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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Raymie Nightingale

rn200pixDarling Daughter and I host/participate in an occasional parent-child bookgroup for middle-grade readers and their parents. We call it Books & Bagels and we meet at the bagel shop down the street from church and nosh on bagels while talking about books. I think we can safely say the bagel aspect of things increases participation—but all the kids who come are great readers and we love talking with them and their parents about books. We’ve read many of our favorites again with this group and they’ve introduced us to some we’ve missed in the last few years of publication. (Darling Daughter is, alas, outgrowing the middle-grade genre.)

We saved the reading of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale for Books & Bagels. I scheduled it not having read the book, in fact, which is not usually how I do things. But DiCamillo’s books lend themselves to good discussion, I’ve found, so I was sure it would work well for us.

And it did. We talked about the heartbreak and the hope, the crazy characters and their friendships and flaws, and the unlikely events that could absolutely happen. We talked about how it was similar to some of DiCamillo’s other books and how it was different, too. Good discussion all the way around.

I noticed as we talked, however, that one of our regulars—I’ll call him Sam—seemed a bit disgruntled about the book. Sam and I have been discussing books for a long time—he reads both wisely and widely and we have introduced each other to many books over the years. He has just turned ten and he’s honest about what he thinks, though always kind. He’s been taught to speak his mind, but never in a way that would hurt someone else’s feelings—including, say, the author of the book who is not even present.

“Sam,” I said, “it looks like you have something you want to say.”

“Yeah…well,” said Sam. “It was a great book and all…. Well-written, of course. And, I mean, the friendship of Raymie and those other girls was great, I guess. And the lousy adults were interesting…. But—” He paused and looked at his Mom out of the corner of his eye.

“Go ahead, Sam,” she said. “Tell us what you really think.”

“It’s just that…I mean it’s fine…but it’s just…it’s such a girlie book.” He looked both relieved and ashamed at having confessed this. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”

I asked gentle clarifying questions. I’m sort of fascinated and appalled by the idea of “girl books” and “boy books.” I want to vehemently argue that those categories don’t exist…or shouldn’t exist…or must not be allowed to exist…or something like that. But before me was a reader insisting that he understood this was a great book, but it just had way too much “girl stuff” in it to be interesting to guys like him.

“Like what kind of girl stuff?” one of the girl readers asked.

“Batons. Barrettes. Dresses.” Sam said. He shrugged apologetically.

Other kids perked up. Right, they said. Lots of girl stuff. No boy stuff whatsoever, in fact.

I was afraid to ask what “boy stuff” they thought was missing. Instead, we talked about whether various (traditionally understood) girl and boy trappings were limited or limiting. These kids know how to have good and honest conversations around perceptions and assumptions and stereotypes. We talked about whether the character of each of the girls was “girl-only.” No, everyone agreed—they knew boys who were painfully shy/anxious, or show-offy, or stubborn, just like each of the three amigos DiCamillo conjured up. They knew both boys and girls who carried heavy loads of expectation, or family distress, or who had trouble making friends. They knew themselves what it was to feel like everything, absolutely everything, depended on them. They could identify with the book—on many levels that had nothing to do with gender. And yet…this was a girlie book—on this they all agreed, as well.

It was a wonderful discussion, really. Honest. Respectful. I thanked Sam for being brave enough to say what he thought. He wondered if Kate DiCamillo made Raymie, Beverly, and Louisiana girls because she was a girl and that’s what she knew best. I said I didn’t know, but I knew that she’d also written books that featured male characters. I told him I’d share my copy of Tiger Rising with him.

As we cleaned up the bagel and cream cheese detritus I asked if anyone could suggest a book or two for our fall Books & Bagels bookgroup. Sam eagerly bounced up and down.

“I have two to suggest!” he said. “Bridge to Terabithia and The BFG.”

Two terrific books. Two terrific books that happen to have strong girl characters. I pointed this out and Sam said, “But not only girl characters. The giant is a boy!”


Calvin Can’t Fly

Calvin-250When I was doing storytime weekly, a book about a bookworm starling was in my regular rotation. Yes, you read that right—a Bookworm Starling. That’s exactly what Calvin (the starling) is—a bookworm. And that is his shame—his cousins call him “nerdie birdie,” “geeky beaky,” and “bookworm.” Unusual (gently derogatory) labels for a starling. Not that it deters Calvin—he mostly shrugs and turns the page.

Calvin is the only starling in his very large family who does not seem to care much about flying. (Refresh your memory on how starlings move about with this astounding video of starling murmurations.) He’s into books. In a big way. While his cousins learn to fly and chase beetles, bugs, and ants, Calvin sits and learns to read letters, words, and sentences. He dreams of adventure stories, information, and poetry. His cousins dream of insect eating and garbage picking. And although they call him by the above names, they mostly ignore him, so enraptured with flying are they.

And Calvin is just as enraptured with stories and learning. Pirates and volcanoes, dinos and planets, science and history—Calvin reads it all. He reads the entire summer, learning and absorbing everything his little starling brain can.

When the seasons begin to turn, the urgency for Calvin to learn to fly becomes apparent. And yet, he manages not to learn. This creates quite an issue, because the wind has grown cold and it is time to head south….

The entire starling family takes off, minus Calvin. They don’t get far before they turn around and come back for Calvin. He is carried in the most hilarious way, which more than excuses the unkind words previously used about his reading habits.

And as it turns out, Calvin’s reading saves them—Calvin is the unexpected hero! “Make haste!” he says, leading the entire starling family to safety. Kids love this! They love that his book-knowledge of something as obscure as hurricane safety came in handy. They all but cheer—actually, once a set of twins did cheer when I read how Calvin saved them all. And kids are further delighted when Calvin flaps his wings in happiness, jumping and hopping and dancing…and flies! At last!

When I looked up the author, Jennifer Berne, I found out there’s another Calvin book! I don’t know how I missed it. Ms. Berne and the illustrator, Keith Bendis, have told an empowering story, (without being preachy!) about the wonders and necessity of reading. Can’t wait to read Calvin’s next adventures. I’m off to find a group of kids to read to….


Roxane Orgill

I’d like to know a thousand things about this book because you’ve opened so many doors for my imagination. I’ll restrict myself to only a few of those questions, primarily to help students who are drawn in by all the stories within this photograph and the poems you’ve written about it.

Roxane OrgillYou have been a journalist and a music critic. You’re a picture book writer, a biographer, a nonfiction writer. This is your first book written in poetry. How did you learn about poetic form so that you had confidence to write this book?

I wrote a couple of sort-of poems and thought they might work as a way to tell the story of the photograph “Harlem 1958.” Then I started reading poetry, and I attended a poetry retreat. Mostly I just kept writing.

Jazz DayHow long did it take you to write Jazz Day? Is that more or less time than it normally takes you to write a picture book biography?

I’m not sure, maybe a year and a half. Less time than my picture book bios, but that’s not counting the time I spent trying other forms in which to tell the story. That’s always the hard part for me, figuring out what the story is and how I want to tell it. That period can last many months.

How did you find the right place to ask permission to use Harlem 1958 in your book?

I went through the Art Kane estate.

You wrote “This Moment” in the form of a pantoum. That form uses four-line stanzas. The second and fourth line from one stanza become the first and third line of the following stanza. How long did it take you to get this poem just right?

Not long. It’s like a puzzle. But I wrote that poem near the end, when I was already familiar with the story and the people in the photo.

Do you recall when you first learned about the pantoum form?

At the poetry retreat, from the teacher, a poet named Lesléa Newman.

Did you end up being happy you’d chosen to write the book in poetry or deciding this is the last time you’ll do this?

Absolutely, yes. Poems turned out to be the perfect way to write about this photograph, jazz, a Harlem street, the 1950s — the whole thing.


“Scuffle: The Boys,” from Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill, copyright Francis Vallejo

How do you decide the subject of your next book?

I follow my nose, I guess. What interests me. It doesn’t always work; I have a few books which I spent a lot of time researching and writing, and in the end, they didn’t work. My next book is not about music or the arts, and I had to muster the courage to tackle something completely unfamiliar.

 Were you drawn to this book because of your love for jazz or photography or the 1950s? What pulled you into the project?

Jazz pulled me in, but I’d known about this particular photo ever since I began learning about jazz.

What difference did it make to the book that you were able to interview a primary source, the photographer Art Kane’s son, Jonathan Kane?

A big difference because there are lots of versions out there of what happened that day, whose idea it was to take the photo, etc. I basically used Jonathan Kane’s version of events.

You had no idea how your poems would be illustrated, how they would make that leap from separate poems and illustrations to integrated double-page spreads that work together to help us understand a time, a place, a feeling, a group of people. Did you find yourself altering your poetry to allow room for the illustrator to make his own contributions to the book?

No, not at all. The way it works is that I complete the manuscript, revise it together with my editor, and then the finished text is sent to an illustrator who has been chosen by the art editor. I may have changed a word or two to suit an illustration or layout, but that’s all. I was sent sketches and invited to comment, which I did, but for the most part, Francis and I worked independently. We didn’t even meet until after the book was published. That’s pretty much the norm.

Your list poem, for example, “What to Wear (from A to Z)” is illustrated brilliantly in list fashion as well. Were you aware of including items in your list that could be easily illustrated?

No, I don’t imagine how my words will be illustrated. I guess that’s why I am a writer, not an illustrator!

“Names: Williams ‘Count’ Basie, pianist,” from Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill, copyright Francis Vallejo

You state in the author’s note that you researched why some of the most famous jazz musicians aren’t in the photo. What drew you into doing this “extra” research? Or do you view it as extra?

It wasn’t extra, not to me. I knew many “greats” were missing: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, on and on. I thought it might be fun to focus on one of the missing people, and maybe figure out what he or she was doing instead of being at the photo shoot. It was also a way of talking about the jazz life; most of these guys, and gals, were on the road all the time.

Roxane, thank you for taking the time to share your insights with our readers. Your book has received six starred reviews from the major review journals … it’s hard not to fall in love with Jazz Day.



Cook+A+Doodle+Do-260-pixI’ve got dessert on my mind—berry shortcake, to be precise. I’ve already done the strawberry shortcake during strawberry season. My raspberry bushes are producing at a rate that might call for shortcake in the near future, however. And whenever I make shortcake—or even think of it—I think of Cook-a-doodle-doo by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel (who are sisters, I believe).

This book was An Extreme Favorite at our house through two kids—one who was already on the older end of picture books when it came out. Why the popularity? Quite simply: It’s hilarious. And sweet (no pun intended). But mostly hilarious.

Big Brown Rooster is in need of a change—no more chicken feed! No more pecking about! He remembers that his very famous great-grandmother, The Little Red Hen, penned a cookbook: The Joy of Cooking Alone by L.R. Hen. Once he finds it, he realizes his great granny cooked far more than loaves of bread. And he is hungry for the strawberry shortcake featured in the middle of the book.

Like his Great-Granny before him, Big Brown Rooster is surrounded by unhelpful friends. Dog, Cat, and Goose each take their potshots at Big Brown Rooster, but he is undeterred. He ties on his apron, ready to cook all alone, only to find three new friends: Turtle, Iguana, and Pot-bellied Pig.

“Do you three know anything about cooking?” Rooster asked.

“I can read recipes!” said Turtle.

“I can get stuff!” said Iguana.

“I can taste!” said Pig. “I am expert at tasting.”

And so the team members don hats—an apron tied around Big Brown Rooster’s head, a towel around Pig’s head, an oven mitt for Iguana, and a small pot worn baseball cap-like for turtle. The illustrations are sweet and hysterical at the same time. The mix-ups and misunderstandings are on the level of the Three Stooges crossed with Amelia Bedelia. But detailed sidebars guide a home/kid cook through the correct steps. What the friends lack in experience and skill, they make up for in exuberance and excitement—so, very much like baking with children, actually.

It’s astounding when you see what they go through, but they create a beautiful (if slightly leaning) tower of strawberry shortcake. It’s only when they try to move it to the table to enjoy together that things…slip away from them. Pot-bellied Pig takes his turn—he’s the expert taster, and positively unflummoxed by shortcake being smeared across the floor. In split second—not even a page turn—the strawberry shortcake is gone.

It is then that the previously amiable friends start to lose it. Names are called and threats are intimated (plump juicy roast pig, iguana pie, turtle soup etc.)

But wise Rooster takes command. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “The first shortcake was just for practice.”

And so they make another. The three friends—Iguana, Pig, and Turtle—volunteer to help again, and it’s quick work the second time around. The last spread features a party of friends—including the nay-saying Dog, Cat and Goose!—enjoying strawberry shortcake. The last page features Great-Granny’s recipe for Magnificent Strawberry Shortcake.

I think I’ll make some tonight!


Tomi Ungerer: Far Out Toward the Heart

Tomi UngererPhyllis: Tomi Ungerer has written and illustrated over 30 books for children, along with over 100 other books. I didn’t know much about him until Jackie suggested we do a blog on him, and I’m so glad she did. I came home from the library with a stack of his books, which range widely from the ridiculous to the mysterious.

One of my favorites is I am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories, sixteen mostly absurd stories with illustrations. One story is only 14 words long, another is told in three sentences (although the first sentence runs for 14 lines and gives a whole brief history of the pink gasoline station). I particularly love the story of the very hungry sofa and also the story about Mr. and Mrs. Limpid. Here is the Limpid story in its entirety:

Mr. Limpid is blind.
Mrs. Limpid is lame.
They are old.
They are happy.
They have each other.

There’s a whole tender life of two people contained in these words, which remind me of my parents when they grew elderly, one able to drive, the other able to remember where they were going and how to get back home.

Mr. and Mrs. Tuber Sprout

I also love Mr. Tuber Sprout, who every morning for seven years runs for the train to work and misses it. “The station clock is always five minutes ahead of mine,” he exclaims. “But at least it keeps me from going to work.”

These brief, ridiculous stories make me want to try to write my own no such stories in which no such things probably ever happened (that we know of). But, like Ungerer, we can still imagine a world of wacky possibilities.

I am Papa Snap and Other No Such StoriesJackie: I love these stories, Phyllis! And I have never seen them before. Reading them was like eating potato chips. I kept turning the pages for one more. And some of Ungerer’s phrases are just hilarious: Mr. and Mrs. Kaboodle buy a new nest from a “local nidologist.”

Or here is the Doctor Stigma Lohengreen’s diagnosis of Mr. Lido Rancid:

“There is a PICKLE jammed in your vena cava,
and the gangliated chords of your sympathetic
are all tangled up.”


“Zink Slugg bought a new car.
It had lots of cylinders,
coordinated cram-notch gears,
coupled crush-brakes, two-speed grinders,
cobra upholstery,
an electronic police detector,
strobe headlights, and a quantity of whatnots.”

CrictorPhyllis: I also love Crictor, a Reading Rainbow choice that chronicles the adventures of an old lady named Madame Louise Bodot in a little French town and the boa constrictor her son sends her for her birthday. Upon opening the box she first screams but, being practical, then takes the snake to the zoo to make sure he’s not poisonous. He isn’t, and she names him Crictor. Most of the book relates their lives together; I particularly love her cradling Crictor in her arms and feeding him a bottle of milk. She gets palm trees so he will feel at home and knits him a sweater to keep him warm when he wriggles behind her in the snow on their walks. Crictor goes with her to school one day, where he shapes letters and numbers for the children, but the real drama begins late in the book, when a burglar breaks in and gags and ties Madame Bodot to a chair. Crictor attacks and traps the burglar in his coils until the police arrive. Crictor’s heroism is honored with a medal, a statue, and a park dedicated to him. “Loved and respected by the entire village, Crictor lived a long and happy life.”

Jackie: I once read an interview with Ungerer in which he said:

“I identify a little bit with all of [my heroes]. I’m always on the side of the underdog. I identify with my snake, my octopus, all of my rejected animals.“

Fog IslandPhyllis: As if absurd stories and boa constrictor heroes weren’t enough, among his other books Ungerer has written and illustrated Fog Island about a mysterious island where things might (or might not) have happened. Finn and Cara live on a farm with their mother and fisherman father, who makes them their own curragh, a boat constructed of reeds and tar. He tells them to stay clear of Fog Island, which looms offshore “like a jagged black tooth.” “It’s a doomed and evil place,” he says. “Those who have ventured there have never returned.”

One day when Finn and Cara are exploring in their curragh a fog rolls in, and strong currents carry them out to Fog Island. They follow steps up to a door, which is answered by a wizened, white-haired old man who calls himself the Fog Man and shows them how he makes fog by letting water flow in to a deep well of magma. He turns off the fog so they can return home safely the next day, then Finn, Cara, and the Fog Man have a singsong. He makes them a meal and shows them a bed for the night where they sleep covered by a quilt.

They wake the next morning surrounded by deserted ruins but with the quilt still tucked over them and two steaming bowls of stew beside them. When they leave the island a storm overtakes them, and they are saved by their father and the other fishermen who have come looking for them. All the neighbors celebrate Finn and Cara’s return, but no one believes them about the fog man, and no one wants to visit the island to see if their story is true. Weeks later, Cara pulls a long hair from her soup, and she and Finn chuckle, recognizing it as one of the Fog Man’s.

Fog Island

Jackie: This book seems typical of Tomi Ungerer’s work, so inclusive. There’s an affectionate family, a named Evil—Fog Island, and a wonderful ambiguity in the ending. Who was the fog man? And I also find it interesting that the father, following received community wisdom, I think, tells the children that Fog Island is a “doomed and evil place.” But they find singing and hot soup.

There may be another consistency here—a complex artist pushing us to see that a “doomed and evil place” can offer hot soup and a good night’s sleep, a boa constrictor can become a helpful part of the community.

“Most of my children’s books have fear elements,” Ungerer has said in an interview on Fresh Air. “But I must say, too, to balance this fact, that the children in my books are never scared. … I think fear is an element which is instilled by the adults a lot of time.”

We see this in Fog Island. When the children land on Fog Island Finn says, “This must be Fog Island./Let’s find out where those steps lead.” No fear, but curiosity.

Far Out Isn't Far EnoughPhyllis: In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, a documentary about Ungerer, Maurice Sendak said of Ungerer’s influence on his own [Sendak’s] work: “I learned to be braver than I was. Ungerer didn’t mind scaring kids, because he believed in their ability to cope with and adapt to life’s difficulties.”

Ungerer himself learned about living in fearful situations from an early age: from eight to thirteen, he lived under Adolf Hitler’s occupation of Alsace and was told in school that Hitler needed artists to draw for him. In a Fresh Air interview he recalls, “…I had to do a portrait of the Führer, you know, giving a speech, and I put a stein of beer on this thing. Well, the Führer didn’t drink, but still, you know, nobody ever objected. The thing is, no matter what tyranny, you can always get away, maybe not with murder, but with a few other things. And your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.” Years later in the United States Ungerer would draw anti-war posters during the Viet Nam war.

Zeralda's OgreJackie: He received the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1998 and is truly a giant. I haven’t read close to all of his stories and especially want to read Zeralda’s Ogre, which Book World called “the most horrendous, ugliest—yet most beguiling—ogre imaginable.”

What I love about his work is that the dots do not have to connect. The stories do not get tied up neatly at the end. We don’t know about the Fog Man. Zink Slugg’s wonderful car rams into a tree and Zink “feels very bad” and that is the end. I also admire the way Ungerer combines edginess and heart—feeding a boa constrictor with a bottle is such a great example and only one of many we could point to.

Phyllis: It’s so fitting that for a time his children’s books were considered dangerous and evil, like Fog Island (because of erotic drawings he did for adults). But now when we do visit these books, we find strange and wondrous things, things not to answer but to ponder—dealing with fear, being subversive, and aspiring to live a fearless life.


Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

I recently had the honor of interviewing Marsha Wilson Chall, the author of the new picture book, The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo, and her editor, Jill Davis.

Marsha Wilson ChallMarsha Wilson Chall grew up an only child in Minnesota, where her father told her the best stories. The author of many picture books, including Up North at the Cabin, One Pup’s Up, and Pick a Pup, Marsha teaches writing at Hamline University’s MFAC program in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives on a small farm west of Minneapolis with her husband, dog, barn cats, and books.

Jill DavisJill Davis has been an executive editor in children’s books at HarperCollins since 2013. A veteran of children’s books, she began her career at Random House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Readers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held positions at both Bloomsbury and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is the author of three picture books, editor of one collection of short stories, and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University

Secret Life of Fiiggy MustardoMark: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo came about in a different way than most picture books. You were asked to write a story based on illustrations of a character. Could you tell us about this process and a little about the story?

Marsha: You’re right that this story evolved differently than my others. My amazing editor, Jill Davis, sent me Alison Friend’s thumbnails of an adorable canine character she had named Figgy Mustardo in a variety of human-like poses and costumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of creating Figgy’s story based on my impressions of him through Alison’s art and then, via Jill, Alison’s written notions of his characterization and story ideas.

Alison FriendAn imaginative, spirited fellow, Alison visualized Figgy zipping through many adventures on his scooter. In the book, I took the liberty of changing the scooter to a race car and also cast Figgy as a rock star and a pizza chef who organizes and stars in a neighborhood rock concert, pizzeria, and stock car race with his animal friends. Lots of Figgy fun, but this did not a story make. I needed to know why these activities mattered to Figgy and how he grew as a character.

Secret Life of Figgy MustardoI also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Figgy might transform from dog to dilettante. I was fairly certain of my own dog’s boredom and loneliness while our family is away, so I started my story exploration there. We all know that dogs, as social creatures, dislike being left alone and are often fraught with anxiety leading to certain not-so-flattering behaviors and/or the escape of sleep. A story with a sleeping dog would not be too interesting, so I chose the much more exciting, destructive route. What if Figgy ate things–any things–in his frustration, fell asleep, and dreamed about himself as a manifestation of what he ate? We all know “you are what you eat,” so in Figgy’s case, for example, he eats Mrs. Mustardo’s Bone Appetit magazine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Italian Pizza Chef Mustardo serving Muttsarello and Figaro pizzas to adoring gourmands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, “Free Pizza,” and serves his entire animal neighborhood at Figgy’s Pizzeria.

Most importantly, I needed to develop a motivation for Figgy’s adventures; how were these events connected to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy’s world outside and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every animal neighbor came to Figgy’s concert and pizzeria and car race except Figgy’s family, the Mustardos, especially George (his boy). In desperation, Figgy creates the sign “Free Dog” to find a family who will talk and walk and play with him like all the other families he sees through his window. Where are the Mustardos? The family Mustardo arrives in time to show Figgy how much they care with a promise to take him wherever they can and to provide him companionship when they can’t in the form of new pup named Dot. Figgy and Dot go on to enliven the neighborhood with Free Shows nightly.

Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?

Marsha: Once I knew my character and his problem, I dashed off the story, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back satisfied with a good day’s work.

Ha! Not the way it happened, but I did write a first draft within a few days that Jill found promising. So many drafts later that I can’t even recall the original, Jill exercised plenty of patience waiting for the story she and Alison hoped I could write. I know she’ll protest my tribute, but I have never worked with an editor so open to my trial and error. Her abundant humor carried us through the process that I think would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

Mark: Will there be any more books with Figgy and his further adventures?

Marsha: Figgy hopes so and so do Jill, Alison, and I. For now, I hope Figgy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.


Mark: How was this project different having a character first and then having to find a writer to tell his story?

The Secret Life of Figgy MustardoJill: It was kind of hard. The illustrator had invented this little dog who she wanted to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the story happen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how talented she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illustrator, Alison Friend, had  to share plenty of feedback, edit, and revise a bit before Marsha was able to tell both the story she envisioned as well as the story Alison had in mind. Marsha pictured Figgy at home, and really loved the idea of using signs. Alison seemed to feel Figgy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They finally did when Marsha realized that Figgy would go to sleep and dream about his exciting alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a little bit sad because Figgy is always being left at home, but Marsha told it in such a great way that Figgy showed his grit! If he’s hungry, he eats what’s there—but then the magic happens and he goes to sleep and dreams of something related to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imaginative. I love what Marsha did with Figgy’s story, and Alison did, too.

Mark: What was it like to work with Marsha in this new role as editor after being her student in the MFA in Writing for Children program at Hamline University?

Jill: It felt very wonderful and natural. Marsha does not use intimidation as a tactic in general. She’s the rare combination of brilliant and super silly. That’s one reason she’s so loved at Hamline and in the continental United States, generally speaking.

There were times when she should have been frustrated or wanted to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucumber in the freezer in the North Pole. So professional and what I loved also about working with her is how much I learned. I learned how she makes use of repetition, alliteration, and very careful editing. I can be sloppy, but Marsha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and wonderfully detail-oriented. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actually at several sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Hamline, and we worked until we thought it felt perfect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teaching! And I just loved working with Marsha!

Mark:  Thank you Marsha and Jill for taking the time to tell us about your collaboration on The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo. The book is now available at everyone’s local independent book store.


Word Search: Jazz Day

Jazz DayWere you already a jazz afficionado? Love groovin’ to the tunes? Or did reading Jazz Day: the Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, with inspired illustrations by Francis Vallejo, draw you closer to the sometimes energetic, sometimes mellow, but always riveting music we call JAZZ? If you love puzzles and games, we hope you have a good time solving this Word Search. 

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

Have fun!

Hidden Words

Puzzle by

Our Collapsing World

We live in a collapsing world.

icon_collasping-world-mdb_16-07-26_200Perhaps the world has always been collapsing in one way or another and it is only the surfeit of information that makes the collapse seem so imminent now. I know only that, even as I wake each morning into gratitude for this life I have been gifted, I also wake into a gut-deep knowledge of disaster:

A political system imploding, our tender globe’s climate wildly disordered; a renewed nuclear arms race (so it’s now small arms, it’s still nuclear!); racial injustice so old a story that we should have wept ourselves dry by now; big money controlling everything, everything, everything.

I wake into this collapsing world, then sit down at my desk and attempt to write another story for children. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that’s a trivial task. I can think of few that are more important. Because the function of story—all story—is to make meaning. And meaning that we make for children lasts.

But what meaning fits today’s disasters?

In 1972 when the Watergate scandal occupied the news, my own two children were eight and ten, just coming into an awareness of the larger world. And to discover that their country’s leaders were behaving like the worst schoolyard bullies disillusioned them beyond words. What I said to them, again and again, as we listened to the latest reports, was “Look! Our system works. The President had to step down.”

I wish I could say the same to my grandchildren. “Look! Our system works.”

But if I can’t say that, what can I say?

To begin with I will not offer what I’ve heard presented too often to young people: “Okay. We failed. It’s your world now. Fix it.” I can think of few more discouraging messages to begin a life on.

And I will not tell them that we are all beyond hope, even if sometimes hope is difficult to name. Because, for all our failures, hope has changed this world in astonishing ways in my lifetime, and I will not lose hold of it now.

I will be honest, but in my honesty I will also be gentle, caring. Because truth without gentleness, without caring can be a bludgeon. And I will write primarily about what matters most, all the ways we try and fail and try again to love one another.

If I make that struggle the core of all I say, I will never run out of stories, because the struggle to love is the struggle to be human.

And if the struggle to be human lies at the center of every story I send into this collapsing world, I may yet save a few souls . . . my own included



Francis Vallejo

Francis VallejoWe are pleased to share with you our interview with Francis Vallejo, the illustrator of Jazz Day: the Making of a Famous Photograph, our Bookstorm™ this month. This book is so rich with visual images that stir readers’ imaginations. You’ll feel like you’re standing on the street with the other onlookers!

The title page says that you used acrylics and pastels to create this art. Are those familiar media to you? Did you use any other media or digital manipulation?

I developed this technique for Jazz Day. Before this book I had extensively used acrylics, but had not used pastels very much. As I was working on the early sketches and thinking about how I would paint the final images, I discovered the illustrated books of John Collier. He used acrylic and pastel (although sometimes gouache instead of acrylic). Also, my friend and incredible artist Jane Radstrom has been creating beautiful pastel works for a while. Her work kept experimentation with pastel fresh in my mind. So combining a wet medium (acrylic) and dry drawing medium (pastel) seemed like the best of both worlds. I could create large washes and make big decisions, and then detailed mark making using drawing.

I also generally like to develop a new finishing process for every project I work on, so the next book will assuredly have a radically different look. I think it keeps me fresh. Finally, yes, I used a little digital manipulation in post to add a few details I may have missed in the physical stage.


copyright Francis Vallejo


copyright Francis Vallejo

Before you begin creating art, do you make sketches? Do you keep those sketches to refer to throughout your illustration process?

My process before creating the final image is borderline obsessive—scratch that—it IS radically obsessive! My process is based on that of Norman Rockwell. I spent 3 years working on the art for this book. 2.5 was spent on the sketching and research and studies and photography to prepare for the final painting. My publisher filmed this video of me going over my process:

Grays and blacks are predominant in this book. There are some alluring uses of bright color, such as the yellow taxi, the gold cornet, and the hot pink on the cover. Can you share with us some of the decision-making you did while you thought through your illustrations? Or is trying a bit of this and a bit of that?

An important part of designing the pages was to look at them as a whole, in one big group, on one sheet (or screen). Since books are sequential projects, the images have to work in sequence and not just by themselves. The colors, values, and mood, has to flow with the emotions of the story. I referenced color keys from movies, particularly Pixar movies, in how I designed the overall color keys for individual paintings, and made a strong effort to group together pictures that took place in front of townhomes and separately images of the musicians at their venues.

Your “perspective” changes throughout the book. You look at scenes from different angles, sometimes from above, sometimes from street level, sometimes from far away, sometimes close up. When do these perspectives enter into your planning process?

Right at the very beginning I knew that that idea was going to be challenging. Most of the pictures were going to be set in front of the same set of stairs. I had to create 15 illustrations all set in the same place and not make it repetitive! So using unique and varied perspectives was one of my very first priorities. Believe me, I was very excited when I was able to take a break from the street scene and move into the jazz clubs for a few pictures.

Do you choose the fonts that will be used in the book? Why did you choose a sans serif font?

I didn’t choose the font outright, but I was involved in the discussion. We thought sans serif was appropriately modern and avant garde – just as jazz is.

Did you know from the beginning that there would be a fold-out of the original photo? Did you make the decision to include the word “click” as a direction to open the fold-out?

That was an editorial decision that was planned out before I was even involved with the project. It is everyone’s favorite part and I do think it was a smart design and pacing decision!


copyright Francis Vallejo

When you plan an illustration, do you consciously leave room for the poem that will go with it?

Absolutely. The text is just another shape on the page, so it is integral to plan for it from the very beginning. It is among my favorite things to do actually. I am a nerd like that. I love the puzzle of figuring out how I can design a scene to organically allow text to fit so that it seems like the negative shape the text is placed in is actually a shape that fits into the picture. Many of the most forward-thinking illustrators from the 1960’s would really explore this idea (Al Parker is king at this) and they were a big influence.

Did you always know the order in which the poems would be included in the book? Did that change how you thought about these illustrations?

I did. The order was given to me at the beginning and is incredibly important to consider. As I mentioned prior, the images have to work sequentially. There were numerous individual images that I was very fond of that I had to scrap as they did not fit the overall flow.

Was there an illustration that challenged you the most?

Yes! There is an image of a girl looking out of a window (appropriately titled “At the Window”) that took maybe 60 hours to sketch out then maybe 10 more to paint. In order to capture the poem I had to capture a profile shot of the girl from the side, as well as the top of the people’s heads. To do this I had to use a fisheye warped perspective. Figuring that out involved a lot of head scratching…and erasing!

Which of the illustrations in the book gives you the most pleasure when you look at it now?

The one I just mentioned. I battled that picture to get it right. I don’t always win those fights, but this one turned out well and the painting of the girl might be one of my very best!


The place I go back to…

Going to the Lake | Lisa BullardThere is a particular road trip that has become a summer ritual for me, a journey that takes me to another time as well as another place: going to The Lake.

No other place has been such a constant in my life. I spent early summers there dive-bombing off the dock with my cousins and listening to my grandma’s stories of the moon spinners. I spent teenage summers there playing mud volleyball and yearning over the boys next door. More recently, I’ve spent summer weekends there watching a new generation pick up where the last one left off.

It is the place I go back to when I need to find myself again.

Sometimes in the middle of a hard-frozen winter I will pull something out of a closet that I carried home from The Lake months before, and as soon as the familiar scent of that place reaches me, I jump straight back into some of my deepest memories.

Our sense of smell holds that ability to instantly relocate us to another place and time because it is deeply entangled with our memories and emotions. And yet as writers, our sense of sight too often dominates. When seeing a scene for the reader, we focus on what our eyes perceive, and forget what the nose knows.

Encourage your young writers to allow the sense of smell to sneak its way into their writing. For the youngest writers, you might challenge them to perceive a story seen “through a dog’s nose.” For more developed writers, you might ask them to write a scene where all the emotions are signaled through smell.

You might find, with a litt‚le encouragement, that smells are powerful enough to transport your young writers on their own evocative journeys.


Louis Armstrong’s Red Beans and Rice

A Cajun-inspired favorite recipe from jazz musician Louis Armstrong, this is a perfect accompaniment to your reading of Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill.

Louis and Lucille Armstrong's Red Beans and Rice
Serves 8
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Total Time
6 hr
Total Time
6 hr
  1. 1 pound kidney beans
  2. 1/2 pound salt pork (strip of lean, strip of fat)
  3. 1 small can of tomato sauce (if desired)
  4. 6 small ham hocks or 1 smoked
  5. pork butt
  6. 2 onions, diced
  7. 1/4 green bell pepper
  8. 5 tiny or 2 medium dried peppers
  9. 1 clove garlic, chopped
  10. Salt, to taste
  1. Wash beans thoroughly, then soak overnight in cold water. Be sure to cover beans. To cook, pour off water and add fresh water to cover. Add salt pork and bring to a boil in covered pot. Turn flame down to slightly higher than low and cook one and a half hours. Add onions, peppers, garlic and salt. Cook three hours. Add tomato sauce and cook an hour and a half more, adding water as necessary. Beans and meat should always be covered with liquid.
  2. To prepare with ham hocks or pork butt, wash meat, add water to cover and bring to boil in covered pot over medium flame. Cook one and a half hours. Add beans (pour water off) and rest of ingredients to meat. Cook four and a half hours. Add water as necessary.
  3. Serve over or beside rice.
Adapted from Louis Armstrong House Museum
Bookology Magazine

Skinny Dip with Mélina Mangal

Mélina MangalFor this interview, we visit with Mélina Mangal, children’s book author and librarian:

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

My favorite ANYTIME snack is white cheddar popcorn.  

Most cherished childhood memory?  

Roaming through the north woods, climbing trees with my sister and brothers.  I loved being outdoors so much.   

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

There are so many illustrators I admire, such as Leo and Diane Dillon, whose vast body of work has inspired several generations.  Also: the late Vera B. Williams, David Diaz, Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, Pat Cummings, Maya Cristina Gonzalez…. I could go on! 

Melina Mangal's most admired illustrators

Favorite season of the year? Why?

Summer is my favorite season.  I can work in the garden, swim outside, bike everywhere, and read in the backyard hammock next to the apple tree.  

Morning person? Night person?

Definitely a morning person.  I love to wake with the sun.

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

I have one older sister and two younger brothers. Being in the middle made me flexible and helps me listen, mediate, and empathize.

Melina Mangal Books


Bluetooth Guy



Dear Peacemakers

In recent weeks, we’ve had many requests for books about anger and fear and conflict resolution.

Book by BookI was immediately reminded of an excellent resource published in 2010 called Book by Book: an Annotated Guide to Young People’s Literature with Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution Themes (Carol Spiegel, published by Educators for Social Responsibility, now called Engaging Schools).

Peace educator Carol Spiegel has gathered a useful, important, and intriguing-to-read list of 600 picture books and 300 chapter books that will spark your imagination and help you find just the right book to use in your classroom, library, or home.

When Sophie Gets AngryAs she says so well, “Stories can gently steal into the lives of young people and show the way to peace and conflict resolution. Children’s literature is rich with such tales. As an example, picture this. Annie struggles with her anger and then she hears about Sophie who gets just as angry. Annie is heartened when she learns how Sophie copes. Had someone tried to talk directly with Annie about ways to deal with anger, Annie may have been defensive. This posture was unnecessary when Sophie was being featured.”

Of course, the book Ms. Spiegel is describing is Molly Bang’s book, When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry … (and check out the 2015 book When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt).

There is an Index of Book Themes in the back matter that will help you find books with themes such as:

  • Elderly, respect for
  • Emotional literacy: accepting limitations and gifts
  • Exploring conflict: nature of conflict, conflict styles
  • Friendship, inclusion and exclusion

You’ll find good books that will be useful for your reading and discussions, such as:

  • First Day in Grapes by L. King Perez, illus by Robert Casilla (Overcoming Obstacles, Bullying)
  • Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema, illus by Leo and Diane Dillon (Listening, Rumors or Suspicion)
  • Probably Still Nick Swanson by Virginia Euwer Wolff (Accepting Limitations and Gifts, Respect for Elderly or Disabled, Rumors or Suspicion)
  • The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm (Bullying, Prejudice or Dislike, Nonviolent Response)
  • REVOLUTION is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (Nonviolent Response, Oppression)

Book by Book books

In our current world, where books have a shelf life of less than five years, you may not readily find some of these books (because they were published six or seven years ago). Get the book you’re interested in on interlibrary loan from your public library, read it, consider whether it’s important to have it in your school or classroom library, and then find a used copy online.

The folks at Engaging Schools were kind enough to send me two downloadable PDFs that may help to convince you to obtain this book: Table of Contents and Supplemental Index. You can order the book from Engaging Schools online.

I hope they will update this book … it’s a critical reference in our unsettled, growing wiser, opening our minds world.

Seriously, you’ll wonder why you don’t already have this reference book on your shelf.


Bink and Gollie

Early this morning I read Bink and Gollie books to my nieces. We were killing timeBink&Golliebook-180pix while their parents picked up the rental car for their Great American Summer Roadtrip. To say that the level of excitement was palpable is an understatement—it was a wave that nearly knocked me down when they opened their door. They talked—both of them—nonstop for an hour while we sipped our breakfast smoothies.

Mom and Dad were not back when we sucked down the final drops of smoothie, which was concerning, so anxious were they to get on the road already. I said, “Well, what can we do…that we can put down if your Mom and Dad come back in two minutes…and pick back up after your trip?”

“Books!” said one.

“YEAH—WE CAN READ BOOKS!” said the other.

“On the deck!”

“In the sunshine!”

“Let’s do it!”

And so we took Bink and Gollie with us to the sunny deck. No matter how excited these sweet girls get—and let me tell you, they were excited this morning!—they calm down instantly with a book. Their breathing changes by page two. And so we snuggled up and read, breathing deeply in the early morning sunshine.

I’d forgotten how much of the story is told in the pictures in Bink and Gollie books—and how many words are in the pictures. Labels and instructions, signs and notes, jokes and fun. Because both girls are learning to read, this works really well. I read the story itself and they read the pictures. The pictures are often filled with big words. (So is the story itself—it’s something I appreciate about Kate DiCamillo’s and Alison McGhee’s writing. They do not simplify vocabulary.) Some things we have to sound out together, but the real fun is getting the inflection right. Reading it in our Gollie voice, or like a 1940’s radio advertisement, or like a carnival barker.

Bink and Gollie are opposites in many ways—Gollie is tall and skinny, pragmaticBink&Gollie-180-pix and formal in her speech. She says things like I long for speed. And Greetings. And I beg you not to do that…. My nieces find this amusing. They are also tall and skinny, pragmatic (sometimes, anyway), and hilariously formal in their speech at times.

Bink is short and has hair sticking up all over her head. She loves bright socks and pancakes and peanut butter. No one would call my nieces short. (“We don’t have that problem,” one of them said this morning as we read about Bink ordering a Stretch-o-matic to make herself taller.) But their hair is sometimes Bink-like. And they delight in the simple things of life—including, but not limited to, socks, celebratory pancakes, and peanut butter. They also have Bink’s energy—they yammer, they jump, they zip, they climb and glide.

In short, they love both Bink and Gollie. They are Bink and Gollie—they can relate, as it were. Bink and Gollie have adventures, a sweet friendship, and they rollerskate everywhere—these details light up my sweet girls. They enjoy decoding the words in the pictures and getting the joke. They are envious of the treehouse in which Bink and Gollie live. They’d like to visit Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment—and maybe hit a Bargain Bonanza. (Maybe the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota will satisfy them.)

Bink and Gollie got us almost to Mom and Dad’s return. We did have to take a little field trip to my house (just around the corner) because their cousin was baking scones, but then Mom and Dad were home, the rented Jeep was loaded in record time, and off they went!

I wonder if they’re levitating with excitement in their car seats, chattering away like Bink or saying I long for the mountains…. like Gollie. They invited me to sneak in their car and go with them. Maybe I should’ve taken them up on it.


Choice and Voice

Classroom bookshelfIn several past articles I’ve written about the frustration I’ve felt concerning my district’s decision to adopt a new reading curriculum. In recent weeks I have had to reflect and dig deeply to understand my uneasiness and fear related to “an innovative and modern way to teach the gamut of elementary literacy skills” (quote from district website post about the new reading curriculum). I am someone who has never shied away from change or opportunities to grow as an educator. However, this significant shift in the approach to literacy learning and instruction in my classroom (and approximately 660 other elementary classrooms in the district) has contributed greatly to my decision to accept a position with a new school district for the coming school year.

What follows is the letter I am sending to district leaders and school board members in my now former district. My hope is that by sharing this with you, my Teach it Forward readers, and district decision makers, I can respectfully offer something for all of us to think about in hopes of making a positive difference in the lives of our students.

Dear District Administrators and School Board Members,

I believe we have several essential things in common. We care about kids and we want them to succeed. I also believe we share a passion for learning. We aim to do what’s right by our students. We share a sense of urgency. We want to empower our future leaders with necessary skills, experiences, and knowledge. We are intent on making informed decisions and allocating resources wisely.

I applaud the district for its willingness to invest in its kids. A combined $5.3 million for the new reading curriculum, training, and technology is no small expenditure. I know district leaders who supported the curriculum adoption worked countless hours to coordinate the review process, the piloting of materials, and the plan for implementation. For teachers who are new to the profession and have limited experience, this new program offers a detailed overview for each day of the six week units that cover lesson plans for the entire school year, including book selections, alignment to the standards, weekly tests, and interventions. For more veteran educators it delivers a time-saving program that features a fully-integrated curriculum that embeds reading, writing, spelling, and vocabulary, along with a wide range of technology tools.

I’ve spent nine years, more than a third of my 25-year teaching career, in this district. I am a National Board Certified Teacher with a masters degree in literacy and an Education Specialist degree in K-12 Leadership. My desire to make a positive difference in students’ lives runs deep. However, this letter isn’t about me. It is about the 32 incredible kids from Room 123. It’s about kids who need an advocate who will speak up on their behalf when they are not in a position to do so themselves. I am writing to respectfully ask you to consider some of the insights I have about the district’s recent adoption of the new curriculum.

Here are three things I believe those 32 kids would tell you if they had the chance.

Book Wall

#1. Please let us pick books we want to read along with books we want our teachers to read to us. “One size fits all” does not always feel that great.

Readers thrive on having choice and voice. Kids come to us with a wide range of interests, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences. Providing them with plentiful opportunities to have some say in what they read is critical. Imagine showing up at your public library or favorite bookstore every week for the next six years only to be told that the stories and books with which you will be spending 60-90 minutes a day have already been pre-selected for you … would that motivate you to read?

Nancy Atwell, renowned educator and author who is the first recipient of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, speaks to the importance of offering choice and honoring students’ voice when it comes to reading. She explains:

“We now have a quarter century of studies that document three findings: literacy blooms wherever students have access to books they want to read, permission to choose their own, and time to get lost in them. Enticing collections of literature—interesting books written at levels they can decode with accuracy and comprehend with ease—are key to children becoming skilled, thoughtful, avid readers.”

I encourage you to read what else this accomplished and highly regarded educator has to say about kids, reading, and achievement.

The new curriculum has all the books pre-selected for the entire year. The read-aloud or shared-reading selections are organized by theme to connect with the titles that are shared in small group reading. Each week there are four titles offering four different reading levels to match four different groups of readers. The district website post announcing the new curriculum adoption states: “… they’re [students] reading the same content no matter their reading ability. So students at different ability levels can participate through collaborative conversations and learn from each other.”

Those 32 incredible kids might want to know what happens if one of those four books doesn’t fit (whether that be because of topic, genre, or level)…do they have a say?

Reflect bookcase#2. Please know that we don’t all have the same access to technology but that doesn’t mean our families don’t want us to do well or that we need more worksheets to do.

While the new curriculum offers digital at-home access to texts and reading materials, not all students have the same opportunity to use them outside the classroom. Nearly 80% of students at my former school are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch and almost half are English Language Learners. Close to 90% are students of color. Yes, there is an achievement gap between white and non-white students and yes it must be addressed. Acknowledging that an “opportunity gap” also exists is a step in the right direction.

Those 32 incredible kids might not be able to articulate their feelings about the notion of “equity” but there is no doubt they have felt its absence. They might be wondering how the district will address the issue of equity for students who lack access to technology at home. Will getting a “hard copy” of texts and materials instead of getting to use online tools be enough to provide them with self-directed learning opportunities?

Relax bookshelf#3. Please ask and listen to my teachers about how the new curriculum is working in my classroom, at my school (test results are only part of the answer).

 One feature of the new program is weekly assessments, which will provide test-taking practice for students and data for teachers and administrators. While this is one way to measure growth and achievement to aid in planning for instruction, it is not the only thing to consider. The teachers who piloted the program primarily represented non-Title schools in the district. In fact, of the 10 schools (out of 24) selected to participate, only 3 were from the 14 Title schools in the district.

As stated earlier, advocating for my incredible students is my ultimate responsibility and it is the reason I am sharing this letter. It is my hope that the under-representation of Title students and classrooms in the piloting of the curriculum does not signify an indifference to students and teachers who deserve to be included in conversations and decisions about the implementation of the curriculum.

On behalf of those 32 incredible kids I keep talking about, I am happy to report that they are some of the most creative, intelligent, kind and funny kids with whom I have ever worked. Many are bilingual. They write poetry. They play musical instruments. They are artists, athletes, and actors. Most of them believe in themselves and their ability to do and become whatever they choose. Those 32 incredible kids have shared their unique talents, passions, and personalities with me each and every day, some for the past two years. Their desire to read, talk, and write about their favorite characters, authors’ messages, and the things they wonder has been evident, in part because they have been given guidance and freedom to select from the vast collection of books available to them in Room 123.

One final thing those 32 incredible kids might ask is that you never lose sight of the fact that although they might not all be able to demonstrate just how much they know and are capable of doing when it comes to reading and standardized tests, they deal with challenges on a daily basis, challenges that some of us never encounter in our entire adult lives. Don’t let this new curriculum become another challenge. I simply ask that you look beyond the new curriculum to consider what the kids and teachers might need to address the issues of student choice, student voice, equity, achievement gaps, opportunity gaps, and, most importantly, the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to teaching and learning.


Maurna Rome



Virginia Euwer Wolff“That’s your Great-Grandfather Who Lost His Arm in the Battle of the Wilderness.” That was his name. In a big gold gilt-framed photo: a distinguished-looking, white-haired, mustached gentleman high above the upright piano in my grandmother’s music room. This Civil War veteran was her father-in-law, and he and his wife in her matching frame watched over the music room for as long as I can remember. His wife looks severe: perhaps it was her high lace collar, the hard life of a 19th Century woman, and the long wait for the photographic plate’s exposure.

My horticulturist great-grandfather with the long name had convinced his son, my portrait photographer grandpa, to move the entire family 2000 miles west from Jamestown, New York to the foothills of Mt. Hood in Oregon in 1911, there to begin growing apples and pears on land whose price matched its fertile but irrigation-challenged soil. My grandma’s opinion: “But only if we can live close to the school and close to the church.” The Civil War hero, his wife, and my grandparents and their three young children traveled by train, with boxcars full of furniture, to a community of rutted roads and tenacious, weather-toughened farmers and loggers. My grandparents’ big house got built beside the church.

Irrigation was the most pitiless of the orchard’s many obstacles. The farm didn’t last long. The Great Depression happened. My grandpa re-educated himself as an electrician, and drove a Model T Ford to his jobs well into the 1950s.

Now, summertime 2016, I’m sitting on a chair from that music room, as I have done for decades. Not the piano stool. (“Virginia, do NOT spin on the piano stool. You KNOW that.”) This is a straight-back maple chair, probably from the turn of the 20th century, with curvy lines, turned legs, and a heart carved out of its back. Who made it and where? Why didn’t I ask when I was a kid and Grandma or Grandpa could have told me?

It has silently held up its end of my daily working bargain without complaint.

My grandparents’ fortunes fell, the great-grandparents died, the three children grew up. Grandma opened a boarding house for schoolteachers, and the boarding music teachers gave lessons on her piano. Rambunctious schoolyard kids walked tamely through my grandparents’ door, carrying their red John Thompson music and their yellow and green Schirmer’s.

My mother had married her true love, a lapsed Pennsylvania lawyer turned Oregon farmer who had built a large log house three miles from town. My brother and I made a family of four, happy and complete.

Grandma’s and Grandpa’s dining room, with a great big table (for all of us relatives and all those boarding teachers), opened into the music room, and someone (anyone) could play “Happy Birthday” on the piano for whoever was celebrating: age 6, 46, or 76.

We children decorated the music room Christmas tree with raggedy and chipped ornaments from history (why didn’t I ask for their stories?), and my visiting cousin and I giddily overreacted each year, as our gifts progressed from identical dolls to identical bottles of Evening in Paris perfume.

I think that during the 60-plus years this utilitarian chair spent in the music room it was never witness to insolence or profanity.

I knew my grandparents were prominent in the church, in positions of power. A few times each year Grandma prepared the cubes of Communion bread, and as I grew I was allowed to help her pour her homemade grape juice into teensy glasses in the holy, shiny tray-rack thing. Grandpa’s role was even more essential: He started the church furnace early on Sunday mornings, and on choir practice evenings, and made sure everything was working right in every room of the building. He made church possible.

Years later, my big brother whispered to me that Grandpa was the church janitor, and that he and Grandma were probably doing those jobs to fulfill their annual tithe. We were in church, and our mother, as usual, was on the organ bench, bringing Bach and Schubert and all those beautiful loved ones to the rural families in the pews.

I don’t think I ever heard my grandparents discuss religion. It was just there, an unequivocal force, like a mountain or an ocean or God.

The family sidestepped disputatiousness, didn’t stoop to quarreling. When people got peeved about wartime rationing or went mute about Hiroshima they did it without making a fuss. I never knew which marriages were unendurable yet iron-tight, I never knew which grownups had “er – uh – a problem…” Things and people didn’t break apart. Except that people died. When they did, our grief was wild and silent.

“Your father was a wonderful man, Virginia.”

“I know.”

“You look like your father, Virginia, you have his eyes.”

“Do I?”


Grandma washed on Mondays (tubs, bluing, the cranked wringer, hundreds of clothespins, yards of clothesline), ironed on Tuesdays (all those boarders’ sheets went through a marvelous machine called a mangle), sewed and mended on Wednesdays, teaching me to use a Singer machine for perfect seams by using only my foot on the pedal.

Elvis Presley began to sing. Our family went on as if he had had the good manners not to. But he had stirred something in my visiting cousin and me, and it lay stealthy and uncomprehended inside us.

We spread out, we learned to vote. Now, years too late, questions persist, casting everything in the shadowy half-light of incompletion.

Had the Civil War sergeant (Pennsylvania 105th Infantry Regiment) kept a war diary? How did Grandpa really feel about leaving studio photography and trying to be an orchardist? What might Grandma have said about spending her entire life taking care of people? Why did the church break into factions? Why did our families trust to school to teach us what Hitler had actually done? How many sudden grownup silences did my visiting cousin and I snicker through, instead of probing?

And that’s a thing I’d like to change, if I could. We know children can’t decipher the secret messages that adults send in plain sight by means of eyebrows and coded gestures. But I wish the young were quicker to develop antennae for the waves of history, its tragedies, its hilarities, its noble struggles.

I’m duly ashamed that I don’t even know where this beloved chair came from.


Let me show you this great video I took on my trip…

alligator“We’re stuck,” Airboat Man said.

Stuck: three people, on an airboat, nearing sundown, with nothing but swamp and alligators for miles.

Here’s the deal. I could tell you this story several different ways and remain truthful.  I could make it seem scary, or adventurous, or even perverted. But being me, I’m going to tell you what I hope is the “funny” version:

“You two stand down on the edge there and bounce.” Airboat Man pointed to the lower portion of the airboat. “That should jar us loose.”

BFF and I glanced dubiously at each other. Was this how Airboat Man got his kicks? By dragging zaftig, out- of-state females deep into the lonely swamp, where he manipulated a set of diabolically evil circumstances so that he could force them to—bounce?

“It’s the only way,” Airboat Man said.

So we bounced. Sure enough, we got unstuck. Airboat Man looked amused.

“I wonder if that Japanese film crew over there got videos of ya’ll bouncing,” he said.

Indeed, while we had been busy bouncing, another airboat had appeared behind us.  They had pulled close enough that I assume you could google the phrase, “Large American women bounce on airboat” (if you knew enough Japanese), and you’d get an up-close-and-personal of our bouncing back ends.

So what does this tell you about writing? I’ve talked before about how difficult it is to help young writers understand the term “voice.” Voice is the distinctive way that each writer acts as a filter for how the reader experiences a story. If BFF or Airboat Man wanted to write about this same event, they would do so using a different voice—and it might sound like a completely different story.

Why not ask all of your students to write about an adventure you have shared together?  Then have them each read their work out loud, so the group can hear different voices relating the same experience—and begin to learn by comparison what is unique about their own voice.

Developing your voice as a writer is a little like bouncing to “un-stick” an airboat.  At first, the whole concept sounds pretty suspect. But once you give it a try, you find out it works. In fact, some writers are able to develop such distinctive voices, they become famous enough to google.


Must. Get. Out.

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Skinny Dip with Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Rebecca Kai DotlichFor this interview, we visit with Rebecca Kai Dotlich, poet and children’s book author:

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

As most of my friends know, that would be Billy Collins. And then Meryl Streep would stop by too of course.

Favorite city to visit?

I’m not a far and wide traveler, but the city I’ve always wanted to visit is any city in Switzerland.


In high school, reading on the couch.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Friendly Fire by C.D.B. Bryan. On Writing: a memoir of the craft by Stephen King. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.

Stromboli (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Stromboli (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

I haven’t eaten late-night snacks since my college days at Indiana University. Strombolis. Delivered.

Most cherished childhood memory?

Oh, so many. Piling into the station wagon on a summer night to go to the drive-in in our pajamas. Watching Roy Rogers and Sky King on Saturday mornings. The smell of baby dolls and new saddle oxfords.

First date?

First love 8th grade, Dennis. First date, high school and I am pretty sure it involved a double date and a drive-in.

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

Coffee. Growing up, there was always a pot percolating in our house. My grandmother made me coffee from a very young age. She added lots of cream and sugar and called it Boston coffee. I still love it that way.

Favorite season of the year?

Fall. Why? The chill in the air. The freshness. The newness. Reminds me of new beginnings, sweaters, and school supplies.

What’s your dream vacation?

Being in a little town with bookstores, art museums, cobblestone streets, lamplights and nothing but time.

Burgess Meredith, Twilight Zone, 1960, wikimedia commons

Burgess Meredith, Twilight Zone, 1960, wikimedia commons

What gives you shivers?

Heights. Burgess Meredith. (Twilight Zone. “Time Enough At Last.”)

Morning person? Night person?

All of my young adult and adult life I was both. Easy up at 5 and to bed after midnight or 1 o’clock. Now I’m more of a morning person.

What’s your hidden talent?

Nada. Except maybe a good recall of song lyrics. And baking darn good Christmas cookies. Oh yes, and imaginative concept photography. (uh-huh, well it’s on the bucket list.)

Your favorite candy as a kid?

Sky Bar. Rock candy (icy clear, never colors.)

Is Pluto a planet?

Wait, I have to google that . . . seems it depends on the year, the poor guy keeps getting demoted. His head must be spinning.

I did get a little huffy sometimes. With my brother Curt on my grandparents' front porch.

I did get a little huffy sometimes. With my brother Curt on my grandparents’ front porch.

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

A big brother and a little sister. Big brother ruled the land of siblings, so I am used to not squawking much when it comes to following rules suggestions. He also taught me by example that books in the hand, on the shelf and splattered on the bed are the best treasures of all. Little sister passed me the opportunity to rule in the land of siblings. And also to feel responsible to look out for someone, which fortunately or unfortunately I still feel compelled to do.

with my brother and sister and our cousins

with my brother and sister and our cousins

Your hope for the world?

Besides peace, love and kindness, it would be for the eradication of bullying, and more understanding of, and compassion for, depression and other mental health issues, especially for our youth.


Reading Memories

bk_threelittlekittensMemories of my childhood are imperfect. Yours, too?

I don’t remember having a lot of books as a child. I remember The Poky Little Puppy and another dog book (title unknown) and Three Little Kittens (perhaps a reminder to me to keep track of my mittens).

I remember using the school library voraciously to read books. I had no access to the public library (too far away) so that school library was my lifeline. And our librarian understood what I was looking for before I did.

But back to the question of having books on our shelves. My mother had a Doubleday Book Club subscription so a new book arrived each month for the adult reader in our family. I saw To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Light in the Piazza, and The Sun Also Rises added to the shelves, but other than curiosity, I felt no interest in those books.

My mother also subscribed to Reader’s Digest. We had a lot of music in our house in the form of LPs. Some of my favorites were those Readers Digest collections, classics, folk songs, Broadway musicals. There was always music on the turntable. More importantly, Reader’s Digest published story collections and books for children.  

Yesterday, I was sorting through the three boxes that remain of my childhood toys and books. We’re downsizing, so the tough decisions have to be made. Do I keep my hand puppets of Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy or let them go?

Reader's Digest Treasury for Young ReadersI know I’ve gone through these boxes since I was a kid but every ten years or so I’m surprised all over again by what I played with as a child and cared enough to pack in a box for remembrance.

I found two Reader’s Digest Treasuries for Young Readers and the three-volume Doubleday Family Treasury of Children’s Stories.  My mother also subscribed to the Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers. This is how I read Lorna Doone and Ivanhoe and Where the Red Fern Grows.

I was startled to realize that my familiarity with many of the classic poems, stories, and nonfiction articles came from these books. I was introduced to Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Elizabeth Janet Gray and Dr. George Washington Carver and Jules Verne and The Odyssey and NASA’s work and more than a hundred more stories and articles. I’d like to believe that I’m an omnivorous reader today because of the wide variety I encountered in these books.

The Family Treasury of Children's BooksThere’s a penchant for everything new right now. Grandparents pick up the latest Dora the Explorer or Where’s Waldo? book because they’ve heard of them and have a vague sense that kids like them. Or the bookstore clerk suggests a Caldecott or Newbery winner of recent vintage.

This is a plea to remember those classic books: the stories, the folk tales, the fables, the poetry. Children will read a lot that you wouldn’t expect them to read, especially if you give it to them. Those classics provide a common language for educated people.

Can’t find something suitable? Write to your favorite publisher and suggest that they print collections of classics, old and new. There are a few books published in the last 20 years that sort of approach these collections published in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Here are a few:

Story Collections

Perhaps 50 years from now your children and grandchildren will open their own box of childhood memories, being thankful that you gave them such a great gift.

Thanks, Mom. You gave me a gift that has sustained me all my life.


Bookstorm™: Jazz Day

Bookmap for Jazz Day


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

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

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




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How To Make An Apple Pie and See The World

How To Make An Apple Pie and See The WorldA couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to make a really good pie. I asked around—bakers, caterers, cooking store owners etc. and the book The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum came up consistently. One person mentioned How to Make An Apple Pie and See The World  by Marjorie Priceman. I purchased both—one for the how-to and one for inspiration.

The Pie and Pastry Bible is enormous and beyond detailed (like reading an organic chemistry book in some places). It has been extremely helpful. Under its tutelage, I’m proud to say I can turn out a decent pie with a flaky, toothsome crust, and filling that holds together (mostly) and delights the senses in its sweetness and texture.

How to Make and Apple Pie and See The World is something else entirely. Technically, it is also a how-to, I suppose, but a person could get lost in the adventure of it.

Making an apple pie is really very easy.
First, get all the ingredients at the market.
Mix them well, bake, and serve.

Let me tell you, Rose Levy Beranbaum would scream and pull her hair out by the roots reading these instructions; but with a simple page turn, Marjorie Priceman acknowledges the difficulties that can arise.

Unless, of course, the market is closed.

What is to be done then? Well, you go home pack a suitcase. With walking shoes and your shopping list, catch a steamship bound for Europe and use the six days on board to brush up on your Italian. Why? Well, you’ll need it when you arrive in Italy during the harvest (timing is important, Priceman acknowledges) to gather yourself some superb semolina wheat.

Photodune: Happy Cow | by Aruba2000You’ll head to France for the chicken (the eggs! You need eggs!) and then Sri Lanka for the kurundu tree (cinnamon!). Upon hitching a ride to England you’ll “make the acquaintance of a cow”—one with good manners and a charming accent. You’ll take her with you because only the freshest milk will do.

On the way to Jamaica (for sugar!) you’ll nab a jar of salty sea water (simply evaporate and you have the salt!) and then fly home. Ingredients should remain fresh, after all. Both Beranbaum and Priceman agree that fresh ingredients are of the utmost importance. You’ll parachute into Vermont for the apples—you can’t forget the apples when you’re making apple pie.

Once home, there’s simply milling and grinding and evaporating and persuading (the chicken to lay an egg) and milking and churning and slicing and mixing to do!

While you wait for the pie to bake, you simply ask a friend over to share!

I love this book and the kids I’ve read it to love it, too. We spin the globe and find all the countries of origin for the pantry staples. We talk about where our food comes from, and if it is possible to make some of our favorite foods with all local ingredients. We talk about how much work it is to grow and prepare food and how many people we depend on to do that. We enjoy the pictures—the delightful heroine who tirelessly globe-trots so she can make a pie to share with friends.

A quick internet search yields lesson plans and homeschooling ideas for this book—few mention actually baking a pie, which makes me sad. Is there anything more homey than a made-from-scratch pie? I think not.

Apple Pie by robynmac | Photodune

Got some backyard raspberries? A u-pick strawberry farm? Consider a bake-n-read this summer with some kids. It’ll be messy, but fun!


Laughing All the Way

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill BrysonI finished reading The Road to Little Dribbling over a week ago, and I’m still laughing.

I’m a sucker for a funny story, and Bill Bryson has provided me with a steady stream of them since I first discovered him in Granta magazine back in the ’80s. I couldn’t get enough of his wisecracking tales about growing up in Des Moines, especially the epic family road trips he endured.

His latest book, in which he more or less recreates the meanderings around and musings about Britain’s quirky corners that he mined so successfully in Notes from a Small Island four decades ago, delivered just the dose of laughs I needed to offset a particularly intense stretch at work. Humor is a first-rate antidote to any number of things, I’ve found, including stress. This is why I also own a well-worn copy of the DVD Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Mr. Mysterious & CompanyI discovered humor between the covers of a book early, when I first read Sid Fleischman’s Mr. Mysterious & Company as a child. Mr. Fleischman’s story not only had me laughing in delight, but also managed to worm its way deep into my psyche, popping out decades later when I had children of my own and inaugurated a unique Frederick twist on Fleischman’s Abracadabra Day. Read Mr. Mysterious & Company and you’ll get the idea.

A few years after discovering Fleischman, I stumbled across a P. G. Wodehouse anthology on my grandfather’s bookshelf. I was 12 or so, and enormously pleased with myself for appreciating Wodehouse’s special brand of British humor. (Of course it helped that I had just returned to the U.S. from a stretch living in England.)  His nimble style! His flawless comic timing! And oh, his characters! What budding writer could possibly resist Bertie Wooster’s substantial Aunt Dahlia, who fitted into his biggest armchair “as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season”? Or how about his formidable Aunt Agatha, whom the feckless Bertie described as wearing “barbed wire next to the skin”? And then there was that pig named the Empress of Blandings…. I was a goner.

Years later, I read somewhere that when Wodehouse’s family heard him chuckling in his study as he wrote, they knew the work was going well. I seem to recall reading the same thing about Sid Fleischman. I don’t know whether Mr. Bryson’s family hears him laughing, too, but I hope my family hears me. Not all my books are humorous, but nearly all of them have humorous moments, and when something I write strikes me as funny and I make myself laugh, I think of writers like P. G. Wodehouse and Sid Fleischman and others who have traveled this path before me, and I know I’m in good company.