Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Secret Destination

Secret DestinationIf I hadn’t made the trip myself, I don’t think I would believe how quick­ly you can trav­el from the curi­ous world of the Las Vegas Strip to what seems to be its dia­met­ri­cal oppo­site: the Red Rock Canyon Nation­al Con­ser­va­tion Area.

Red Rock is com­posed of desert and rock for­ma­tions, the kind of place that inspired one web­site to urge vis­i­tors to leave news of their intend­ed des­ti­na­tion with a “respon­si­ble par­ty” before they jour­ney into its mys­ter­ies.

The Vegas Strip is com­posed of show­girls and casi­nos. In oth­er words, it’s the kind of place where vis­i­tors should leave news of their intend­ed des­ti­na­tion with a “respon­si­ble par­ty” before they jour­ney into its mys­ter­ies.

It’s almost as if Las Vegas keeps a giant secret wilder­ness tucked away in its back­yard — a secret unknown to many Vegas vis­i­tors who don’t ven­ture beyond the famil­iar flash­ing lights. And yet, now that I know that secret is there, a whole new dimen­sion has been added to my under­stand­ing of the Las Vegas expe­ri­ence.

Dis­cov­er­ing a secret can be illu­mi­nat­ing when you’re on a writ­ing road trip, too. Some of the best advice I’ve ever been giv­en about char­ac­ter­i­za­tion came from mys­tery writer Ellen Hart. She urged me to give every one of my char­ac­ters — even those who play small roles in my sto­ries — a secret.

She was right. These secrets have added a won­der­ful dimen­sion to my under­stand­ing of my sto­ries. Now that all of my char­ac­ters have some­thing tucked secret­ly into the back­yards of their lives, my sto­ries are more infused with poten­tial and human­i­ty.

Every young writer knows the refrain “I’ve got a secret.” Remind your stu­dents of it; urge them to study their own char­ac­ters, to find out what kind of wilder­ness each one has kept hid­den from the world.


Melissa Sweet

In this inter­view with Melis­sa Sweet, illus­tra­tor of A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, our Book­storm™ this monthwe asked six ques­tions and Melis­sa kind­ly took time from her busy days of vis­it­ing schools and cre­at­ing art.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encoun­tered a William Car­los Williams poem?

My first intro­duc­tion to William Car­los Williams was when I was sev­en years old and went to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. I saw a  paint­ing by Williams’s  friend Charles Demuth, based on Williams’s poem “The Great Fig­ure.” I loved both the paint­ing and the poem.

The Great Figure

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Car­los Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

My short list is Mary Oliv­er, Bil­ly Collins, and, yes, William Car­los Williams is now on that list.

When you begin to illus­trate a book like this, what is your very first step? And what do you do next?

William Carlos Williams prescription padFirst I decide how and where to research. I’m look­ing for clues as to what to draw to inspire the illus­tra­tions. For this book I read biogra­phies about Williams, his poet­ry, and news­pa­per arti­cles about him. It was impor­tant to trav­el to Ruther­ford and Pat­ter­son, NJ, to see where he lived and worked. At the Ruther­ford Pub­lic Library, I saw his bowler hat, his man­u­al type­writer,  and the pre­scrip­tion pads he used as a doc­tor. All those things became inspi­ra­tion for the art. Then, back in the stu­dio, I make a dum­my plac­ing the words on the page and begin to sketch to out the paint­ings or col­lages. Last­ly, I make the final art.

A River of WordsIn the book, we see hand­writ­ten bits of poet­ry in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent styles of hand­writ­ing and we also see type­set scraps of paper as well as intrigu­ing bits of type. Do you cre­ate these by hand? By com­put­er? With friend­ly help?

All my art is cre­at­ed by hand — I don’t use the com­put­er to make the illus­tra­tions. I cut up old books and use let­ter­ing from wher­ev­er I can find it. Incor­po­rat­ing cal­lig­ra­phy and hand – let­ter­ing into the art makes the piece more fun and live­ly. A type­set font would look very dif­fer­ent, maybe some­what sta­t­ic. In A Riv­er of Words I recre­at­ed Williams’s hand­writ­ing in places, and hand – let­tered his poems with­in the art. The con­tent of the poems became the inspi­ra­tion for what to draw.

A River of WordsAre there entire spreads you pre­pare that don’t make the final cut of the book? When you send the illus­tra­tion in for review by the edi­tor or art direc­tor, do you leave things unglued so they can be moved if request­ed? And what do you use to affix the parts of your col­lage? 

Some­times spreads need to be redone, but rarely. The edi­tor and art direc­tor see the dum­my, but typ­i­cal­ly they don’t see the art in progress, just the final art. It’s dif­fi­cult to plan or sketch a col­lage – it hap­pens as you go along adding and sub­tract­ing ele­ments to make it work visu­al­ly. (Even I don’t know exact­ly how the art will look in the end!) I use stick glue, white glue, and depend­ing on the mate­ri­als, I might need some­thing strong like epoxy. Kids often ask how my arts gets “in” the book. My work is gen­er­al­ly pho­tographed since there is too much dimen­sion in the pieces to scan them. Those pho­tos are down­loaded to the design­er and the text is added dig­i­tal­ly.

If you had met William Car­los Williams, what ques­tion would you have asked him?

I have two ques­tions: Where was the red wheel­bar­row? What did you think when you first saw it?

illus­tra­tions in this arti­cle are copy­right © Melis­sa Sweet


The Quest

ruby slippersMy one vis­it to Hawaii might best be defined by an after­noon quest.

I was there to say good­bye to my cousin, who was com­ing to the end of her bat­tle with can­cer. I dis­cov­ered she had devel­oped a sin­gu­lar ambi­tion: to find a pair of size 11 ruby slip­pers. She took great plea­sure in the thought of giv­ing them as a gag gift to a male col­league orig­i­nal­ly from Kansas. But she was too ill to shop her­self, and I sensed
she might nev­er have the chance to deliv­er the punch line to her grand joke.

But — hadn’t I jour­neyed thou­sands of miles for just such a pur­pose? It became my per­son­al mis­sion: if nec­es­sary, I would walk across lava fields to get my hands on the Rain­bow State’s last pair of appro­pri­ate­ly hued, and enor­mous­ly sized, footwear.

I was for­tu­nate in Hawaii’s geo­graph­ic real­i­ties. I drove along, mak­ing sure to keep the ocean to my left, ratio­nal­iz­ing that even­tu­al­ly I would either stum­ble across enough shoe stores, or I’d cir­cle the island back to where I began. Many hours and much adven­ture lat­er, I returned tri­umphant to my cousin’s home, ruby red tro­phies in hand.

If young writ­ers are strug­gling to devel­op their story’s plot, the mod­el of a char­ac­ter on a quest can be a great help. Ask them this: What is their char­ac­ter seek­ing to find? Is it a trea­sure or a per­son? An undis­cov­ered land or the answer to a mys­tery? Their own des­tiny? Or are they search­ing for some­thing they have lost, or some­thing they have yet to find?

A quest offers writ­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore mis­sion and mis­di­rec­tion, trep­i­da­tion and tri­umph. And when well told, it allows read­ers the chance to go along for the ride as well: even, per­haps, to a place that is some­where over the rain­bow.


Spring, Where Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First you have brown,
all around you have brown,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring is here at last!”

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

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


Middle Kingdom: Kapolei, Hawaii

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

This jour­ney takes us to Kapolei Mid­dle School in Kapolei, Hawaii, where Lisa talks with Library Media Spe­cial­ist Car­olyn H. Kirio.

Carolyn H. Kirio, Kapolei Middle SchoolLisa: What are three to five things our blog read­ers should know about your com­mu­ni­ty, school, or library/media cen­ter?

Car­olyn: Alo­ha! Greet­ings from our 50th State! Locat­ed in the Pacif­ic Ocean, our state is made up of eight major islands and 124 islets, stretch­ing in a 1,500-mile cres­cent from Kure Island in the west to the island of Hawaii in the east. Most of the state’s res­i­dents live on Oahu, and near­ly ¾ of them reside in Hon­olu­lu, the state’s cap­i­tal. Kapolei Mid­dle School is locat­ed in Kapolei, a new­ly devel­oped sub­urb on the west side of the island of Oahu. Our school ser­vices 1,450 sixth to eighth graders and is a year-round mul­ti­track school.

Lisa: What recent changes or new ele­ments are affect­ing the work you do with stu­dents?

Car­olyn: Although it is not a recent change, our school is on a mul­ti­track year-round sched­ule.  To accom­mo­date our large school pop­u­la­tion, our stu­dents are divid­ed into four tracks. This means that at any one time, three of the four tracks are attend­ing school while the fourth is on inter­s­es­sion (vaca­tion). Fur­ther­more, our instruc­tion­al cycle is a year-round edu­ca­tion (YRE) pat­tern which offers us an alter­na­tive way to con­struct the school cal­en­dar. The rota­tion sequence fol­lows a year-round 4515 cal­en­dar where one track returns from vaca­tion and one track leaves every 15 days. Our teach­ers do not have a class­room to call their own because they con­stant­ly rotate into the room vacat­ed by the teacher leav­ing on inter­s­es­sion. The tran­si­tion is com­plet­ed in a sin­gle after­noon with the exchange of file cab­i­nets, instruc­tion­al sup­plies, and desks. After the dust set­tles, our school updates the room and phone lists to reflect the track change.

Kapolei Middle School, Carolyn H. Kirio

Besides being very con­fus­ing and chaot­ic, you might be won­der­ing how this affects the library. Many times I attempt to do school-wide instruc­tion or ini­tia­tives. What would nor­mal­ly take a week to com­plete teach­ing all class­es stretch­es out to two or more based upon the num­ber of stu­dents who need to cycle through, as well as the inter­s­es­sion that occurs for the track. Because tim­ing is every­thing, I have enlist­ed tech­nol­o­gy to assist me in teach­ing. Using the strat­e­gy of flipped class­room instruc­tion, I cre­ate many lessons in mp4 for­mat and have them avail­able on demand through our closed cir­cuit and intranet sys­tem. The library has sev­er­al ded­i­cat­ed sta­tions that teach­ers can call up on demand. As time allows in their busy sched­ules, they can fit my lessons in through­out the day when it best fits with­in their course instruc­tion. Some of the most-viewed seg­ments include my lessons on bib­li­og­ra­phy instruc­tion, rec­og­niz­ing and avoid­ing pla­gia­rism, and book infomer­cials I cre­ate to get stu­dents excit­ed about dif­fer­ent titles in the col­lec­tion.

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often by your mid­dle school stu­dents?

Car­olyn: This year has been a roller coast­er as far as track­ing which books are trend­ing and which are not. Book-inspired movies and tele­vi­sion shows have influ­enced book bor­row­ing through­out the year. How­ev­er, once the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the show wanes, stu­dents quick­ly tran­si­tion back to the writ­ers who reli­ably cre­ate great reads. Nar­row­ing it down, the five authors and their series that remain con­sis­tent­ly pop­u­lar include Rick Rior­dan (Per­cy Jack­son and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olym­pus), Jeff Kin­ney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Rachel Renee Rus­sell (Dork Diaries), R.L. Stine (Goose­bumps), and Dar­ren Shan (The Saga of Dar­ren Shan/Cirque du Freak).


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

Cacy & Kiari and the Curse of the Ki'iCar­olyn: On a dai­ly basis I work as a lit­er­a­ture match­mak­er to pair stu­dents with poten­tial books that they will con­nect with and enjoy. Engag­ing stu­dents in con­ver­sa­tion, my goal is to dis­cov­er what their per­son­al inter­ests are and what top­ics they are pas­sion­ate about. Often­times I love to intro­duce stu­dents to Hawai­ian his­tor­i­cal fic­tion such as titles writ­ten by Gra­ham Sal­is­bury, who focus­es on sto­ry lines and com­mu­ni­ties set in dif­fer­ent parts of our state. Because char­ac­ters and set­tings are famil­iar, stu­dents can eas­i­ly under­stand and relate to his books. An excit­ing new book has recent­ly been on my rec­om­men­da­tion list: Cacy & Kiara and the Curse of the Ki‘i (Hawai­ian stat­ue or idol) by Roy Chang. Roy is the author and illus­tra­tor and has skill­ful­ly craft­ed an adven­ture set in a world where our main char­ac­ters inter­act with Hawai­ian myths and leg­ends. An inter­me­di­ate school fine arts teacher, Roy knows what inter­ests mid­dle school kids and cre­at­ed a hybrid man­ga and chap­ter book that is an instant draw. I hope that his sequel will be out soon because stu­dents can’t wait to revis­it Cacy and Kiara and embark on anoth­er jour­ney filled with Hawai­ian cul­ture and mythol­o­gy!

Lisa: If you had a new staffer start­ing tomor­row, what piece of advice would you be sure to give them?

Car­olyn: Gee, where do I begin? Get ready for a bumpy ride! Some words of wis­dom that would be shared would include:

  • Always keep stu­dents busy and engaged
  • Net­work with your sur­round­ing school librar­i­ans and get peer sup­port
  • Orga­nize your­self and make a plan (imme­di­ate and short-term goals)
  • Get to know all the teach­ers and staff in your school
  • Mod­el desired atti­tudes and behav­ior
  • Enlist the help of a teacher to col­lab­o­rate with
  • Expect the unex­pect­ed
  • Every­day is a learn­ing expe­ri­ence, just do your best
  • Find the time to laugh and have fun!

Lisa: What do you like most about work­ing with mid­dle school­ers?

Car­olyn: No two days are ever the same! Stu­dents are filled with nev­er-end­ing ener­gy and ques­tions. They keep you con­stant­ly on your toes and think­ing out­side of the box. Giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to grow and chal­lenge them­selves, they exceed expec­ta­tions and sur­prise you with what they can pro­duce.  

I laugh every day! It is such a weird stage in life for these kids, that if you can’t laugh with them, you will go insane. Mid­dle school­ers have the abil­i­ty to real­ly push them­selves, be inde­pen­dent learn­ers, and tap into their cre­ativ­i­ty and curios­i­ty. They are con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing who they are, dis­cov­er­ing what they can do, and test­ing where their bound­aries lie. As a teacher it can be excit­ing and frus­trat­ing at the same time. They are what they are, which is, in short, grow­ing up.  Still chil­dren at heart, they can’t help but want to learn and play, so why fight them? Join them!

Lisa: How have books or oth­er things changed for Mid­dle King­dom read­ers dur­ing your time as a librar­i­an?

Car­olyn: I have been a librar­i­an for 23 years. Dur­ing this time I have seen the phas­ing out of the card cat­a­log, flop­py disks, and micro­fiche. I have seen com­put­er stor­age increase from megabytes to ter­abytes, to archiv­ing in the cloud. The Inter­net has made the world a small­er place, offer­ing access to infor­ma­tion, resources, and experts from around the globe, and with a click, uni­ver­sal­ly trans­lat­ed into a famil­iar lan­guage that can be under­stood and com­pre­hend­ed by every­one. Recent­ly tech­nol­o­gy has pro­gressed and desk­tops have been replaced by the adop­tion of apps, mobile tech­nol­o­gy, and eBooks. Mid­dle King­dom read­ers have increased access to infor­ma­tion, and libraries are now open vir­tu­al­ly 247. With so much knowl­edge at their fin­ger­tips, it will be tru­ly amaz­ing to see what they dis­cov­er and how their curios­i­ty inspires this next gen­er­a­tion of learn­ers.


Skinny Dip with Bobbi Miller

Which celebri­ty, liv­ing or not, do you wish would invite you to a cof­fee shop?

My def­i­n­i­tion of celebri­ty is some­one whom I admire, who I think has con­tributed to soci­ety in his actions or words. To me, celebri­ty is more than a pret­ty face. He does more than recite words that some­one else wrote, act­ing out a sto­ry that some­one else has planned out and directs.

Eric Kim­mel is my favorite celebri­ty. I always love talk­ing to him. Anoth­er celebri­ty I can’t wait to meet is Mon­i­ca Kulling.  Of course, I’d love to talk to Mark Twain, too, about his adven­tures rid­ing the stage­coach west and his time in San Fran­cis­co. And Abi­gail Adams, wife of John Adams, about the times she lived in.

But let’s be real: my friends are the celebri­ties in my life.

Eric A. Kimmel, Monica Kulling, Mark Twain, Abigail Adams

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

John Adams by David McCullousI am cur­rent­ly read­ing — for the sec­ond time—John Adams by David McCul­lough. I love McCullough’s blend­ing of nar­ra­tive and research, cre­at­ing such a pow­er­ful sto­ry. Of course, we know all of his­to­ry is a sto­ry. He does it so well. I just fin­ished Ein­stein, by Wal­ter Isaac­son. For a long time I always thought I’d love to meet Ein­stein, speak­ing of celebri­ty. It turns out, while he didn’t like the label “celebri­ty,” he cer­tain­ly lived the life. Ein­stein was such a hound dog. For all his lofty thought exper­i­ments about space and time, he real­ly didn’t have a clue about life on this plan­et. He had an inter­est­ing, com­plex life, and saw a lot of his­to­ry. It would be more inter­est­ing to speak to one of his friends, wives, or girl­friends, to see their reac­tion to nav­i­gat­ing such a com­plex per­son­al­i­ty. One of my favorite movies is IQ, in which Wal­ter Matthau plays Ein­stein as an old man. I like that Ein­stein.

Even more inter­est­ing, I bet it would be cool to lis­ten to a con­ver­sa­tion between Ein­stein and Stephen Hawk­ing!!

Anoth­er book I just read was Hap­py Birth­day, Alice Babette, writ­ten by Mon­i­ca Kulling and illus­trat­ed by Qin Leng. This books tells a gen­tle sto­ry about a birth­day par­ty between two friends, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tok­las. Of course, we know the his­to­ry of those two celebri­ty writ­ers, which makes this book all the more impres­sive.

Favorite city to vis­it?

Big River's Daughter Girls of GettysburgI’ve vis­it­ed many his­tor­i­cal cities and towns as I researched my sto­ries. I vis­it­ed Get­tys­burg, PA sev­er­al times, walk­ing the bat­tle­fields, as I researched my Girls of Get­tys­burg. I’ve dri­ven along the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er for a ways, as I researched life along the riv­er for my Big River’s Daugh­ter. I’ve been to Boston and the sur­round­ing area, which is intent­ly inter­est­ing as it relates to John Adams. I’ve been to Wash­ing­ton, DC, of course, and just love that his­to­ry. I’d like to go again and check it out more, espe­cial­ly Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery.  And I’d love to go to Philadel­phia, for all the his­to­ry.

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

Diet Coke, most def­i­nite­ly. Although I’ve cut down quite a bit since my young years and now drink more water. I recent­ly had my first cup of cof­fee, made very weak and includ­ed sug­ar free hazel­nut cream­er. Very tasty! And it did the trick: I was up at 4, and I had a long day of trav­el­ing ahead of me. I was able to make it through with­out nod­ding off.

gr_plutoIs Plu­to a plan­et?

What a tricky good ques­tion!

Plu­to is a hound dog, and he’s every bit as loy­al a friend as Lassie and Old Yeller. Just like Mick­ey Mouse!


Jen Bryant

In this inter­view with Jen Bryant, author of A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, our Book­storm™ this month.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encoun­tered a William Car­los Williams poem?

I was in high school — and it was part of an anthol­o­gy read­ing that we did for Eng­lish class. I had disliked/not understood/ been unmoved by all of the oth­er poems in this assigned read­ing (I recall that the lan­guage in those poems was archa­ic and flow­ery, and the forms very, VERY tra­di­tion­al) — and then — whooosh — like a breath of fresh air, here were a few select­ed W. C. Williams poems, which used lit­tle punc­tu­a­tion, were freeform in struc­ture, and focused on every­day scenes and real life. They were the first poems I enjoyed and felt “wel­comed” into.

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Car­los Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

He’s def­i­nite­ly on the list — and there are too many oth­ers to name here, so I’ll just start by list­ing a few of them: Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Mary Oliv­er, Yusef Komun­yakaa, Wen­dell Berry, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Marge Pier­cy, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Phillip Levine, Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, Gary Soto, Gal­way Kinell, Eamon Gren­nan, Jane Keny­on … (see? way too many!)

When you turned your man­u­script in to your edi­tor, did you envi­sion how the book might be illus­trat­ed? What do you think when you first saw Melis­sa Sweet’s ideas for illus­trat­ing Williams’ life?

Melis­sa and I did not know each oth­er before Eerd­mans paired us for this book. Gayle Brown, the art direc­tor at EBYR, chose Melis­sa as the illus­tra­tor — and I believe that this sin­gle act has influ­enced my writ­ing life ever since! I’d already writ­ten three pic­ture book biogra­phies on cre­ative peo­ple (O’Keeffe, Mes­si­aen, and Moore) and I had nev­er met ANY of those illus­tra­tors. All of their styles were very dis­tinct, very dif­fer­ent from one another’s — so, no, I had no clue what an illus­tra­tor would do with this text. You can just imag­ine my reac­tion when I saw Melissa’s art for this book … I wept with hap­pi­ness. She’s tru­ly amaz­ing.

A River of Words

How did you find infor­ma­tion about this poet’s younger years?

I had to piece scenes togeth­er from many dif­fer­ent sources: fore­words and pref­aces to poet­ry col­lec­tions, a few audio record­ings, an old film, some archival records, etc. The key, though, was to keep the riv­er as the cen­tral image around which the rest of the sto­ry could spin. Once I had made that deci­sion, the rest became a bit eas­i­er.

A River of WordsDid you have to cut much mate­r­i­al from your orig­i­nal con­cept of the book? Did you go through a few revi­sions with the edi­tor or many revi­sions with the edi­tor?

I always pre­fer to give the edi­tors more than they need — then let them give me feed­back on which scenes/stanzas are more com­pelling and which are redun­dant or less com­pelling (and thus can be cut.) Yes, there were on-going revi­sions with this man­u­script — but if I recall cor­rect­ly, the orig­i­nal­ly-sub­mit­ted ver­sion was the one that was sent to Melis­sa and she got start­ed from that text. We didn’t make HUGE changes to this sto­ry, but we tweaked word­ing here and there — and then the back mat­ter was added lat­er on.

If you had met William Car­los Williams, what ques­tion would you have asked him?

If you had been able to quit your day-job (as a physi­cian) and could sup­port your fam­i­ly full-time by writ­ing, would you have done that? OR, did your dai­ly rounds — with all kinds of patients and in many dif­fer­ent set­tings — feed your art so much that you need­ed to do both in order to write well?”


Jen, thank you for shar­ing your answers with our read­ers. Your style of writ­ing biogra­phies is so unique, and so well researched, that it’s valu­able for us to know more about the process of this book’s cre­ation.

For use with your stu­dents, Jen’s web­site includes a dis­cus­sion guide that you’ll find use­ful as you incor­po­rate this book into your plan­ning.

illus­tra­tions in this arti­cle are copy­right © Melis­sa Sweet


Making a Deep Map

I like to think of land­scape not as a fixed place but as a path that is unwind­ing before my eyes, under my feet. ~ Gre­tel Ehrlich

Book projects get set aside, even those with fast beat­ing hearts that you can’t bear to be away from for a sec­ond. Sick­ness, hol­i­days, oth­er stuff push­es it away. The book’s heart­beat slows and goes qui­et. You pray it’s mere­ly hiber­nat­ing.

Come spring, long­ing for that project ris­es like sap. You’ve missed it so much! You open files, re-read scenes that were so hope-filled last fall. Remem­ber how you chat­ted up the project to edi­tors? “Best thing I’ve ever done,” you crowed.

Maybe not.

At the com­put­er, you rearrange sen­tences, pre­tend you’re revis­ing. When you reach the point where you quit, that cliff of white space, no words fall into place. You can’t fool the book into step­ping over that chasm, con­tin­u­ing down the path as if noth­ing hap­pened.

You must start the jour­ney over, but not by call­ing back char­ac­ters who have gone shy. Return to the very begin­ning. Before the begin­ning, even.

Gath­er pho­tos, mag­a­zines, field guides. Col­lect sup­plies like scis­sors, glue, crayons, col­ored pen­cils, noth­ing intim­i­dat­ing. Clear off the din­ing room table. You need dif­fer­ent sur­faces, dif­fer­ent light, an unfa­mil­iar chair.

You’ll map the land­scape of your nov­el in all its par­tic­u­lars. As William Least Heat-Moon did in Prairy­Erth, his deep map of Chase Coun­ty, Kansas, you will drill below the dirt, pop up again in a field, lay back to gaze at stars only your char­ac­ters can spy. You could buy a new spi­ral-bound blank book for this project, but you find a vin­tage ledger. The cover’s linen-like tex­ture reminds you that you’ll be using your hands, not the key­board. No glass will come between you and this map of your nov­el.


Where do your char­ac­ters live, real­ly live? Begin with the most basic ele­ment, the ground. Study the dirt and rocks. Find out why they are impor­tant. Move on to the land­scape, the hills, the creek, the neighbor’s cows. Don’t leave out a thing. It may mat­ter. It may not. Don’t decide now.

What’s in the sky? What are the sea­sons? What ani­mals and birds live there? Bugs? Remem­ber, you are nev­er alone and nei­ther are your char­ac­ters. Does your char­ac­ter love one sea­son over anoth­er? Does she trip because she’s watch­ing a hawk scribe lazy cir­cles? Put them all in, the ani­mals and birds and bugs. Cut out pic­tures. If you can’t find a pic­ture, draw. Take notes. If not your character’s, then your voice.


Draw a dia­gram of the place. Sketch its leg­ends and scan­dals, its his­to­ry and folk­lore. Even the new Star­bucks has a his­to­ry. What used to be in that build­ing? What hap­pened on that spot fifty years ago? A hun­dred? If you don’t know, look it up or make it up. Keep mov­ing.


What about the house? Draw the floor plan. Did your char­ac­ter sign her name on the inside of her father’s desk draw­er? What does she like to eat? Chef Boy-Ar-Dee piz­za? Any­thing cur­ry?


Don’t wor­ry about mak­ing pret­ty pages — they won’t be hang­ing in the Lou­vre. If you run out of room, cre­ate lift-up flaps and jour­nal under­neath. While your hands stay busy snip­ping and past­ing, your mind will clear space for the nov­el to ease back.

How will you know when to stop map­ping and take up the sto­ry again? Your char­ac­ter will claim the land­scape and demand to be turned loose in it. Close your deep map and hold it against your chest. Feel that sec­ond heart­beat? Now all you have to do is fol­low your char­ac­ter through her world.


Pork Roll Sandwich

Pork Roll Sandwich

One of New Jer­sey’s most famous foods, the Pork Roll sand­wich is made from John Tay­lor’s Pork Roll, first made in 1856. It’s a lot like SPAM, but dif­fer­ent, but to make this recipe, if you can’t find Tay­lor Pork Roll, you can cut SPAM very thin­ly and use it instead.
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time10 mins
Total Time20 mins
Serv­ings: 4


  • 4 slices Pork Roll about 6 ounces
  • 2 Tbsp unsalt­ed but­ter
  • 4 Kaiser rolls split in half and toast­ed
  • 4 large eggs
  • Kosher salt and fresh­ly ground black pep­per
  • 4 slices Amer­i­can cheese
  • Ketchup if you like


  • Score the edges of the pork roll slices in 3 or 4 places. This will keep the slices flat and pre­vent them from buck­ling as they cook.
  • Heat the but­ter in a large non­stick skil­let over medi­um-high heat. Add the pork slices in one lay­er and brown well on both sides, about 6 min­utes. Remove the slices and place one on top of each toast­ed roll bot­tom.
  • Reduce the heat to medi­um-low and crack the eggs into the skil­let. Break each yolk with the cor­ner of your spat­u­la. Sprin­kle with salt and pep­per. After about 2 min­utes, flip the eggs and con­tin­ue cook­ing on the oth­er side. Imme­di­ate­ly place a slice of Amer­i­can cheese on top of each egg. Cov­er with a lid to melt the cheese, about 30 sec­onds.
  • Place each egg and cheese quad­rant on top of a browned pork roll slice. At this point you can squeeze ketchup on top if desired. Top with the oth­er half of the roll.


We think per­haps poet and Dr. William Car­los Williams would have eat­en this sand­wich at least once, being from New Jer­sey. You might find this arti­cle inter­est­ing because it gives the his­to­ry of the sand­wich as well as places where you might enjoy the sand­wich when you vis­it New Jer­sey.
Adapt­ed from from The Cook­ing Chan­nel

Treasure Hunt

gemsOne of my favorite road-trip mem­o­ries is “mud-pud­dling” in west­ern North Car­oli­na. We had fol­lowed signs that lured us in with the promise of gem­stones prac­ti­cal­ly free for the tak­ing. The space we wan­dered into looked like a road­side pic­nic area, and seemed ide­al for the kind of lazy after­noon we had in mind. We each pur­chased buck­ets of dirt-cov­ered rocks for a small fee, and then claimed our places along
a bench in front of a trough of run­ning water.

While sun­shine dap­pled the green of the sur­round­ing hills, my best friend and I revert­ed back to one of the great delights of child­hood: muck­ing about. We played in the mud­dy water, wash­ing off our piles of rocks, con­vinced each time that the nat­ur­al beau­ty of a stone was revealed that we had dis­cov­ered a fab­u­lous trea­sure. Could this be a ruby? An emer­ald? A sap­phire?

We left a few hours lat­er with noth­ing more than a pile of pret­ty rocks. But we had found some­thing much more valu­able in our trea­sure hunt than a gem­stone: one per­fect after­noon, reclaimed briefly from a child­hood we’d both left behind long before.

Words are the trea­sures I’ve car­ried for­ward with me from that child­hood; I’ve been col­lect­ing my favorites for most of my life: Col­ly­wob­bles. Lugubri­ous. Gob­bledy­gook. Insou­ciance.

Why not spend a few moments on a per­fect after­noon tak­ing your stu­dents on a lin­guis­tic trea­sure hunt? Ask them to them crack open the dic­tio­nary and write down one or more new word “gems” and their mean­ings. Have them use these new-found words to inspire their own poems, or cre­ate a col­lec­tive class poem by swirling all the words togeth­er.

I’ve made a career out of prov­ing that there are lots of trea­sures to be found when you go muck­ing about amidst


Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Bev­er­ly Cleary, 1971

For the last month I have been read­ing arti­cles, toasts, essays, and inter­views with one of my favorite authors of all time: Bev­er­ly Cleary. She turned 100 years old this week. Every­thing I read about her makes me misty-eyed — the birth­day plans in her home state of Ore­gon … her mem­o­ries of being in the low­est read­ing group, the Black­birds, in ele­men­tary school … that she writes while bak­ing bread … how she named her char­ac­ters … that she was a “well-behaved girl” but she often thought like Ramona (me, too!!!) … the fan mail she still receives in a steady stream … SIGH.

My sec­ond grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read us Ramona the Brave. It was a new book that year — she used it to show us how to open a brand-new book and “break in” the bind­ing so that the pages would turn eas­i­ly. She told us that it was part of a series and I remem­ber being out of sorts that she would start mid-series, but then I was so engrossed in the sto­ry that I dropped my grudge.

Reading Is FundamentalMy ele­men­tary school was a RIF (Read­ing Is Fun­da­men­tal) school. RIF day was eas­i­ly my favorite day of the year. I under­stood that RIF exist­ed to put books in the hands of kids who would not oth­er­wise own books. I had books at home, though many of my class­mates did not, and I was always a lit­tle ner­vous that some­how I would be exclud­ed — what if some­one report­ed my lit­tle book­shelf, or the fact that I received a book every birth­day? What if I was pulled aside — not allowed to go pick a book?! But it nev­er hap­pened. No ques­tions asked — just encour­age­ment to pick a book of my very own. RIF Bliss!

Ramona the PestThat sec­ond-grade-year, when my class went down to the entrance lob­by of the school to vis­it the tables and tables piled with books (this remains my image of abun­dance), the very first book I saw was Ramona the Pest. I knew it had to be relat­ed to Ramona the Brave, and was proud to have the pres­ence of mind — my heart beat hard in the excite­ment of my dis­cov­ery! — to con­firm that the author’s name, Bev­er­ly Cleary, was list­ed under the title. Mrs. Cleary lived in Ore­gon, Mrs. Perkins said. It was a place so far away from cen­tral Illi­nois that I was sur­prised one of her books could have made its way to our RIF tables. I scooped it up and car­ried it around with me as I perused all of the oth­er books. We were allowed to choose only one book, but none of the oth­ers even came close to tempt­ing me to put down Ramona the Pest.

illustration by Louis Darling

illus­tra­tion by Louis Dar­ling

I’m astound­ed when I look at lists of Bev­er­ly Cleary’s books and their pub­li­ca­tion dates. She start­ed the Ramona series in 1955. My moth­er was nine years old! The last in the series, Ramona’s World, was writ­ten when my son was two, in 1999. And that’s just the Ramona books! What a career! At least three gen­er­a­tions have read and loved Cleary’s books.

I still have that lit­tle trade-paper­back book. It’s well worn — I read it many times as a kid. And I read it to my kids, too, of course. It’s the only Ramona book I own — through all of the cov­er changes and box sets, I’ve just stuck with my one lit­tle RIF book.

I might change that this week, though. I think per­haps I’ll buy myself a boxed set of Ramona and make a dona­tion to RIF in Bev­er­ly Cleary’s hon­or.

Hap­py Birth­day, Bev­er­ly Cleary!


Unexpected Visitors

Mary Casanova horses

The Casano­va hors­es (l to r): Mid­night, Sable, and Gin­ger

As writ­ers, we learn to expect the unex­pect­ed and be ready to cap­ture expe­ri­ences in words. One such moment stands out from this past win­ter for me.

My hus­band and I were sleep­ing in our cab­in loft, on 60 acres where we keep our hors­es. I woke at 3 am to crunch­ing snow below our win­dow. I sat upright, won­der­ing what sort of late night intrud­er it could be. An escaped con­vict head­ing north to Cana­da? Our three hors­es? Had they escaped from their pas­ture? No. We had tucked them in the barn in warm stalls due to 30 below temps out­side that night. That left a moose. Or two. The crunch­ing of snow con­tin­ued. I crept to my win­dow and gazed down at the entry steps.

Three dark rumps of … hors­es! But they could­n’t be ours. I woke my hus­band. We threw on boots, jack­ets, hats and gloves. The moment we stepped out­side, we caught the sight of not three, but sev­en hors­es as they trot­ted off through the woods under a star-sprin­kled sky. The air, deep cold, turned the sound of hoof­beats into drum­beats as the herd trot­ted off down the coun­ty road.

Now what? We could­n’t let hors­es dis­ap­pear into the night with­out try­ing to res­cue them. We’d wok­en more than once to the blood-chill­ing howls of a wolf pack. Oth­er times the shriek­ing cries of coy­otes. Riski­er still was for the hors­es to con­tin­ue down the coun­ty road, which joined up even­tu­al­ly with a busier high­way. The hors­es, we start­ed piec­ing togeth­er, must have escaped from our friends’ ranch in the oth­er direc­tion.

From our barn we hasti­ly gath­ered hal­ters, lead ropes, and a buck­et of sweet-feed: a mix­ture of oats, corn, and molasses. In our Ram pick­up, we set off. A mile and a half lat­er, our head­lights caught the star­tled eyes of hors­es to either side of the road. Char­lie slowed to a stop.

I hopped out, sat on the met­al tail­gate, and shook the buck­et of oats. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The hors­es ears piv­ot­ed toward the sound and they nick­ered. Though skit­tish in the truck­’s white beam, the hors­es zeroed in on the buck­et. “Go!” I called, know­ing that one buck­et and sev­en hors­es could turn dan­ger­ous.

Char­lie turned the truck back toward our barn and pad­dock, all sev­en hors­es trot­ting along, jostling to get clos­er to the buck­et. A tail­gate in 30 below zero is dan­ger­ous­ly cold with­out long under­wear or snow pants. I’d dressed in a hur­ry. Now I wor­ried my skin would freeze through my jeans to the met­al. Ori­on and the Milky Way looked down as we turned into our dri­ve­way toward our barn.

I hopped off the tail­gate, hur­ry­ing with the buck­et toward the red met­al gate and unlocked it. Gate wide, I scat­tered oats on the snow-cov­ered ground and dashed out of the way. The hors­es squealed and whin­nied, cir­cled and kicked in com­pe­ti­tion for the grain. When the last horse entered, I shut the gate, then I threw them extra hay bales from the hay shed.

Hors­es with heavy win­ter coats do sur­vive cold, as long as they have plen­ty of feed. With­out a wind, the hors­es would be safe until morn­ing. We left a mes­sage on the answer­ing machine of our neigh­bors, who would wake up to an emp­ty pas­ture and come retrieve their hors­es. Sat­is­fied with our good deed, we returned to the warmth of our bed, feel­ing like true wran­glers.

That night’s res­cue still feels like an unex­pect­ed dream. For­tu­nate­ly, when we awoke to run­away hors­es we were pre­pared with oats, equip­ment, and a place to con­tain them. To our relief, in this harsh north­ern land­scape, it all end­ed well.

As writ­ers, we need to be equal­ly pre­pared to cap­ture unex­pect­ed ideas. We need to las­so them with pen and note­book paper, nap­kin, or gro­cery bag — what­ev­er’s on hand. Lure them in with a quick note on an iPhone. Sit down at a lap­top or com­put­er and start typ­ing. We need to take swift action and cap­ture unex­pect­ed ideas when they pass our way. Or risk los­ing them for­ev­er..


March Madness

March MadnessAsk any 3rd-8th-grade teacher about “March Mad­ness” and there is a good chance you won’t hear much about bas­ket­ball. You may, how­ev­er, get an ear­ful about a top­ic that is about as near and dear to our hearts as stand­ing out­side for 25 min­utes of recess in bone-chill­ing, zero-degree weath­er. In Min­neso­ta, the acronym is MCA. In Texas it’s STAAR. A whole slate of states call it PARCC (ten in all, includ­ing Col­orado, Delaware, Dis­trict of Colum­bia, Illi­nois, Louisiana, Mary­land New Jer­seyNew Mex­i­co, New York and Rhode Island).

Teach­ers are deemed win­ners or losers because of it (some have even gone to prison). Kids get phys­i­cal­ly ill because of it. Par­ents don’t seem to under­stand it. News­pa­pers have a field day with it and per­haps most trou­bling of all, leg­is­la­tors who don’t seem to know much about edu­ca­tion make all the rules about it.

Test­ing. March Mad­ness fol­lowed by a month-long exten­sion of what is about as fun­ny as a lame April Fool’s prank. That’s how the top­ic of test­ing feels for many teach­ers like myself. “You have got to be kid­ding!” is a phrase that is often used in con­junc­tion with the pres­sure most of us teach­ers feel to prep the kids and make sure they per­form.

Grow­ing up in the great state of Iowa, I am no stranger to #2 pen­cils and fill­ing in bub­bles. After all, the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) was the first stan­dard­ized test to arrive on the scene way back in 1935. These days, how­ev­er, we’re faced with hours, days, and weeks of eye-strain­ing, pos­ture-break­ing, stuck-to-the-chair, online test­ing. Can we even be sure we’re mea­sur­ing math and read­ing skills rather than a kid’s abil­i­ty to use a mouse and scroll tab cor­rect­ly?

Recent­ly, some­one asked me if I thought there was any mer­it to these tests. There was a hint that maybe my poor atti­tude about high stakes test­ing is direct­ly relat­ed to the fact that my school’s pro­fi­cien­cy rate on the read­ing test is an unim­pres­sive 41.3% (more than 20% low­er than our dis­trict aver­age). Could I be a bit biased about the val­ue of the tests because my stu­dents sim­ply aren’t able to show what they know or that they know much? Am I just mak­ing excus­es for my stu­dents because of their demo­graph­ics (more than 70% free/reduced lunch, almost 50% non-native Eng­lish speak­ers, about 90% stu­dents of col­or)?

I strug­gled to find the words to express my feel­ings and share the real  sto­ry. If only the gen­er­al pub­lic and all those unin­formed leg­is­la­tors could spend a day in Room 123! They would see how bril­liant my kids are. I have the list of all those qual­i­ties that can’t be mea­sured by a test com­mit­ted to mem­o­ry. I believe in the wis­dom offered up by that list. Kind­ness, empa­thy, cre­ativ­i­ty, musi­cal tal­ent, per­se­ver­ance, pos­i­tiv­i­ty, etc. My stu­dents live and breathe that stuff every sin­gle day.

In lieu of host­ing all those folks in my class­room (lim­it­ed space that already con­tains 32 lit­tle peo­ple), I decid­ed to ask my kids to share their “com­plete­ly hon­est, total­ly true, and very thought­ful thoughts and feel­ings about MCA test­ing.” I wasn’t pre­pared for their respons­es. Some made me smile, oth­ers brought tears, a few shocked me and all made me proud to teach such capa­ble learn­ers. The spread­sheet of test scores may not back me up, but their words will.  Then again, maybe I am biased. I’ll let you be the judge.

From kid #1:

I think some­times I just can’t do some things. I think on MCAs some­times I just press on things that I don’t even know. I think I will need a walk around the school. I think some­times it’s so qui­et and I think when it’s the MCAs I’m bored. I think I just want to go some­where. I think I’m not even doing my best. I feel mad like I can’t do some things. I feel bad if I get bad grades. I feel hot in there [com­put­er lab]. I feel like MCAs are not even good for you. I feel like I just want to sleep. I feel like MCAs are horet [hor­rid]. I feel not so hap­py. I feel like I just want to make things feil on the grow [fall on the ground].

From kid #2:

I feel weird doing the MCA because I’m so stressed out that I’m going to fail and I don’t want to fail. Some­times I’m ner­vous because I have to think a lot and it hurts my stom­ach. I feel like I’m going to throw up but I don’t. When I feel ner­vous my head hurts and I most of the time wish I was some­where else or some­one else.

From kid #3:

Hon­est­ly I’m not real­ly wor­ried at all because I have been doing Read The­o­ry a lot. I’m just hap­py for the MCAs and try­ing to stay pos­i­tive that I’m gonna do great. Relax and try my best. And try to give evi­dence and reread and use what I know. I’m gonna try to do the MCA prac­tice about 2 times a week to under­stand things and know how to do things when MCAs don’t have instruc­tions.

From kid #4:

I think that the MCA test has a big impact on me because it’s like I’m car­ry­ing the weight of the world on my back all week. I am so so stressed out because of this test. It’s mak­ing my head spin around like a ride at the state fair!

From kid #5:

Try not to be fast. Take it slow. Think hard. Con­cen­trate. Know what you’re doing. Reread it. Do what you can. Think what the teacher told you. Nev­er give up. Read. Keep read­ing. Read more. Think what you’re doing. Answer ques­tions. Learn new words.


Light vs Dark

The Dark is Rising

A recent paper­back cov­er, I quite like this. It’s as ele­gant as the sto­ry itself.

Do you have a book that you re-read peri­od­i­cal­ly? At least every few years? Some­times more often?

For me, it’s The Dark is Ris­ing by Susan Coop­er. I have read thou­sands of books in my life­time, but this book stands out as the one that cap­tured my full heart, mind, and imag­i­na­tion. When I think of it, a hush falls over me. I respect this book on many lev­els.

Each time I read about Will Stan­ton, met with chal­lenges that threat­en his fam­i­ly, his vil­lage, not to men­tion his life, I am filled with won­der. How did the author write about such dire cir­cum­stances while keep­ing the read­er assured that good would find a way to defeat evil?

That’s what I notice most about The Dark is Ris­ing, even more than the oth­er books in this series. Coop­er writes about a sky laden with snow, the heav­i­ness of it, the blan­ket­ing of feel­ing and sound. Sur­round­ed by the men­ace of weath­er that shouldn’t be that way, the read­er finds places of com­fort. Fam­i­ly, the church, tra­di­tions, many of the vil­lagers … these are peo­ple and parts of life that we can count on to sup­port us, defend us, and sur­round us with love and secu­ri­ty.

The Dark is Rising

This is the orig­i­nal hard­cov­er dust jack­et.

We’re liv­ing in a time where we’re aware of how much Dark there is in the world. This book is need­ed. Our movies and tele­vi­sion shows and many books are filled with anti-heroes and prob­lems that go unre­solved because that is “real life.” We can change that.

I like to think there are real­ly Old Ones out there, like Mer­ri­man Lyon and Miss Greythorne, who are look­ing out for world, lead­ing the fight against the Dark. We can’t rely on Old Ones: we need to be remind­ed that it’s up to us to push the Dark back so the Light can shine bright­ly.

I enjoyed the romp of the first few Har­ry Pot­ter books, but they are sim­ply not as cap­ti­vat­ing and reas­sur­ing as The Dark is Ris­ing. Susan Coop­er writes with pow­er, ele­gance, and a deep under­stand­ing of the human psy­che. Each time I fin­ish the book, I am con­vinced Ms. Coop­er must be one of the Old Ones her­self, fight­ing for the Light to pre­vail. We need her. Read this book your­self and give it to a young read­er. Walk on the side of the Light.

(A side note: Do not be tempt­ed to watch the movie The Seek­er instead, which was pur­port­ed­ly based on The Dark is Ris­ing. It is noth­ing like the book.)


Skinny Dip with Barbara O’Connor


Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

Missing MayMiss­ing May by Cyn­thia Rylant. I read it at a time when I was strug­gling to find my writ­ing voice. I was so struck by the strong sense of place in that book. It was obvi­ous that West Vir­ginia was Rylant’s heart’s home. So I decid­ed to write sto­ries that were set in my heart’s home — the South — and specif­i­cal­ly the Smoky Moun­tains. I wrote her a let­ter to tell her the impact her book had on me and she sent me a love­ly hand-writ­ten note back, signed “Take good care. Cyn­di Rylant.” *swoon*

Favorite sea­son of the year? Why?

SUMMER all the way!! I love the heat. The flow­ers. The long days. Love it all.

What gives you shiv­ers?

Heights. OMG….. And one more thing: snakes. *shiv­ers*

What’s your hid­den tal­ent?

Tap DanceI’m actu­al­ly a pret­ty good tap dancer. I took tap lessons for years, from child­hood all the way up until just a few years ago. I love to tap dance. It total­ly suits me much more than yoga.

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

Morn­ing all the way. I turn into a pump­kin about 8 o’clock. My writ­ing day nev­er extends beyond about 3 o’clock … cause I’m head­ing toward Pump­kin Town. (Triv­ia for you: There is actu­al­ly a town near my home­town of Greenville, SC, called Pump­kin Town.)


Bookstorm™: A River of Words


Bookmap for A River of Words

A River of WordsAuthor Jen Bryant and illus­tra­tor Melis­sa Sweet have teamed up on a num­ber of pic­ture book biogra­phies about cre­ative artists. We’ve cho­sen to fea­ture their very first col­lab­o­ra­tion dur­ing this month in which poet­ry takes the spot­light. By telling us the true sto­ry about poet William Car­los Williams’ child­hood and grow­ing up, with his clear poet­ry sur­round­ing the pages, they awak­en inter­est in young peo­ple who may think this no-longer-liv­ing, ancient (he was born in 1883 and died in 1963) poet is not with­in reach. They’ll be sur­prised by how his poet­ry will touch them. And he made a career for him­self as a poet while he was being a coun­try doc­tor! What an inter­est­ing fel­low.

We trust you will find this mon­th’s Book­storm use­ful for teach­ing poet­ry, teach­ing writ­ing, units on nature, talk­ing about non­fic­tion and biog­ra­phy … and enjoy­ing the qui­eter moments when read­ing poet­ry is one of life’s plea­sures.

For more infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion guides, vis­it Jen Bryant’ web­site.

You can learn more about Melis­sa Sweet, the illus­tra­tor





Pic­ture Book Biogra­phies of Poets. From Shake­speare to Woody Guthrie, from Dave the Pot­ter to Pablo Neru­da, you’ll find top-notch biogra­phies of poets with whom kids find con­nec­tion. Sev­er­al of these are excel­lent men­tor texts as well.

Biogra­phies of Poets for Old­er Read­ers. If you’d like to use A Riv­er of Words with old­er grades, we’ve includ­ed a few biogra­phies that pair well. For instance, you’ll find Pablo Neru­da: Poet of the Peo­ple (Mon­i­ca Brown and Julie Paschkis) on the pic­ture book side and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Dream­er, also about the Chilean poet Pablo Neru­da, for the more com­fort­able read­ers.

Revolv­ing Around William Car­los Williams. We’ve rec­om­mend­ed a biog­ra­phy writ­ten for adults, a col­lec­tion of Mr. Williams’ poems for chil­dren, and a book that was inspired by his poem, “This is Just to Say.”

Kids and Nature. Nature-deficit dis­or­der is on many edu­ca­tors’ minds. William Car­los Williams had a sig­nif­i­cant con­nec­tion to nature. He wrote about it often. We’ve includ­ed books with ter­rif­ic ideas for enthus­ing chil­dren about going out­doors, both unplugged and plugged-in.

Col­lage and Mixed-Media Illus­tra­tions. Do the types of illus­tra­tion con­fuse you? We’ll have an inter­view with Melis­sa Sweet this month that we hope will make you feel more com­fort­able dis­cussing the art in A Riv­er of Words. We’ve sug­gest­ed a few books that also use a mixed media style.

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

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