, I invite you to take a peek at the treasures that have been bestowed upon me. The highlights that have inspired me over the years and have kept me going. My gifts from the trenches.   

The Kids

The first category of gifts comes from the reason we all entered the honorable profession of teaching in the first place. The kids. Every single cherub that I’ve encountered on my teaching and learning journey has a place in my heart. However, despite my desire to never play favorites when surrounded by kids in the classroom, I must confess that when I look back, there are some that stand out just a bit more. These kids have provided some of my greatest gifts, my proudest moments and memories as a teacher.

First, there was the sad little guy who had lost his mother as a kindergartener and was often in a fight or flight mode. Yet thanks to a class read-aloud of The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco, he became the driving force behind the “Lemonade Stand Project” my group of first graders launched in an effort to raise money for a very sick boy in our community. Whenever I think back to those busy days with six- and seven-year-olds who were so intent on doing a good deed for someone they didn’t even knows, my heart melts. This extraordinary experience reminds me that when magic happens in the classroom, it most likely does not come from a textbook or piece of curriculum. It comes from the heart and usually the heart of a kid.

The Lemonade Club

The Lemonade Club

Then there was a quiet, freckle-faced, second-grade girl who shined with creativity and kindness yet struggled to read with success. I didn’t know much about dyslexia at the time but my instincts told me I needed to learn more so I could help figure out the source of her difficulties. I found and read the book Overcoming Dyslexia by Yale neuroscientist Sally Shaywitz. I shared the book and my concerns with this bright young lady’s parents who were eager to do whatever they could to help her. That conversation led them to lots of research, a formal diagnosis, and enrollment in a school that specialized in working with dyslexic students. Over the next decade we stayed in touch and I was thrilled to hear of my former student’s continued success. The best gift came when I received this message last spring from that creative and kind young woman:

Hi Mrs. Rome! I hope all is well with you! I just wanted to share some exciting news with you. I have been accepted into a few different graduate schools to earn my Educational Psychology license to become a school psychologist … I think of you and how fortunate I was to have you as my second-grade teacher, and how different my life would have been had I never met you. You changed my life. I don’t think I would be pursuing graduate school, let alone be attending college, had you not suggested that I might be dyslexic …

Words cannot express how much a message like this means to a teacher. Goosebumps and a lump in my throat instantly materialize every time I re-read this message. What a life-changer this future school psychologist and her family were for me. No question that the balance between give and take is lopsided, and this story illustrates just how much one student can give to a teacher.

The Colleagues

In addition to gifts from many special kids, I have also been blessed with some of the finest colleagues anyone could ask for. I was a member of one particularly special team that will always have elite status in my book. We dubbed ourselves The Dream Team, not because we wanted to be boastful, but because it was like a dream come true for each of us, to feel such a sense of harmony and collaboration.

The Dream Team

The Dream Team

Although our time together was far too short, just one school year, it was like nothing I had ever experienced in all my years of teaching. I marvel at the engagement and inspiration our joint efforts created for our students as well for each other. The many gifts that I enjoyed with my Dream Team included:

  • a shared commitment to putting kids first
  • a mutual love of literacy
  • daily “collab time” to share ideas, questions, and concerns
  • honest communication
  • an abundance of vulnerability and trust
  • a desire to learn and grow together

I honestly don’t know if these attributes can be cultivated or if they simply happen when the stars are aligned just so. I do know that it is a rare and beautiful thing to love not only the work you do, but also the people you get to do it with. What a gift these ladies were!

The Authors and their Books

The last of my gifts from the trenches is a tribute to the literacy heroes that have impacted me, both personally and professionally. Much more than just a list of favorite authors and books, these writers and their characters have had a profound effect on my teaching and learning:

  • Mo Willems, author of Piggy and Elephant books, changed the way I help kids build foundational skills like decoding and fluency but, more importantly, these playful gems teach us lessons about friendship, loyalty, courage, and fun.

Mo Willems

  • Patricia Polacco, master storyteller, offers rich tapestries of family traditions, struggles and celebrations, year after year. Thank you, Mr. Falker captures Polacco’s agonizing efforts to learn to read. It is a story that resonates deeply with teachers and is one many kids can relate to.
Patricia Polacco

Patricia Polacco

  • Kwame Alexander, legendary poet and wordsmith, brings a level of passion and excitement to a day at school that is beyond one’s wildest expectations. Thanks to a generous grant I received from Penguin Random House and dozens of copies of Crossover donated by Scholastic, my Dream Team and I witnessed the transformative power of a great book, one that actually can change lives.
Kwame Alexander and the Dream Team

Kwame Alexander and the Dream Team

I must admit that there is one thing that remains on my Christmas wish list. That wish is for every teacher reading this essay to receive his or her own gifts from the trenches. May your kids, your colleagues, and your favorite authors and books, bring you the contentment that comes from knowing you make a difference every single day!


Forgetting How to Drive

Writing Road Trip | Forgetting How to DriveYou always hear it around the time of the first fall snowstorm in Minnesota: “It’s like people have forgotten how to drive!” It refers to the fact that even drivers who are diehard Minnesotans—as evidenced by the Minnesota Vikings flags flying from their pickup antennas—don’t seem to have the tiniest clue how to drive on snow-packed roads. It’s as if they’ve never seen winter before.

I guess we just get spoiled during the other six months of the year, when the driving is “easy.”

I find that writing can be like that, too. No matter how many years I’ve flown the “writer” flag from my antenna, there are times when the writing comes easy, and times when it feels like I’ve “forgotten how to write.”

It’s true for me as a longtime writer, and I’ve found it’s true for young writers who are just starting out as well. So what can help to steer a writer out of a creative season that’s forecasting blizzard conditions? Sometimes a simple writing warm-up can melt the creative brain-freeze!

I’ve shared several writing warm-ups that work well for students and classrooms in past posts; you might want to check some of them out. Another of my favorites helps jumpstart the writing process by putting actual words into the hands of young writers. It’s super-simple and fun: I share out words from Magnetic Poetry Kits, hand around old cookie sheets, and ask students to “cook up” a poem to warm things up. I’ll often remind them about some of the poetry-writing basics that we’ve covered in past sessions (this varies based on the age of the students, but might include concepts such as using all five senses, alliteration, figurative language, and paying attention to the sound of the words).

Having preprinted words in hand, added to the simple fun of playing with magnets, works as a kind of anti-freeze. Before you know it, the writing forecast is for clear and sunny.


Let It Snow!

Phyllis: The first real snow has fallen overnight, and the quality of light when I wake up is luminous outside the window. Solstice approaches, and we’ve turned our thoughts to books about winter and snow. So many to choose from! Here are a few.

Katy and the Big SnowWhen my grown daughter saw a copy of Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton on my bookshelf, she cried, “Oh! Katy!” Since it was first published in 1943, this book has been beloved by children and grown-ups alike. Katy, “a beautiful red crawler tractor,” works as a bulldozer in the summer and even pulls a steamroller out of the pond when it falls in. In winter, Katy’s bulldozer is changed out for her snow plow, but she is “so big and strong” that she must stay in the garage until enough snow falls for her to plow. When the Big Snow finally does pile up with drifts up to second story windows, the other plows break down and Katy comes to the rescue. She plows out the city’s roads so the mail can get through (remember when mail was a main way to communicate?), telephones poles can be repaired, broken water mains fixed, patients can get to hospitals, fire trucks can reach fires, airplanes can land on cleared runways, and all the side streets are plowed out. “Then … and only then did Katy stop.” I’ve lived in Minnesota through enough winters to see houses on the prairie buried by snowdrifts and trick-or-treaters struggling through the three-foot deep Halloween blizzard. Thanks to Katy and her kin, we get around eventually, and thanks to Virginia Burton we can share in Katy’s triumph. And what child doesn’t love big machines?

Jackie: Big machines are automatic attention-grabbers. And I love the certainty of this world. There are problems to be solved in this big snow and Katy can solve them. So, the mail gets through, the sick people get treated, the fire trucks put out fires. It feels safe. And that is such a good feeling for a child—and for all of us. We adults may know that things don’t always work out that neatly, but it’s nice, even for us, to visit a world where they do work out.

Small WaltPhyllis: Small Walt by Elizabeth Verdick with pictures by Marc Rosenthal has just been published, and Katy’s descendant Walt waits, too, for a chance to plow snow. Unlike Katy who must wait for a big snow, Walt, the smallest plow in the fleet, must wait and wait for someone willing to take out “the little guy” when a snowstorm buries the streets and all the big plows and their drivers go out to clear the roads.. Enter Gus, who checks out Walt and drives him on his route. Walt chugs along, his engine thrumming his song:

My name is Walt.
I plow and salt,
They say I’m small,
But I’ll show them all.

And Walt does, until they confront a high hill with drifts bigger than Walt has ever seen. Gus suggests they can let Big Buck behind them plow the hill, but Walt is determined. He “skids, slips down, down…He shudders, sputters.” When they finally make it to the top of the hill and down, dawn has arrived and they head back to the city lot where Big Buck says, “The little guy did a better job than I thought.” Replete with onomatopoetic sounds, rhythm, and syntax, this is a wonderful read-aloud. The art is reminiscent in color and line of Burton’s art, and Walt, like Katy, is a jaunty red. A great pairing of books when the snow piles high.

Jackie: This is such a satisfying story. And as you said, Phyllis, the language is wonderful. My favorite, and I may adopt it this winter, is, “Plow and salter. Never falter.” There are days when it’s good to remember not to falter, whether or not salt is in the picture.

Over and Under the SnowPhyllis: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal chronicles a winter day skiing where a “whole secret kingdom” exists out of sight under the snow that a child and parent glide, climb, and swoosh over. Fat bullfrogs snooze, snowshoe hares watch from under snow-covered pines, squirrels, shrews, voles, chipmunks, queen bumblebees hide under the snow where deer mice “huddle up, cuddle up. And a bushy-tailed red fox leaps to catch the mouse that his sharp ears detect scritching beneath the snow. Extensive back matter offers scientific information about how the animals survive winter. Reading this book makes me want to strap on skis and go gliding through a snowy world over a secret kingdom.

Jackie: I had that same thought—“where are my skis? Where is the snow?” It’s so much fun in this book to see into places we don’t usually see, the vole’s tunnel, the beavers’ den, the place in the mud where the bullfrog lives. It’s like being given a magic pill that makes us small enough to get into these places, usually locked to us. And I love the back information. The more we know the more we see when we look. And the more connection we have to what is under the snow.

Has Winter Come?Phyllis: Another old favorite in our family is Wendy Watson’s Has Winter Come? I love Wendy Watson’s work, and this book, text and art, enchanted me when we first read it and still does.

On the day that it started to snow,
Mother said,
“Winter is coming now.
I can smell it in the air.”

The woodchuck children sniff but can’t smell winter. As the family gathers “acorns and walnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts, sunflower seed and pumpkin seeds … apples and corn, and pears and parsnips” and piles up wood to keep them warm the children keep trying to smell winter. When the snow stops falling their mother gathers a star for each of them from the starry sky. As they get ready for bed the little woodchucks smell “warm beds, and pine cones burning, and apple cores sizzling on the hearth.” As their parents tuck them under warm down quilts, the children say, “We smell sleep coming, and a long night … Is this winter?”

Yes, their parents whisper. “This is winter.” The softly colored illustrations capture falling snow, the trunks and roots of the woodchucks’ woodland home, and the small luminosities of the stars that the little woodchuck clutch in their paws as they fall asleep. Who wouldn’t want such a winter nap, cozy, and well-fed, lit by starlight and watched over by loving parents?

Father Fox's PennyrhymesJackie: Wendy Watson has always been one of my favorites. Her books tell a tale of family love and, like Geopolis, always present readers a wonderful world to visit. At our house we spent many contented hours enjoying the pictures and poring over the rhymes in Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes, written by Clyde Watson and illustrated by her sister, Wendy.

As a result of working on this column I have visited Wendy Watson’s web page and especially love her blog, with its family tales and recipes.

Winter is the Warmest SeasonPhyllis: Lauren Stringer’s Winter is the Warmest Season offers proof in spare text and exuberant illustrations that, contrary to what we might think, winter is indeed our warmest time. Puffy jackets, hats that “grow earflaps,” hands wearing wooly sweaters, a good cup of something warm to drink, cats that curl in laps, cozy blankets and starry quilts to snuggle under, fires and candles, hot baths, and a book to read cuddled close by people who love us will all warm our hearts as the snow piles up outside.

Jackie: This is an ode to the joys of winter. It reminds me of the appreciation we all have for hot chocolate (which of course tastes best, when one is a little chilled), fireplaces, and the sweetness of being warmed after being cold. This book begs readers to create a companion—Summer is the Coolest Season. This would be a fun classroom writing assignment.

Snow CrystalsWe started this column with mounds of snow that had to be cleared away for village life to continue. We looked under the snow, found winter, and found it to be warm. I’d like to add a look at individual snow crystals. Because Snowflake Bentley is on our list of additional books [Thanks Phyllis!] I want to mention that his book of snow crystal photographs is still in print—Snow Crystals—and is published by Dover Publications. Also, Voyageur, in 2006 published Kenneth Libbrecht’s A Field Guide to Snowflakes, photographs of snow crystals taken with a more modern camera than Bentley’s.

Phyllis: Whether you are tucked under a warm blanket or gliding through snowy woods over creatures tucked in beneath your feet, we wish you the warmth of loved ones, the wonder of snow crystals, a pile of books to read, and a peaceful time as the earth tilts into winter and toward the solstice light.

Snowflake BentleyA few more of the blizzard of books about snow and winter:

  • Brave Irene by William Steig
  • Snowflake Bentley by Jackie Briggs Martin (Jackie might not mention this book, but Phyllis will) and Mary Azarian
  • Snowflakes Fall by Patricia MacLachlan and Steven Kellogg
  • Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Revisions Part IV

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Skinny Dip with Kelly Starling Lyons

Kelly Starling Lyons

Kelly Starling Lyons (photo: Lundies Photography)

You may know Kelly Starling Lyons for One Million Men and Me or Tea Cakes for Tosh or Ellen’s Broom, memorable picture books, but we’re celebrating her new chapter books starring Jada Jones! Thanks, Kelly, for taking a Skinny Dip with us in December.

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

That’s a tough question. I loved all of my teachers. But two that stand out are Dr. Kupec at Beechwood Elementary and Mr. Powell at Milliones Middle School.

Dr. Kupec was my second grade teacher and later principal of the school. I looked forward to going to her class to see what wonders were in store. Would we sing? Act? Read books that took us to other worlds? She knew how to captivate kids and make learning fun.

Another favorite was band director and teacher Mr. Powell. Brilliant, creative and exacting, he taught me the power of practice and feeling what you’re playing. Under his direction, I couldn’t just blend into the background. I had synthesizer solos that put me in the spotlight. He even wrote a song that showcased my playing called “Kelly’s Blues.” I’ll always remember how amazing that made me feel.

Something BeautifulAll-time favorite book?

A children’s book that made a big impact on me was Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. In the story, an African-American girl learns that the power to create beauty lives in her. I looked at her face full of wonder and saw girls I know and little me. That was the first time I saw a black character on the cover of a picture book.  It called me to write for kids and will always have special meaning.

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

Breakfast is my favorite meal. On weekends, we would sit around the table and marvel at the spread made by my grandma and mom. The table was filled with favorites—fried apples, scrambled eggs with cheese, homefries, link sausage, homemade muffins, banana pancakes with warm maple syrup. It was a feast of food and love.

Your best memory of your library?

My local Carnegie Library was magical. All around, stories waited to be read and explored. It was a place where adventures and dreams came to life. Reading was like being on another plane, outside of time and space. Those storytelling journeys meant everything to me. I feel blessed to be creating them for children today.

Your favorite toy as a child?

I treasured my homemade Raggedy Ann doll. In stores, I just saw white ones. But a relative made one with skin the color of mine. It was more than a toy. It was an affirmation, a love letter. It’s one of the few keepsakes I’ve held onto from childhood. Today, it’s my daughter’s.


The Grinch

I’m just going to say it. Go on the record.

I do not like The Grinch. I do not like the book. I do not like the character. I do not like the story of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I do not like the brilliant theater productions of the story (though I acknowledge the brilliance.) I do not like the TV special, which I grew up watching, and which I did not let my kids watch. I do not like the movie or the song. I do not like any of it, Sam-I-Am.

Lest you think I’m simply grinchy about all things Grinch, I will tip my hand here at the beginning and say that I love the name “Grinch.” It’s perfect. As perfect as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s name, and let’s be honest, How The Grinch Stole Christmas is really just a knock-off of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. It’s just not as well done. It lacks…subtlety, among other things.

Scrooge is afflicted with his own personal bah humbugness, but you suspect even before all of the Christmas Ghosts visit that he could be a different man with a little therapy and some homemade Christmas cookies. But the Grinch is just mean. He’s not all “Bah humbug!” when Christmas frivolities get on his nerves—he’s all “I MUST stop this Christmas from coming.”

Dude. Take your two-sizes-too-small heart and get back to your cave.

I’m tired of making excuses for the grinches of the world. He takes the stockings and presents, the treats and the feast of the wee Whos! He takes the last can of Who-hash, for heaven’s sake! And then The Tree—he shoves the Whos’ Christmas tree up the chimney! Who does that?!

It’s CindyLou Who and her sweet trusting nature that just undoes me. 

“Santy Claus, why…Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?”

The Grinch poses as Santa Claus—can we agree this is an abomination?

He tells her there’s a light that won’t light, and so he’s taking it back to his workshop to fix. Sweet CindyLou believes him—she trots back to bed with her cold cup of water. My heart! And the Grinch takes the very log for the fire; then goes up the chimney, himself, the old liar.

We did not have this book growing up. We watched the TV special but I’d never read it until I babysat a family who had it. They had three boys, ages nine, six, and three. They were wild. Difficult. Not kind to each other. And they were exhausting to put to bed. I think this is why their parents went out.

I suggested a few books to wind down one summer night, and the six-year-old demanded that I read How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

“YEAH!” said the nine-year-old. “It makes babies cry!” And as if on cue, the three-year-old started to whimper. I said we weren’t going to read a book that made anyone cry. And besides, it wasn’t even Christmas.

But two hours later, after the older two had passed out, the three-year-old brought How The Grinch Stole Christmas down to me and asked me to read it. His eyes were huge. His thumb was in his mouth. He said he had to go potty first. Then he needed a cold cup of water—just like CindyLou Who.

When we finally sat down to read the book, we did not get past the first page before huge tears welled in his eyes. I told him I could not in good conscience read him a book that made him so sad. He suggested we just look at the pictures. And so we did. We talked through the pictures, and he trembled as we did. He obviously knew the story.

And it did not matter one bit that The Grinch could not finally take away Christmas—that Christmas came in fine style even without all the trappings he’d stolen. It did not matter that The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes in the end and that he himself carved the roast beef. This, I suppose, is meant to be the “lesson,” the take-away that makes the rest of it all okay. Too little too late, I say.

I had a three-year-old on my lap trying so hard to brave, trying not to be The Baby his brothers told him he was. His little heart hammered as we turned those pages and by the time we were done, I was done with The Grinch.

So there.



Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award Committee

Sigurd Olson Children's and Young Adult Literature ConferenceWe’re in the midst of award season, when best of the year lists and speculation about award winners proliferate on the social media platforms swirling around children’s and teen books. In November, we attended the award ceremony at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s Children and Young Adult Literature Conference, which takes place at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin (on the awe-inspiring south shore of Lake Superior). Inspired by the authors, naturalists, and librarians who speak at this conference, we interviewed the dedicated committee who select this important award each year.

How do you select the awarded books?

We have a committee of eight members who all have an interest in promoting both the natural world and high quality literature for children. Because committee members remain on the committee from year to year we have a dedicated, knowledgeable group of professionals. Each member first ranks books and then those results are tallied. The top ranked books becomes the focus of a committee meeting. A final vote is taken with numerical rankings following that in-depth discussion.

What are the criteria for this award?

The Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award for Children’s Literature is given to a published children’s book of literary nature writing (nonfiction or fiction) that captures the spirit of the human relationship with nature, and promotes the awareness, preservation, appreciation, or restoration of the natural world for future generations. (Here’s a full list of SONWA books since 1991.)

How do you gather the books?

Since most, if not all, publishers are on Twitter, we established a SONWA Awards Twitter account two years ago (@sonwa_awards). For the past two years, we’ve promoted the awards through our feed and by directly tweeting to publishers. We also post to the SOEI (Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute) Facebook feed periodically.

We actively ask publishers to submit books that fit the criteria. Since we’re one of the few nature writing awards for young adult and children’s literature, the publishers of this type of book are aware of us.

What selection criteria do you apply?

First of all, as the name of the award suggests, the book has to be about some aspect of nature and written for children appropriate to the age group. In addition, it has to be written in the year prior to the year the award is received.

After that, we look at:

  • Human Relationships with Natural World: Does the book capture the spirit of the human relationship with nature?
  • Literary Value: Does the book take on elements such as character development, metaphor, climax, allusion, theme, motif, etc?
  • Values: Does the book promote the values for nature this award seeks to promote for future generations: awareness, preservation, appreciation, restoration?
  • Illustrations: When books meet all the above criteria, then illustrations and the artwork are considered.

What is the impetus you feel for donating your time to this award process?

Living in the Northwoods, whether an outdoor person or not, creates a strong connection to the earth and concern for its future. Our committee is also well aware of how literacy can impact our humanity. This award process allows us to commit to two efforts that are important to us. We hope the chain from writers to publishers will be validated for their efforts. And we hope the reader will be enriched in multiple ways.

You are housed within, and sponsored by, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Why is this a good fit for a nature-writing award?

The mission of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute is to promote experiences of wildness and wonder, while also working to protect wildlands for future generations. Literary depictions and accounts of wild nature and the wonder it evokes in people often inspire readers to seek similar experiences, or, if they’ve already had those experiences, the literary works help to further affirm the value of those experiences.

Sigurd F. Olson’s writing is one of the richest and most influential parts of his legacy, and the nature writing award is one of the ways that we carry that legacy forward.

Northland College

You’ll find the Sigurd F. Olson Environmental Institute on the campus of Northland College, Ashland, Wisconson (in the foreground of this photo). That’s Lake Superior in the background.

Your focus was initially regionally written adult books. Why did you develop a specific award for children’s books?

In part this was a circumstantial decision: each year publishers were submitting children’s books, even though they didn’t meet the criteria we had established for the original adult award. Although we could not consider these submissions for the adult award, we were impressed by their quality and wanted to recognize and promote the work of the authors and illustrators of the children’s books.

Of course, we also recognize how important it is to capture the imaginations of children and the role that stories can play in shaping their values and visions for themselves and their future. We want children to grow up having and valuing experiences of wildness and wonder in their lives, and the children’s nature writing award, as well as our children’s literature conference, help us to realize this goal.

Having read so many nature-themed children’s books, what trends are you noticing?

We do see topic trends from time to time. A few years ago it was whales and then water the next year. Just like publishing in other areas, the trends tend to follow what is going on in the world. This year we have a few hurricane books. Often times, grandparents are depicted as nurturer, guardian, or storyteller of nature.

 We are seeing more diversity and inclusion. There are more picture books with more white space but with detailed author notes or supplemental added value. In recent year, nonfiction books for older readers will have side bars, graphics, captioned photos, and more alongside the main body. This can be either an enhancement or a distraction.

What themes or topics do you wish were being addressed in children’s books?

We are always looking for books that have a strong relationship to human interaction with the natural world. Books for older children with this aspect are not as readily available. There are always some that stand out in this area but we would happily welcome more.


Thank you for your commitment to reading and recommending the very best in nature writing for children and teens. Your focus on human interaction with the natural world is critical to the lives of our children and our planet. Important work you’re doing!

[The submission deadline for 2018 award consideration is December 31, 2017. Learn more.]


Stopping by the Diner

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Stopping by the DinerMy dad has a passionate hatred of olives on, in, or even in the general vicinity of his food. He’s convinced their mere presence contaminates anything else on his plate. So when he eats at his favorite small-town diner, he’s always careful to tell the server that he wants his dinner salad without the black olives they usually include. Except this time the brand-new teenage server plopped it down in front of him complete with a generous helping of his much-loathed food.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I asked for the salad without olives.”

She thought a moment, said, “No problem,” reached out to scoop the olives out with her bare hand, and walked away holding them.

Here are the answers to the three questions you’re now asking: No, he didn’t eat the salad.

No, we haven’t stopped laughing yet.

No, he didn’t call over the manager to rat her out. But the next time he went in, he pulled aside one of the more seasoned servers and asked her to make sure the young woman understood there might be a different way to handle the situation.

There are different ways to handle a writing revision as well. Revision is the least favorite part of the writing process for most young writers. So having different approaches on hand is a good way to keep students coming back to this all-important process.

The common approach is to simply work one’s way through the first draft, making corrections and taking out the “olives” as you go. But this isn’t always the best tactic. Some seasoned writers recommend that for a second draft, you go back and start fresh, rather than merely fix what’s already on paper. It sounds counter-intuitive—don’t you lose what was good about the original, along with what wasn’t working? But the truth is, this more radical approach can give young writers permission to “color outside the lines” of their original drafts. Having writt‚en the first draft still informs the new version in an important way, but it doesn’t limit it. Sometimes this approach can elevate the writing to a whole new level.

As my dad might say, once his food has been touched by olives (not to mention someone else’s fingers), he simply can’t eat it. The only answer is to start with a whole new salad.


True Story

Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.

At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty. My pen slowed. Something about those words bothered me. The crux of his speech was that as writers for children, we are tasked to be honest and not withhold the truth.

After the applause pattered away, the air in the ballroom seemed charged. Everyone was eager to march, unfurling the banner of truth for young readers! If we had been given paper, we would have started brilliant, authentic novels on the spot.

The keynote’s message carried over into break-out sessions. Panelists admitted to craving the truth when they were kids, things parents wouldn’t tell them. Participants agreed. We should show kids the world as it really is! The implication being that children leading “normal” lives should be aware of harsher realities and develop empathy. Kids living outside the pale would find themselves, maybe learn how to cope with their situations.

I stopped taking notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a broken world. By age four, I’d experienced scores of harsher realities. At seven, I learned the hardest truth of all: that parents aren’t required to want or love their children. I spent most of my childhood fielding one real-world challenge after the other. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alcoholism, homelessness, and domestic violence.

Christmas Day when I was 11 with my sister and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delving into stories where the character’s biggest challenge was finding grandmother’s hidden jewels, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek normal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane families weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Henry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tumbled from her spaceship, lived a normal life with her family on Asra, climbing trees on that faraway planet like I did on Earth.

In a family of non-readers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read constantly, but decided to be a writer at an early age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried treasure, not things I had to keep quiet about; books where kids felt protected enough to embark on adventures.

My mother and stepfather regarded me with odd respect, as if unsure what planet this kid had come from. So long as “story-writing” didn’t interfere with schoolwork (it did), my mother excused me from chores. Only once did she declare reading material inappropriate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Story magazine and was deep into story about an abused boy when my mother caught me. She thought I was learning about sex. I was outraged by the injustice: punished for reading about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fiction was light and humorous. Yet some brave writers tackled serious subjects. My colleague Brenda Seabrooke wrote a slender, elegant verse novel called Judy Scuppernong. This coming-of-age story touches on family secrets and alcoholism. The format was perfect for navigating difficult subjects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More followed, until I’d told my own story. My agent submitted my book Nobody’s Child. One editor asked me to rewrite it as a YA novel. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some people said that by telling my story, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I never will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I wanted to know why. But by then everyone involved was gone, taking their reasons with them. If I were to fictionalize my story to help another child in the same situation, I couldn’t make the ending turn out any better.

In the fantasies and mysteries and books about animals I read as a kid, I figured out I’d probably be okay. When I looked up from whatever library book I was reading, or whatever story I was writing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was broken. There were woods and gardens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, people who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror …one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writers will flash the great mirror of truth in bolder works than mine. I’m content to shine my little pocket mirror at small truths, no bigger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.


Big Surprise!

Lynne Jonell Page Break


Skinny Dip with Sarah Aronson

Sarah AronsonSarah Aronson’s most recent books, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (The Wish List #1, Beach Lane Books) and Keep Calm and Sparkle On! (The Wish List #2) are at once lighthearted and serious—stories that are fun to read and encourage working for causes that matter to the world. Sarah is widely known in the children’s book writing community as an enthusiastic and effective writing instructor. Thanks, Sarah, for taking a Skinny Dip with us in December!

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

This is an easy one! My favorite and most influential teacher during those first years of school was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Dan Sigley.  

It was a year that began with mixed emotions. At that time, I didn’t really feel passionate about books. Oh, I liked books, but theater was my favorite story medium. I had also just returned from 8 months in York, England. I went to school there and was introduced to new settings (that you could visit) as well as writers like Charles Dickens. I read Enid Blyton. More important, I watched my friends take the 11 plus exam, effectively tracking and dividing them for different kinds of futures.

The PearlMr. Sigley awakened my creative spirit in many ways. He got me hooked on books in three distinct ways. First, our class read and performed Romeo and Juliet—unabridged! He showed me that even if I didn’t understand the individual words, I could infer meaning in a text! Second, he tirelessly handed me books—he was determined to make me a reader. The book that did it was John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. That ending blew me away! It made me think! This was what I wanted from books! A chance to think about injustice and relationships and family … and how I could make it better. Last, he taught us how to make books—from writing to illustrating to binding. This first home-made book, The Adventures of Prince Charming, connected the dots. Books were like theater. Books were unique for each reader. I loved getting into the heads of my characters. I loved holding a book, too.

About the time Head Case was released, Mr. Sigley moved to the house next to my parents, so I got to see him many times and thank him for everything he taught me. He was a gentle, creative man. He was the first person who held me accountable and awakened my imagination.

All-time favorite book?

The word, favorite, is my least favorite word ever! Here are the books I keep on my desk—they are the books I love. They are the books I reach for when I’m stuck. These are the books that have taught me how to write.

  • The Story of Ferdinand, The Rag and Bone Shop, Sandy's Circus, What Jamie SawOliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
  • The Rag and Bone Shop (Robert Cormier)
  • Monster (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Clementine (Sara Pennypacker)
  • Bunnicula (James Howe, Deborah Howe)
  • What Jamie Saw (Carolyn Coman)
  • The Carrot Seed (Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson)
  • The Story of Ferdinand (Munro Leaf, Robert Lawson)
  • Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
  • Blubber (Judy Blume)
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria (Peggy Rathmann)
  • Charles and Emma (Deborah Heiligman)
  • Sandy’s Circus (Tanya Lee Stone, Boris Kulikov)

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

When I am in pre-writing mode, nothing counts! (I am one of those weird writers that deletes her first discovery draft!!!) I love writing without expectations! It doesn’t feel like work. It is all disposable!

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

You have to ask? I write books about fairy godmothers! I like shoes. Always shoes. I love shoes and boots and would even wear glass slippers if I didn’t think I’d trip and break them.

When are you your most creative?

First thing in the morning. Best advice I can offer: hide your phone. Be a word producer—not just a consumer. Get out of bed and create. Get someone to make you a coffee. Journal every morning. Or doodle. Get the pen to the paper. Find a way to transition from the real world to your imaginative state. The world and social media can wait!

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

In the winter: chocolate

In the summer: peach

But the gelato place around the corner makes Greek Yoghurt gelato. It’s sweet and sour and tangy! Yum.

(File under: this author has problems with favorites.)

Book on your bedside table right now?

I’m crying over Matylda, Bright and Tender, by Holly McGhee, recommended by Olivia Van Ledtje, also known as @thelivbits

Sarah Aronson's elephantWhat’s your hidden talent?

I can turn anything into a writing lesson.

Also: I can draw an elephant from behind.

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Young people give me hope. They value kindness. And the environment. They stick up for one another. They exhibit a strong sense of goodness and a willingness to speak out against injustices.

That is what I have seen and learned from readers—to kids and teens—even the shy ones who wait until they can email me to ask a question. Our young people are growing up in a time where there are no barriers to information. Yes, there is a lot of misleading stuff, but the good stuff is at our fingertips, too. I could complain a lot about phones and the internet, but technology is also equalizing. We live in a time when we can interact with just about anyone. There are so many ways to learn.

In young people, I see motivated kids like Nora (from The Wish List). They want to make the world better. They believe in goodness. They are not afraid to speak out. They support each other. That gives me hope.


Thanksgiving Tea

The week before Thanksgiving I was part of a wonderful Thanksgiving-themed Storytime. Excellent books were read: Otis Gives Thanks by Loren Long and Thankful by Eileen Spinelli. We sang through There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Turkey by Lucille Colandro, and Simple Gifts by Chris Raschka. All was going swimmingly—beautiful children, rapt and smiling. They were very young, but you could tell they were read to regularly. They knew how to sit on cushions, raise their hands, use their inside voices, etc.

And then I decided to “tell” an original story about setting the table for a Thanksgiving Tea. I pulled out #1 Son’s tea set from when he was three and very into tea parties. I gave it a good wash—quite dusty as he has used larger tea cups for years now—and packed it into a “story box” with a few other props.

We will set a beautiful table together, I thought. I will invite them to pour the tea for one another…to imagine what they’d like to eat…we will give thanks for all the goodness in life…. Warm cozy feelings flooded my storytelling heart.

I placed a small end table in front of them. They all stood up and gathered around. This was unexpected—the standing—but it made sense, of course. They would be right there and able to see the story unfold. I smiled, opened my story box, and began.

This is our Thanksgiving table for tea… They stood still stock still, staring at the table in front of them. I love the innate drama of telling stories!

This is the tablecloth, ironed so smooth, that covers our Thanksgiving table for tea…. I spread a colorful sunflower napkin. Immediately they all were touching the napkin, rubbing the table with the napkin, pulling the napkin to one side and then the other, wiping their noses on the napkin. I suggested we put our hands at our sides.


I suggested we put our hands behind our backs.


So I continued. I’m semi-unflappable.

This is the light, that shines in the middle…. A quick glance at my fellow storytime leader confirmed that we might not want to light the candle as planned in my ridiculously cozy vision of this story telling. This was an excellent choice as instantly there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of little hands all over the unlit candle. They passed it around, grabbed it from one another, blew on it. I insisted we put the light in the middle as the story said.

When it was reluctantly placed there and we imagined the cozy flame, I continued through the story. They continued touching the candle and adjusting the cloth.

But things didn’t really fall apart until I brought out the small plates of “all different colors” with their “matching cups for our Thanksgiving tea.”

These were rearranged, stacked and unstacked, clattered together, passed around, dropped on the floor, sipped from, and licked. My fellow storyteller flinched with every clatter, but I knew what those dishes had been through and although they are pottery, they are the magical sort that somehow does not break.

When I placed the teapot and cream and sugar “that match the cups and plates, all different colors” on the table, frenetic pouring and common cup swigging ensued. Clearly they understood the concept of teatime. A small skirmish broke out over the cream pitcher and its imaginary cream. Heaps more sugar than the wee sugar bowl could possibly hold was sprinkled around all over the cloth and on each other. A thousand or more children managed to gather around that tiny table and “manipulate” the props.


“Cereal!” was the first answer. Then ‘taters and pie and popcorn and candy and turkey and more candy and toast and goldfish and jelly and macaroni-and-cheese and cupcakes and milk and apples and buttered noodles and bananas and hotdogs and meat and corn-on-the-cob and hot chocolate and watermelon and more candy. Marshmallows, too. For the hot chocolate. But also just to eat.

All of these things we pretended to place and plop and sprinkle and slop on the wee little plates and in the wee little cups as they were moving, no less. It was chaos—everything constantly being passed and clattered and exchanged and grabbed.


Half of the group immediately went and sat on their cushions. The other half did indeed “help” put everything back in the storybox. My storyteller partner and I heaved a sigh of relief as I put the lid on. Nothing broke. No one was crying. There was no blood.

“Now we have a craft!” we said. Which was, curiously, a much calmer activity. Except for the glue sticks—small battles erupted over those. More than one child used them as chapstick. Perhaps this made for a quiet ride home.


The Kindness of Teachers

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

I loved first grade.

Fifty-one years later, I still have vivid memories of my teacher, Miss Follett. She played the piano every day. She read to us from her giant book of poetry. She showed us photos of her trips to exotic places, like Alaska and Hawaii.

At Halloween we screamed in terror and delight when she hobbled into our classroom dressed as a witch. At Easter we followed “bunny tracks” throughout the school till they led us to a chest filled with panorama sugar eggs that Miss Follett had handmade, one for each of us. On our birthdays we sat at the special birthday desk that was decorated with crepe paper streamers and balloons. Miss Follett would light the candles on the plaster of Paris birthday cake and the entire class would sing.

Miss Follett was also serious about learning. That was fine with me. One of the reasons I wanted to start first grade was because I desperately wanted to read. Words were all around me; I wanted to know their secrets.

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

I also remember Humpty Dumpty, Miss Follett’s form of behavior management. The Humpty Dumpty cookie jar sat on the corner of Miss Follett’s desk. If our class was very, very good, Humpty Dumpty might (mind you, might) be magically filled with cookies for us. No one ever wanted to do anything that would displease Humpty.

When I became a children’s author, Miss Follett attended one of my publication parties. It was a proud moment for both of us. When I autographed her book, I included doodles of my favorite first grade memories.

Years passed.

This last spring I came home from running errands to find a large box waiting in front of my door. When I removed the layers of bubble wrap, I discovered Miss Follett’s Humpty Dumpty cookie jar inside, along with this note:

Dear David,

Now that I am moving to senior housing and need to downsize,
it’s time for Humpty to find a new home. I thought
he might enjoy living in your studio.

Your First Grade Teacher
Rosemary Follett

Miss Follett did indeed teach me to read. But she taught me a lot of other things as well. She taught me that adults can be both serious and playful. She taught me that art and music and poetry make life more beautiful. She taught me that the world is full of fascinating places, and that I can go visit them. She taught me that you are never too old to use your imagination.

And she taught me that teachers never stop caring about their students.


Biography: How to Decide
What Goes into the Soup Pot (and What Doesn’t)

It is cold up here in the north country, so lately my thoughts have turned to creating a steaming pot of soup. For soup, you have to hit the highlights; the chicken, onions, a carrot or two. If you toss in too many ingredients, nothing will stand out and the result will be a muddled mess. You must also have a special ingredient. The quick taste that says, mmm, what is that? A dash of nutmeg? A spoonful of caraway seed?

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the short profiles in Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, I realized they required a similar focus. I needed the highlights; birth, family, education. The profiles also needed that special something to stand out.

Other than biographical assignments in school, I hadn’t written many biographies. But often it is in the doing that we learn. When I researched and wrote my (looking for a home) picture book biography Step by Step: The Story of Elizabeth Kenny’s Fight to Treat Polio, I learned a few lessons.

I had been fascinated by Sister Kenny ever since my father’s stay at the Sister Kenny Institute after his stroke. Who was this brash woman who had founded the institute famous in Minneapolis? Not just Minneapolis, for in fact, she was once voted the most influential woman in America, beating out Eleanor Roosevelt.

Researching and writing the life of someone famous can be daunting. I didn’t have the space to write about everything in her life, and I didn’t want to bore young readers with uninteresting facts.

The Minnesota Historical Center’s Gale Family Library held her secrets in the form of letters, cards, and photographs packed into boxes. Seeing Sister Kenny’s handwriting helped me to imagine her sitting at a desk composing a letter. The photographs let me look into her simultaneously kind and determined eyes. It was an odd sense of the past, her past, coming to life. And yet, since she died in 1952, I knew more about her fate (and legacy) than she did.

Sister Kenny eventually became the sample chapter I included in my proposal for Bold Women of Medicine. The Chicago Review Press Women of Action Series introduces young adults to women and girls of courage and conviction.

As I sifted through these lives I wondered, what spurred these women on to a life in medicine?

Within the framework of the women’s lives (birth, education, career, and family), I began to see patterns leading them to medicine. My goal was to keep the story moving forward.

Sister Kenny (photo: State Library of Queensland)

For example, Sister Kenny realized success with one patient inflicted with cerebral palsy, causing paralysis. She said, “Although my special life’s work had not yet really begun, I always think of this period as my starting point.” Discovering each woman’s motivation helped me to create a tighter focus. In other words, I limited the ingredients I placed into my soup pot and at the same time found that special something.

What factors influenced Sister Kenny to practice medicine? Was it an event, a person, or a need to be helpful? I am a linear thinker (sometimes a hindrance) but in this case, point A of a woman in medicine’s life often led to point B. Sometimes I had to backtrack much like you do when following a hiking trail, and often when I backtracked I discovered another, more intriguing part of her story.

Research is a tricky beast no matter what the subject is, and the most difficult part of research is knowing when to quit. Not everything from your fridge must be a part of your dinner.

I searched for anecdotes that would interest a young reader. What happened in Sister Kenny’s childhood that shaped her interest in science? What character traits did she possess that led to success or failure? What impact did she have on history? Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough says, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface. You have to know enough to know what to leave out.”

I read as much as I could on each woman, until I found the story and pattern with which to begin. Each of these women lived full lives, and in the cutting of some of their life events I strengthened the flavors, highlighting their powers of hope, education, and perseverance. And as I write this on a cold day, it’s time to pull out the pot and figure out the best ingredients for my soup!


Pie Season

Jackie: This is gratitude season and that is a good reminder. Many of us have plenty to be grateful for and we often forget that while waiting for the next good things. It’s also Pie Season. It is the one time of the year at my house when we have no holds barred on pie. Everyone gets to have a favorite at Thanksgiving. Pie for dinner, pie for breakfast (the best!). So Phyllis and I decided to find some pie books.

How to Make a Pie and See the WorldOne book that I wish I had written is Marjorie Priceman’s How To Make Apple Pie and See the World (Penguin, Random House, 1994; paperback, 2008). This is a delightful story of gathering the ingredients for apple pie and then making the pie and sharing with friends. This book can be used to teach math (fractions in the recipe), geography (of course), and pie-making. And, more importantly, it’s fun. The language is lively and original. After preparing for the trip by finding a “shopping list and walking shoes,” get on a boat. Go to Italy for semolina wheat, then to France. In France, “locate a chicken. French chickens lay elegant eggs.” “Make the acquaintance of a cow” in England. The cow and the chicken accompany our intrepid pie-maker for the rest of the book as she gets bark for cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sugar cane from Jamaica, salt from the ocean, and “eight rosy apples” from Vermont.

Phyllis: There’s so much to love in this book (which I, too, wish I had written): the sources of our food which we often take for granted, the friends the little girl makes as she travels the world, the resilience of finding what you need (and, in a twist at the end, making do without the ice cream), the treatment of animals who give us milk and eggs, the humor of the art, which shows the pilot dropping the little girl off in Vermont by means of a parachute, the interconnectedness of what we eat. It makes me want to bake a pie her way, and it also makes me grateful for the grocery store and farmer’s market.

Gator PieJackie: Another long-time favorite of mine is Gator Pie by Louise Mathews with illustrations by Jeni Bassett (Dodd, Mead, 1979). Alvin and Alice are gator friends who live in a swamp. One day they find a lovely pie. They decide to share, but before Alice can cut two halves another alligator comes up and demands a share. Now Alice must cut the pie in thirds. And Alvin is not too happy about sharing. It gets worse—Alvin thinks he’ll get a quarter of the pie, then an eighth and finally one one-hundredth. Then he gets a brilliant idea. And he and Alice get to share the pie themselves. The illustrations make this book delightful. The subject matter makes it perfect for talking about how fractions work.

Phyllis: Because we are often looking at older books (I remember reading this one to my now-grown kids when they were little), we sometimes have problems putting our hands on those books. Some reside on our bookshelves, some are available through interlibrary loan, some we find online, and on occasion, if one of us has a copy but the other can’t find it, we read the story to each other on Skype. This time, because Gator Pie hadn’t yet arrived at my local library from another library, I watched a YouTube video of a young boy reading with his father, who helped his son when he wasn’t sure of a word. At one point, the boy grins at his father and says, “Excuse me, I drooled.” I love thinking that a book about a pie was so delicious that it made the boy’s mouth water, but I love more seeing the tender interaction between child and parent and book. This is why we write, for those connections.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieJackie: Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley (Clarion, 2009) features Edna Lewis, African American chef who wrote several cookbooks “teaching people how to prepare food in the southern regional style.” This book focuses on Edna’s childhood and imagines Edna and her family gathering the foods of the season: wild strawberries and fresh greens in the springtime; honey, cherries, and blackberries in the summer. The round fruits—peaches and tomatoes—fill summer baskets and boxes. Corn for cornbread, watermelons, butter beans (“’We’re rich as kings as long as we have beans,’ says Mama.”) and muscadine grapes finish out the summer. Back to school season means apples for pie and apple crisp. This is a book to remind us to savor the foods of our area. Reading it will make you hungry—and make you want to get out bowl and spoon, flour and fruit, and cook something.

Phyllis: Which you can do with this book, because it ends with an author’s note and some mouth-watering recipes. It’s a book, too, rich in family and language. Mama says, ‘Better hurry! You’ll need to outrun the rabbits to get the berries.” Daddy says to fill as many baskets as they can because the larder’s empty. When Auntie helps Edna and her little sister gather wild greens, she says, “A fresh crisp salad to nourish the heart and soul as well as the body.” Brother helps gather cherries and blackberries. When the family gathers round to find the perfect melon, Granny says, “Melons are just like friends. Gotta try ten before you get a good one.” Sassafras roots tossed up by the plow will flavor root beer. Watermelon rind will become pickles. As Edna surveys the cellar packed with good things, she says, “You can never have too much summer.” When I look at the wealth of squash and onions and garlic and potatoes piled high on my counter from my CSA farm share, I agree with Edna. And you can never have too many books as delicious as this one.

Enemy PieJackie: Finally, we want to look at a charming book that uses pie to solve a problem–Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and illustrated by Tara Calahan King (Chronicle, 2000). When Jeremy Ross moves into the narrator’s neighborhood, things start to go bad. Jeremy laughs at the narrator when Jeremy strikes him out in a baseball game, Jeremy didn’t invite him to a party at his house. Jeremy Ross became the top—and only name—on the new “enemy list.” But Dad has the answer, Enemy Pie. What goes into Enemy Pie? Dad won’t tell. The boy brings his dad weeds, no need. He brings earthworms and rocks, used gum. Not in the recipe. Dad says the other important part of Enemy Pie is that the boy has to spend a day with the enemy. Dad says, “Even worse you have to be nice to him. It’s not easy. But that’s the only way Enemy Pie can work. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

So the boy spends one day with Jeremy Ross to get him “out of my hair for the rest of my life.” By the end of the day, when it’s time for Enemy Pie, the boy tries to prevent Jeremy from eating it. By then he doesn’t want him to eat the awful pie. But Dad was eating. Then Jeremy took a bite. Would their hair fall out? It turned out that Enemy Pie was delicious!

This is such a sweet book, with a wonderful pie-making Dad, and a boy who learns that enemies don’t always stay enemies.

Happy pie-baking to all. I’m eager for fruit pie. What’s your favorite Phyllis?

Phyllis: Pumpkin is luscious, but one of the best pies I ever tasted was on a road trip in Canada—bumbleberry pie, which I think might be made of all the fruit pie fruits in one.

However you slice it, we love pie and pie books. We hope your houses are rich as kings in books and pies this season.


It’s All About the Heart

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Little Prince

Originally this installment of Teach it Forward was going to offer my take on how to foster independence and promote stamina in the classroom. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot from teachers about these two topics and the challenge they present. The struggle to create a classroom filled with autonomous students who can sustain purposeful learning seems to be universal. As I captured my thoughts about how to help teachers, I came up with a list of creative strategies that worked for me over the years. Along with my repertoire of ideas, I sprinkled in lots of encouragement and upbeat advice such as “Look for what you want to see in your students… the rest will follow.”

frustrated student

However, after sitting with my words for a few days, I realized that my attempt to simplify such a complex undertaking would likely only make matters worse for teachers. How could one brief article adequately address something so perplexing and yet so essential as fostering independence and stamina in the classroom? The answer to this predicament came from a wise colleague who recently chatted with me about the distress teachers face when it seems impossible to develop self-driven and engaged learners. She suggested we all do a bit of soul searching by starting with the heart, not the head, to find the answers to these questions:

  • What are my beliefs about how my classroom should operate?
  • What is my “why” for being a teacher?
  • How do the kids know that I care, that I am passionate?

remembering the heartThe Little Prince reminds us of the important role the heart plays in understanding what lies below the surface. We must be willing to be vulnerable with our students if we want them to be vulnerable with us. As mentioned in the column “Food for Thought” a few months ago, I believe reaching the heart is a prerequisite for reaching the head. Before we can enable students to be independent learners for extended periods of time, it is crucial to convince them that what is invisible to the eye is what matters most.

It starts with the first of four components from Culturally Responsive Teaching (Teaching Tolerance), referred to as The 4 Rs, which is relationships.

From there, we strengthen connections with students by bringing realness, the second of the 4 Rs, into our lessons.

Next, we consider the relevance of what we teach to make sure students see the “why” of what we are asking them to do.

And, finally, we infuse rigor, the fourth and final “R,” into our teaching as we strive for high expectations of all kids.

Which favorite teacher comes to mind when you think of The 4 Rs? I easily return to 6th grade and fondly recall my very best teacher, Mrs. Frett. Although I cannot remember one standard or learning objective that she taught me, I can easily recall several meaningful conversations we had more than 40 years ago. Her secret was simple: she focused on our hearts before going after our heads.

In the words of beloved poet and writer, Maya Angelou, “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 


Predictable Pattern


Skinny Dip with Mira Bartók

Mira Bartok

Mira Bartók, author and illustrator, recently ushered The Wonderling into the world and it is already on several best of 2017 book lists. Congratulations, Mira, and thanks for sharing your responses with our readers.

When did you first start reading books?

Age 4.

The Arrival, Shaun TanAll-time favorite book?

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

Lunch: grilled cheese sandwich, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk!

What’s your leasst favorite chore?


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

Reading all kinds of books and taking random notes, and also going to museums to sketch objects and paintings that relate to what I’m working on.

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

Soft, comfy socks.

When are you your most creative?

When I’m not promoting a book, and when I turn off all electronic devices. And my brain is usually exploding with ideas when I’m either in a museum or walking in the woods. 

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint chocolate chip.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, M.T. AndersonBook on your bedside table right now?

There are several: M.T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand, two volumes of fairy tales by 19th century Scottish writer George MacDonald, the first Redwall book (I still haven’t read the series!), and a new short story collection called The Age of Perpetual Light by a  brilliant young writer named Josh Weil.

What’s your hidden talent?

I think I sightread piano music pretty fast. 

Your favorite toy as a child …

A little stuffed pony named: PONY. 

Favorite artist? Why?

South African artist William Kentridge. Because his work is avant-garde yet accessible, personal and political, and intellectual and emotional.

William Kentridge

A Universal Archive, copyright William Kentridge

tarantulaWhich is worse: spiders or snakes?

I love them both! I worked in a zoo and handled everything, including tarantulas!

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

I’m not sure which is my own best contribution but I know that composting and recycling every day is super easy and really helps. 

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

It’s hard to feel hopeful these days but when I see the little littles of the world experience wonder, it give me hope. So I suppose I feel hopeful because of them.


Mighty Jack

Mighty Jack and the Goblin KingWe are thrust into the midst of the action, which never stops until the epilogue. This is how Ben Hatke tells a story.

We don’t know what’s going on. There’s no setup. Instead, we quickly learn that Jack is climbing some vegetative matter to find the ogre who kidnapped his sister Maddy and take her home. His friend, Lilly, no sidekick, is climbing alongside him.

The villains of the piece are rats, giants, and that ogre. They have control of a nexus point that exists outside of time and space, a connecting link between worlds. It looks like the tower of a castle built on an asteroid. The place has lost its luster because of the giants’ nefarious choices, among them the need to feed a human child to the machine that blocks the bridges between worlds. It’s satisfying to discover these plot points throughout the story.

Jack and Lilly are split up when Lilly falls from the vine (a rat is responsible). Jack vows to come back for her but he is compelled to find Maddy.

“This is not earth,” illustration from Jack and the Mighty Goblin King by Ben Hatke

The adventure takes off in two directions. Lilly is seriously hurt by the rats … and saved by the goblins who inhabit the lower reaches of the nexus point. The Goblin King demands that Lilly will be his bride. She has other ideas. In the “trash from all worlds,” she finds a Shelby Mustang. She will find a way to take it with her. Lilly is a hero in the truest sense of the word.

The goblins are the most endearing characters in the book. They are funny, resourceful, knowledgeable, and they care for Lilly. Their language is not exactly English and it suits them. Now we know how goblins communicate.

There are unanswered questions. Why can’t Maddy talk? Where did the magic seeds come from that give Jack and Lilly short bursts of needed power? Why is Jack’s mother’s house being foreclosed? These are the intriguing bits that encourage the reader to fill in the story, becoming one with the storyteller.

Hatke’s artwork is so much a part of the story that the book couldn’t be read out loud without showing the frames of the graphic novel. His brain creates exotic settings that invite lingering to absorb their oddness. His villains are dastardly, fearsome, inviting us to defeat them. The goblins are other-worldly but a little cuddly. (Just a little.) The color palette is spacey where appropriate,  convincingly subterranean when we’re in the goblin’s habitat, and quite richly appealing when the vegetation transforms. And that Shelby Mustang!

The book is filled with surprises. A turn of the page often brings an unexpected turn of events. Even the epilogue, often used to wrap up a story and tell us about the future, leaves us with a  sense of urgency: what will happen next?

There is a first book, Mighty Jack, which I have not read. It most likely creates the world in which Lilly, Jack, Maddy, and Phelix the dragon (!) live, but I’m very glad that a reader doesn’t have to first read that book to enjoy this one. I always hated going to my cousin Sig’s house, reading his comic books, never knowing where the stories were coming from or how they would end because they were published episodically. 

This is storytelling at its very best. Appealing, fun, hold-your-breath storytelling. I could have revealed that this is a re-telling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story but it is so much more than that. Ben Hatke’s powers enchant his readers once again.

(Please be advised that this might have a PG13 rating because of some violence and one swear word. You’ll know best if this fits for your family.)

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
a graphic novel by Ben Hatke
color by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore
published by First Second, 2017
ISBN 978-1-6267-226-68