Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Pinkerton & Friends

I had a “Why in the world….?” moment the oth­er day. It was unex­pect­ed and a lit­tle strange and it was this: When I imag­ine pic­ture books that I am writ­ing and/or think­ing about writ­ing, I imag­ine very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tions. From a very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tor. Even though I admire the work of many illus­tra­tors. (I admire this one, too, of course.) But always, always, in my first imag­in­ing, I “pic­ture” the illus­tra­tions by Steven Kel­logg.

I love Mr. Kellogg’s work. But I love the work of a lot of illus­tra­tors and would aspire and hope for many (very dif­fer­ent) illus­tra­tors to make art to help tell my sto­ries. I can switch my imag­i­na­tion to oth­er illus­tra­tors if I think about it, but with­out think­ing about it…it’s Steven Kellogg’s art. When this real­iza­tion came to me I pulled some of his books off the shelves in my office with the ques­tion: Why is Kel­logg my default, the first one whose work I imag­ine?

All I can think is that the years 1999–2002 were what I think of as The Pinker­ton Years. You might think it strange that I can pin­point the years, but I know we were less involved with Pinker­ton (and by that I mean not read­ing Pinker­ton sto­ries on a dai­ly basis) by the time Dar­ling Daugh­ter came along late in 2002. Pri­or to that, we could hard­ly leave the house with­out a Pinker­ton sto­ry with us.

These were also the first of the allergy/asthma years—#1 Son was crit­i­cal­ly ill too much of the time, and with his doc­tors we were strug­gling to fig­ure out what was caus­ing such severe reac­tions. The only clear aller­gens were pets, and he came to under­stand first that he could not be around pup­pies or kit­ties, or any­thing else fur­ry and cud­dly and fun. A ter­ri­ble sen­tence, of course, when you are three and wheezy.

So we read a lot of books about pets, and before we read Rib­sy and Because of Winn-Dix­ie we read Pinker­ton sto­ries. A lot of Pinker­ton sto­ries. #1 Son adored Pinker­ton. Pinker­ton, a Great Dane, is pos­si­bly the most hilar­i­ous dog to ever be fea­tured in a book—he is huge and ungain­ly and always get­ting him­self in a fix. His expres­sions, his “knees and elbows,” his giant flop­pi­ness, and his curios­i­ty and giant heart make him quite a char­ac­ter.

Very quick­ly we learned to spot Kel­logg illus­tra­tions from across the library/bookstore, and pret­ty much wher­ev­er there are Kel­logg pic­tures, there are ani­mals. Not just great danes, but boa con­stric­tors, mice, cats, pigs, ducks in a row, hors­es, spaniels….. And wher­ev­er there are ani­mals, there’s a fair amount of chaos—at least in a Kel­logg book. (Arti­cles and inter­views sug­gest he has lived the fun and chaos in a home we could not have entered and lived to breathe—lots of pets!)

The detail in Kellogg’s illus­tra­tions is tremen­dous, the hilar­i­ty apt­ly con­veyed, and the sweet­ness and roller­coast­er high emo­tions of kids and Great Danes alike comes alive on the page. I could read stacks of the books in one sit­ting to my wheez­ing boy. We used them to get through neb­u­liz­er treat­ments, and to “push flu­ids,” and to encour­age rest for a kid all amped up on steroids. They were mag­i­cal and we poured over the illus­tra­tions long after the read­ing of the sto­ry was done. The med­i­cine could go down with­out much fuss as long as Pinker­ton was along.

Those were exhaust­ing, wor­ried years, and all I can think is that I some­how absorbed Steven Kellogg’s art in my sleep-deprived anx­ious state…and it’s now in my bones. Thank you, Mr. Kel­logg, for your sto­ries, your art, and your pres­ence in our family’s life. You are the default in my imag­i­na­tion and I’m grate­ful.

 

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Following The Ducklings

We have just returned from a trip to the Boston/Concord area and Maine. It was a bit of a lit­er­ary trip. Three days in Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts set the stage as we toured Louisa May Alcott’s house and Ralph Wal­do Emerson’s, too. We fol­lowed The Amble, which became more of A Ram­ble, between Emerson’s home and Thoreau’s cot­tage at Walden Pond. We vis­it­ed muse­ums and archives, book­shops and the library. It all made this Eng­lish major very happy—I’ve want­ed to vis­it Con­cord since my Walden obses­sion in high school.

We made sure to see The Duck­lings in Boston Pub­lic Gar­den, of course. #1 Son had refused to pose with them, as oth­er small chil­dren do, when he was four. He loved Make Way for Duck­lings, how­ev­er, and insist­ed we buy it in Boston since “we only have the library book.” So, of course, we did. (Side Note: If you don’t know the sto­ry about Robert McCloskey’s atten­tion to his art with regard to this book, check out Ani­ta Silvey’s telling of it on Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac.) Dar­ling Daugh­ter was game to pose with The Duck­lings on this trip, but she didn’t want to get in the way of the lit­tle ones who climbed all over them, so we have no pic­tures of either child with this mon­u­ment. But the mere thought of those bronze ducks makes me smile.

What I didn’t real­ize as we stood watch­ing the kids on the ducks, is that we were mere­ly start­ing our Robert McCloskey tour. Our next stop after Boston was Deer Isle, Maine, an island in Penob­scot Bay reached by a stun­ning sus­pen­sion bridge from the main­land. Deer Isle was home to Robert McCloskey, who moved to the idyl­lic island in search of peace after World War II. I had no idea, though I knew he was a Main­er, of course. (So many of my favorite writ­ers are.) Turns out, The McCloskeys raised a fam­i­ly on Deer Isle and we rec­og­nized the place from Blue­ber­ries for Sal, Time of Won­der, and One Morn­ing in Maine.

We had a love­ly stay and enjoyed perus­ing Maine authors in every library, book­store, antique store, and even one gas sta­tion. The McCloskey sec­tions were espe­cial­ly large. It was in an antique store in Ston­ing­ton that I had the delight­ful sur­prise of com­ing across the Hen­ry Reed books in the McCloskey sec­tion. I reached for Hen­ry Reed’s Babysit­ting Ser­vice as if in a dream—it was like time slowed…the sounds around me became distorted…and the movie of my life rewound itself to Parson’s Ele­men­tary school. There was the Hen­ry Reed sec­tion, right in the cor­ner where the shelves came togeth­er in our school’s library….. Hen­ry Reed, Inc., Hen­ry Reed’s Jour­ney, Hen­ry Reed’s Babysit­ting Ser­vice, Hen­ry Reed’s Big Show, Hen­ry Reed’s Think Tank—we had them all! I read them all—many times!

I’d wager I haven’t thought about Hen­ry Reed in near­ly 40 years, how­ev­er. I know I didn’t read these delight­ful books by Kei­th Robert­son with our kids—how could I not have read these with them?! Oh, how I loved Hen­ry and his friend Midge! I can’t remem­ber much about the plots of the books—I paged through Hen­ry Reed’s Babysit­ting Ser­vice stand­ing there in the store and remem­bered it vis­cer­al­ly but with almost no detail. Robert McCloskey illus­trat­ed them—and you can rec­og­nize his style imme­di­ate­ly. I have the Hen­ry Reed books all mixed in with the Ramona Quim­by books—same look and feel (dif­fer­ent illus­tra­tors, as well as authors) and sim­i­lar sto­ries about won­der­ful­ly ordi­nary kids. These books were my child­hood.

Our kids are twen­ty and almost fif­teen now. I won­der if I could con­vince them the Hen­ry Reed series would make for great porch read­ing this sum­mer…? We used to drink lemon­ade and eat pop­corn while we read books on the porch in the hot after­noons of sum­mer wait­ing for Dad to come home from work. I miss this. Maybe they do, too? I feel like I’ve left a ter­ri­ble hole in their read­ing lives by inad­ver­tant­ly skip­ping Hen­ry Reed! I shall pro­cure the books and then sug­gest it. Maybe some­one will join me out on the swing…..

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The Best Wish of All

World PizzaOnce in awhile I find a book on my read­ing pile that I’ve passed by a few times. It might be that the cov­er doesn’t make sense to me and I shuf­fle through to choose anoth­er title. Or the title might be sil­ly (in my mind) and I don’t open the book because some­thing else catch­es my inter­est. And then one day I open that book and I dis­cov­er that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cov­er. (Is there a truer tru­ism?)

This time that book is World Piz­za. It’s going to be about the dif­fer­ent kinds of piz­za around the world, right? It is not. There’s a clever play on words in the title which I wouldn’t have dis­cov­ered if I hadn’t opened the book and read it. (Note to self: open the book and read it!)

You see, World Piz­za is a love­ly book. It’s a tiny bit sil­ly, enough to keep those being read to smil­ing, but it’s real­ly a book about peace (I can’t fig­ure out how to rec­om­mend this book with­out giv­ing that away). A moth­er makes a wish and sneezes, result­ing in piz­zas for every­one, every­where. It’s a book about what we have in com­mon and how that brings us togeth­er and how that’s more impor­tant than what keeps us apart.

Cece Meng’s sto­ry is told with the right kind of words, words that tell the sto­ry as it should be told, which are words that get the read­er think­ing. And smil­ing. They are not preachy words. Not at all. It’s a hap­py book and we all need hap­py books.

Ellen Shi’s illus­tra­tions of a diverse pop­u­la­tion of char­ac­ters around the world eat­ing and cel­e­brat­ing piz­za, as well as piz­za com­bi­na­tions you’ve nev­er con­sid­ered before, open the reader’s mind to all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of World Piz­za. They are some­times fun­ny and some­times gen­tle in all the right ways, cre­at­ing a sto­ry that leaves an impres­sion. And her col­or palette is yum­my.

I can eas­i­ly see this book being asked for again and again. Who doesn’t want to hear a sto­ry about piz­za for every­one? And who doesn’t want to be reas­sured about the good­ness in this world we live in?

World Piz­za
writ­ten by Cece Meng
illus­trat­ed by Ellen Shi
Sterling’s Children’s Books, 2017

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The Reading Summer

A stressed moth­er of a first grad­er sought my coun­sel this week. The issue was read­ing. Her son wasn’t. And at the close of first grade he was expect­ed to. There was talk of test­ing, reme­di­al help over the sum­mer, read­ing logs, etc. She and her spouse were dread­ing it, wor­ried, and a lit­tle irked—not at the not-yet-read­er, but at the expec­ta­tions and the pres­sure. I lis­tened for a long time and when she final­ly took a breath, I asked what she was most wor­ried about—for instance, was she wor­ried there was a learn­ing issue that need­ed to be addressed? “No!” she said. “I’m wor­ried he’s going to hate read­ing if we spend the sum­mer doing these things!”

And that response com­plet­ed the time-warp I was expe­ri­enc­ing while lis­ten­ing to her story—twelve years I vault­ed back in the space-time con­tin­uüm. Twelve years ago this week we received the phone call that was the cul­mi­na­tion of an entire school year of frus­tra­tion and con­cern. #1 Son was not reading—he’d staunch­ly refused to even try to read the test­ing selec­tions his sec­ond-grade teacher asked him to in the last weeks of school. He just sat there—a con­sci­en­tious objec­tor of sorts.

Our kids went to a won­der­ful Span­ish-immer­sion school and there was a lit­tle extra time built in before they start­ed sug­gest­ing inter­ven­tions sim­ply because the stu­dents learn to read first in a lan­guage that is not their first lan­guage. But it was clear that he was “behind” by the time sec­ond grade was draw­ing to a close—The Oth­er Chil­dren were read­ing well in Span­ish, and some of them quite well in Eng­lish, too. The school rec­om­mend­ed sum­mer school, a read­ing pro­gram, and a Span­ish tutor for the sum­mer.

I calm­ly asked if any­one was con­cerned that there was a learn­ing difference/disability that need­ed to be addressed. They didn’t think so. I called a read­ing spe­cial­ist and wise moth­er and told her of the school’s rec­om­men­da­tions. And then I told her that our col­lec­tive par­ent­ing gut was telling us to decline any pro­gram­ming what­so­ev­er in favor of sim­ply read­ing good books togeth­er all sum­mer.

She was silent on the phone for sev­er­al sec­onds. And then she whis­pered (whis­pered!) that she thought this was a won­der­ful idea. I’d been a sto­ry­time read­er in her class­room before and she said she won­dered if #1 Son wasn’t read­ing sim­ply because he couldn’t read like I read quite yet—with all the inflec­tion, voic­es, and fun. She said it was obvi­ous to her that sto­ries were very much alive for him, and when you’re being asked to read those very ear­ly books in which each word is not longer than four let­ters and most of them rhyme [Mat sat on the cat.]…well, it’s hard­er to make them come alive.

Take the sum­mer and read!” she whis­pered, as if she was telling me a secret that read­ing spe­cial­ists don’t impart to the mass­es. “Read the very best books you can find and read your very best. See where he is in the fall.”

And so we did—we read all sum­mer long. We read The Sword in the Stone and The Mouse and The Motor­cy­cle. We read Peter and the Star Catch­ers and Stu­art Lit­tle. We lis­tened to Har­ry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the car on vaca­tion and read Swal­lows and Ama­zons in the tent while camp­ing. We went to the library every Fri­day and then on a pic­nic where we read stacks of pic­ture books (his sis­ter was two!) while we ate our PB&J. We vis­it­ed our local kids’ book­store with reg­u­lar­i­ty and took our new books down to the lake and I read while they fed the ducks. I did not ask him to read “the next para­graph” or to sound out a word here and there. I just read—until I was hoarse, some­times, I read.

At the end of the sum­mer, we went to meet #1 Son’s third grade teacher. She was a no-non­sense grand­moth­er and she got his num­ber imme­di­ate­ly. I loved her just as imme­di­ate­ly. She took away the Clif­ford El Gran Per­ro Col­orado pic­ture books and hand­ed him Har­ry Pot­ter y la piedra filoso­fal. And he opened that thick nov­el and start­ed reading—just like that. 

It was a won­der­ful sum­mer. She was a won­der­ful teacher. #1 Son is A Won­der­ful Read­er (in two lan­guages!), and he always was. He just didn’t “per­form” until he was good and ready. (He still resists per­form­ing.)

I told the wor­ried moth­er our sto­ry. She nod­ded smart­ly. “That’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “If there’s actu­al­ly a read­ing prob­lem that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it, but I just don’t think we know that when he’s just six.” I wished them well and shared a book­list. 

I envy the sum­mer ahead of them. The Read­ing Sum­mer was one of the best par­ent­ing deci­sions we ever made, I think. I hope it turns out as well for them.

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Summer Travel

Kids' Book of QuestionsHere are three words that may be loom­ing large in your mind: Long. Car. Trip. You’re pack­ing games, snacks, an audio book or two, sev­er­al books to take turns read­ing out loud, and … The Kids’ Book of Ques­tions.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid and we went on long car trips (near­ly every week­end), I read a lot (which must have been bor­ing for my mom), but the two of us also sang songs, talked over the week we had just explored, and, if we were head­ing to fam­i­ly, expec­ta­tions for behav­ior. But that only took so long.

It would have been great to have this book to delve into. Depend­ing on your kids’ ages, it would be a good idea to let fam­i­ly mem­bers browse through the book to pick a ques­tion to have each per­son answer in turn.

TKids' Book of Questionshe author, Dr. Gre­go­ry Stock, Ph.D., has an inter­est in life sci­ence, med­i­cine, tech­nol­o­gy, and dis­cus­sions about val­ues. He speaks fre­quent­ly at schools and on radio and tele­vi­sion. This book was first pub­lished in 1988, a fol­low-up to the adult ver­sion, The Book of Ques­tions. Now it’s been updat­ed to include ques­tions about the inter­net and school vio­lence and cli­mate change.

If you were rid­ing your  bike and acci­den­tal­ly ran into some­one else’s bike and wrecked it—but no one saw you—what would you do?”

What is the wildest and cra­zi­est thing you’ve ever done? Would you like to do it again?”

Whether you use them as con­ver­sa­tion starters, com­po­nents of a game, or just a way to pass the time, you might find this book a handy tuck-in for your Long. Car. Trip. this year. I know we’re tak­ing it along.

The Kids’ Book of Ques­tions
writ­ten by Gre­go­ry Stock, Ph.D.
Work­man Pub­lish­ing, 2015

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Driving in the Dark

A while back I was at my par­ents’ lake cab­in with my extend­ed fam­i­ly. My brother’s teenagers had all brought along friends, and on Sat­ur­day we packed every­one who fell into the “thir­teen to fif­teen” age range off to the late movie. As the res­i­dent night owl, I vol­un­teered to pick up the kids when the movie was over so that the oth­er grown-ups could make it an ear­ly night.

By davidsonlentz. AdobeStock 91080377Which is how it turns out that the first time ever in my life I was pulled over by the cops, I was dri­ving some­one else’s mini­van full of McDonald’s wrap­pers and dog hair.

Those flash­ing red lights in my rearview mir­ror instant­ly had me feel­ing all Bon­nie-and-Clydish, despite the fact that I had no idea what I had been doing wrong. Dri­ving too fast? Nope, I’d just checked my speed. Dri­ving under the influ­ence? Not unless they’d added iced cof­fee to the list.

What was I miss­ing?

It turns out that one of the van’s head­lights was out. Once I knew that, I real­ized that the road had seemed a lit- tle poor­ly lit—but then again, I was in a tiny town with no street­lights. It nev­er occurred to me that I might be miss­ing a head­light. The very pleas­ant sheriff’s deputy ran my license and, as he promised, had me back on the road with­in five min­utes. I arrived to find the kids run­ning around like mani­acs in the dark park­ing lot of the small-town movie the­ater, and my “street cred” as the cool aunt only seems to have been height­ened by my har­row­ing run-in with the law.

Some­times it helps to have some­body pull us over and point out what we’ve over­looked in our writ­ing, too. When it’s time to begin the revi­sion process, ask your stu­dents to exchange their writ­ing, and then to ask each oth­er, “What’s miss­ing from my piece?” It’s a great all-pur­pose peer-review ques­tion. Often, it turns out, the miss­ing ele­ment is some­thing that the writer already has in their head—but that hasn’t yet made it onto the page.

Ask­ing a read­er “What’s miss­ing?” often sheds some much-need­ed light on a writer’s up-to-then shad­owy prob­lem.

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I Know It’s Weird

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Skinny Dip with Susan Latta

Susan Latta

Susan Lat­ta

This week we’re all set to Skin­ny Dip with Susan Lat­ta, who is cel­e­brat­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of her first trade book on Sep­tem­ber 1st, Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs (Chica­go Review Press). With his­tor­i­cal to con­tem­po­rary biogra­phies of women who have found cures, advanced med­i­cine, and tend­ed to the sick with com­pas­sion, Susan has writ­ten an inspir­ing book that teen read­ers will find fas­ci­nat­ing. Thanks to Susan for tak­ing time to answer Bookol­o­gy’s ques­tions!

Bold Women of MedicineWho was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

My favorite teacher was my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Palmquist. I don’t remem­ber her first name. She had a sys­tem of writ­ing the num­bers 1, 2, 3, on the black­board for dis­ci­pline. If the class mis­be­haved and she got to num­ber 3, that meant she wouldn’t read to us that day. Since I was one of the “goody two-shoes” in the class it always made me so angry when one of the boys (usu­al­ly Den­nis) did some­thing to get us to num­ber 3. I espe­cial­ly remem­ber when she read Charlotte’s Web and Stu­art Lit­tle. I was fas­ci­nat­ed and looked for­ward to that time of day.

Caps for SaleWhen did you first start read­ing books?

Prob­a­bly in about first grade. We had all the usu­al books for the time; Cat in the Hat, A Snowy Day, The Lit­tle Engine That Could, Mike Mul­li­gan and His Steam Shov­el, Caps for Sale. When I was a lit­tle old­er, I loved the Lau­ra Ingalls Wilder series, as well as any­thing by Bev­er­ly Cleary. And a bit lat­er, I devoured every Agatha Christie mys­tery.

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

Broder’s Pas­ta Bar in Min­neapo­lis, their home­made pas­ta is to die for. As far as guests, I think Abi­gail Adams, Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, Dr. Helen Taus­sig, Sis­ter Eliz­a­beth Ken­ny, Lau­ra Ingalls Wilder, Julia Child, and my fam­i­ly; hus­band Rob, sons Ryan and Rob­bie, and daugh­ter Kris­ten. Our gold­en retriev­er Stan­ley would love to come for the left­overs.

Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksAll-time favorite book?

Hard to choose just one. As a child, My Side of the Moun­tain by Jean Craig­head George and Snow Trea­sure by Marie McSwigan. As an adult: Pil­lars of the Earth by Ken Fol­lett, The Immor­tal Life of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks by Rebec­ca Skloot, John Adams by David McCul­lough.

Favorite break­fast or lunch as a kid?

Amer­i­can Braun­schweiger which is a type of liv­er­wurst or liv­er sausage with a lit­tle may­on­naise on white bread. Haven’t had it in years; not sure it is con­sid­ered health food.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Chang­ing the sheets.

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

Dig­ging into the research.

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

Shoes and good wool socks in the win­ter, bare­foot in the sum­mer.

strong coffeeWhen are you at your most cre­ative?

Morn­ing, but after break­fast and good strong cof­fee. And when I say strong, I mean “spoon almost stand­ing up in the mug strong.”

Your best mem­o­ry of your school library?

As fifth graders, we wrote and illus­trat­ed pic­ture books to read to the kinder­gart­ners in the library. Mine was some­thing about bears. Sure wish I still had it.

Favorite fla­vor of ice cream?

Mocha chip.

Lilian Boxfish Takes a WalkBook on your bed­side table right now?

Lil­lian Box­fish Takes a Walk by Kath­leen Rooney.

What’s your hid­den tal­ent?

I can wig­gle my ears.

Your favorite toy as a child?

My Bar­bie and Skip­per dolls.

Best inven­tion in the last 200 years?

The dish­wash­er.

Girl with a Watering Can

Girl with a Water­ing Can, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876

Favorite artist? Why?

Claude Mon­et or Renoir. I love impres­sion­ism and had a poster of Renoir’s paint­ing A Girl with a Water­ing Can in my bed­room grow­ing up. I also love Anna Mary Robert­son Moses, bet­ter known as Grand­ma Moses. Her idyl­lic paint­ings have so many things to dis­cov­er.

Which is worse: spi­ders or snakes?

That’s a toss-up. Prob­a­bly spi­ders.

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

Recy­cling.

Why do you feel hope­ful for humankind?

Because buried in each of us there is good­ness. In some it may be hard to find, but it is there.

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Theater Geeks!

If your chil­dren (or you) are cap­ti­vat­ed by tal­ent shows on TVor dreams of act­ing on the stage, or the next the­ater pro­duc­tion at school, there are a cho­rus line of books just wait­ing to audi­tion for your next favorite. Here’s a mix­ture of clas­sic and new sto­ries, rang­ing in inter­est from grades 3 through 7.

All the World's a Stage  

All the World’s a Stage
writ­ten by Gretchen Woelfle, illus by Thomas Cox
Hol­i­day House, 2011

Twelve-year-old Kit Buck­les has come to Lon­don to make his for­tune. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he’s caught up in crime to stay alive. Imme­di­ate­ly caught in his first pick­pock­et­ing assign­ment, Kit is enthralled by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to do odd jobs for their The­ater Play­house. When the act­ing troupe is evict­ed, Kit is caught up in the plot to steal the the­ater! William Shake­speare is a char­ac­ter is this sto­ry and the well-researched his­to­ry that defines this nov­el is excit­ing. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

 

The Best Christ­mas Pageant Ever
writ­ten by Bar­bara Robin­son
Harper­Collins, 1971

It can be argued that this is one of the fun­ni­est books ever pub­lished for chil­dren. When the Herd­man chil­dren learn that there are free snacks at the church in their neigh­bor­hood, they attend Sun­day School even though they haven’t heard of Jesus and the Christ­mas sto­ry before. When they’re cast in the Christ­mas pageant, the sto­ry of Jesus’ birth takes unusual—and eye-opening—turns. It’s a laugh-out-loud book with a heart-tug­ging end­ing. Many fam­i­lies read this out loud each year as part of their hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions but it’s a well-writ­ten book that works well any time of year.

Better Nate Than Never  

Bet­ter Nate Than Ever
writ­ten by Tim Fed­er­le
Simon & Schus­ter, 2013

Thir­teen-year-old Nate Fos­ter has been grow­ing up in small-town Penn­syl­va­nia in a school and town that doesn’t appre­ci­ate his show­man­ship. His dream is to be on Broad­way, a life plan he and his best friend Lib­by have been rehears­ing for for­ev­er. When an open cast­ing call is adver­tised for E.T. The Musi­cal, Nate is deter­mined to be there. By turns fun­ny and heart-rend­ing, Nate’s sto­ry will strike a chord with every kid who wants to be a per­former on the spotlit stage.

Sequel: Five, Six, Sev­en, Nate!, Tim Fed­er­le, S&S, 2014

Drama  

Dra­ma
writ­ten by Raina Tel­ge­meier
Gold­en Books, 1947

In this book for ear­ly teens, Cal­lie gives up her ambi­tion to be in her school’s musi­cal when an audi­tion fails to impress the cast­ing com­mit­tee. She isn’t a singer. Instead, Cal­lie becomes a part of the back­stage crew, a cir­cum­stance many dis­ap­point­ed kids can relate with. But Cal­lie dis­cov­ers that she likes work­ing on the set. She doesn’t know what she’s doing but she’s enthu­si­as­tic. And there’s as much dra­ma back­stage as there is onstage. Cal­lie goes from one crush to anoth­er, main­tain­ing sus­pense with humor. This graph­ic nov­el is a big hit with read­ers.

Forget-Me-Not Summer  

For­get-Me-Not Sum­mer
writ­ten by Leila How­land
Harper­Collins, 2015

Marigold, Zin­nie, and Lily Sil­ver have their LA sum­mer all planned out—until their dad and mom, both work­ing for the film indus­try, get jobs out of town. The girls are sent to a small, coastal, Mass­a­chu­setts town to live with their aunt. They’re not hap­py because Marigold, twelve, had plans to audi­tion for a movie being made of her favorite book. And life in Pruet, MA, is unplugged. No cell phone recep­tion. Then Marigold dis­cov­ers the movie’s pro­duc­er has a sum­mer home near­by. Zin­nie writes a play to fea­ture Marigold’s tal­ents and the girls cre­ate a tal­ent show in a com­mu­ni­ty that is accept­ing and friend­ly. A heart-warm­ing book.

Goblin Secrets  

Gob­lin Secrets
writ­ten by William Alexan­der
Atheneum, Simon & Schus­ter, 2012

Rownie’s old­er broth­er, Rowan, his only liv­ing rel­a­tive, has dis­ap­peared. Rowan is an actor in a city that has out­lawed act­ing. To find Rowan, Rown­ie joins a Gob­lin the­ater troupe that per­forms in Zom­bay, man­ag­ing to get around the law. They’re up to more than is appar­ent and soon Rown­ie is caught up in the dra­ma of life. There are touch­es of steam­punk in this fan­ta­sy world. Rown­ie is tak­en in by Gra­ba, a woman with mech­a­nized chick­en legs. Yes, the books is that inven­tive! Nation­al Book Award for this debut nov­el.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!  

Good Mas­ters! Sweet Ladies!
Voic­es from a Medieval Vil­lage
writ­ten by Lau­ra Amy Schlitz, illus­trat­ed by Robert Byrd
Can­dlewick Press, 2007

Set in 1255, this engag­ing set of mono­logues cre­ate medieval vignettes that trans­port the read­er, or per­former, to a well-researched, involv­ing era. From the singing shep­herdess to the town’s “half-wit,” to the peasant’s daugh­ter, we learn the sto­ries of 22 peo­ple in this com­mu­ni­ty. This book isn’t about the­ater, it is the­ater, offer­ing a dra­mat­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty for under­stand­ing of a time long past. Win­ner of the New­bery Medal.

King of Shadows  

King of Shad­ows
writ­ten by Susan Coop­er
Mar­garet McElder­ry Books, Simon & Schus­ter, 1999

One of the best time-trav­el nov­els ever writ­ten, this is the sto­ry of Nat Field, a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Com­pa­ny of Boys, an act­ing troupe. An orphan, this oppor­tu­ni­ty pro­vides a home for Nat, who trav­els with them to Lon­don to star at the new Globe The­ater as Puck in A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream. When he goes to sleep, he dis­cov­ers he has been whisked back to 1599 where he becomes the pro­tégé of William Shake­speare with a time-traveler’s abil­i­ty to save the Bard’s life. Replete with his­tor­i­cal detail, an excit­ing plot, and mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, this is a book to beck­on read­ers toward mod­ern-day excite­ment about Shakespeare’s plays. 

The Life Fantastic  

The Life Fan­tas­tic
writ­ten by Liza Ketchum
Simon Pulse, 2017

Fif­teen-year-old Tere­sa is drawn to the vaude­ville stage. She feels the need to sing, to per­form. Her par­ents were vaude­vil­lians, but they chose a con­ven­tion­al life of 9-to-5 jobs and stay­ing in one town to take care of their two chil­dren. Tere­sa wants to try her own career on the stage but her father is vehe­ment­ly against it. She sneaks away from home to New York City where she even­tu­al­ly ends up with a nation­al vaude­ville troupe. There are fas­ci­nat­ing, well-researched details of vaude­ville, racism in the the­ater and 1910 Amer­i­ca, and life as a dar­ing girl before women had any rights. A very good sto­ry for mid­dle grade and old­er, includ­ing adults.

Okay for Now  

Okay for Now
writ­ten by Gary D. Schmidt
Clar­i­on Books, 2011

For­mer­ly cast as the bul­ly in The Wednes­day Wars, Doug Swi­eteck is start­ing over in a new town. His father is abu­sive, his moth­er doesn’t stand up against his father, and his old­er, unkind broth­er is off fight­ing in Viet­nam. Doug real­izes he has an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make him­self over into some­one with a dif­fer­ent rep­u­ta­tion. He makes friends with Lil Spicer, becomes spell­bound by a library book with plates of Audubon’s birds, and sets off on a grand adven­ture with Lil to appear on a Broad­way stage. Fun­ny, heart-wrench­ing, and absorb­ing, this book is not be missed.

Replay  

Replay
writ­ten by Sharon Creech
Harper­Collins, 2005

Leonar­do is the mid­dle child in a loud, chaot­ic Ital­ian fam­i­ly. He’s a dream­er, a thinker, and per­haps an actor. He is cast in the dis­ap­point­ing role of the Old Crone in Rompopo’s Porch, a play his teacher wrote. At home, he dis­cov­ers the jour­nal his father wrote when he was thir­teen years old, the same age Leo is now. These two dis­parate occur­rences will give him more con­fi­dence, solve a fam­i­ly mys­tery, and change his life. The full text of the play is includ­ed in the book so cre­ative thes­pi­ans can put on their own show.

Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive) At Last  

Romeo and Juli­et Togeth­er (and Alive) At Last
writ­ten by Avi
Scholas­tic, 1987

A light­heart­ed ren­di­tion of Romeo and Juli­et is writ­ten and pro­duced by a class of eighth-graders whose true goal is to get shy Peter Saltz and shy Anabell Stack­pole to real­ize they’re just right for each oth­er. The match­mak­ing attempts, the earnest but laugh-out-loud fun­ny pro­duc­tion of Shakespeare’s clas­sic play (often taught in eighth grade), and the ring­ing-true think­ing, plan­ning, and mis­steps of this group of kids make this one of my favorite of Avi’s books.

The Shakespeare Stealer  

The Shake­speare Steal­er
writ­ten by Gary Black­wood
Harper­Collins, 2005

Ordered by his nefar­i­ous “own­er,” and Shakespeare’s com­peti­tor, to steal the unpub­lished “Ham­let” from the Bard him­self, the orphaned Widge is bound to obey. The only prob­lem is that once he’s clev­er­ly insert­ed him­self into the troupe at the Globe The­ater, he finds real friends for the first time in his life. How will he avoid the reper­cus­sions of dis­obey­ing his own­er? How can Widge find a way not to dis­ap­point his new friends? The plot twists, turns, and ulti­mate­ly pro­vides a riv­et­ing read­ing expe­ri­ence.

Snow White  

Snow White
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Matt Phe­lan
Can­dlewick Press, 2016

You may be think­ing Snow White and the the­ater? What’s the con­nec­tion? In Matt Phelan’s com­pelling re-imag­in­ing of the fairy tale, Saman­tha White (called Snow by her dying moth­er) is the daugh­ter of the King of Wall Street. It’s the late 1920s and life is gid­dy. Her father mar­ries the Queen of the Fol­lies (as in Zieg­field, our minds sup­ply), who turns out to have very evil inten­tions. She sends Saman­tha off to board­ing school and some­how Samantha’s hale and hearty father dies. Sev­en street urchins and Detec­tive Prince round out the cast in this high­ly read­able and dis­cus­sion-wor­thy graph­ic nov­el. 

The Cruisers A Star is Born  

A Star is Born, The Cruis­ers series
writ­ten by Wal­ter Dean Myers
Scholas­tic Press, 2012

Eighth graders Zan­der, LaShon­da, Kam­bui, and Bob­bi run an alter­na­tive news­pa­per, The Cruis­er, at their high school for gift­ed and tal­ent­ed stu­dents in Harlem, New York. In this third book in the series, LaShon­da earns a schol­ar­ship to the Vir­ginia Woolf Soci­ety Pro­gram for Young Ladies, hon­or­ing the cos­tumes she designed for a play the Cruis­ers pro­duced. Once she’s com­plet­ed the pro­gram, she’ll be eli­gi­ble for finan­cial assis­tance for col­lege. But there’s a wrin­kle. LaShon­da will have to move to be a part of the pro­gram and she’s hes­i­tant to leave her autis­tic broth­er behind. The friends work to solve this conun­drum in a real­is­tic way. A great friend­ship sto­ry told with Wal­ter Dean Myers’ deft and sure touch, using inter­ject­ed poems, essays, and arti­cles that are pub­lished in The Cruis­er.

Starstruck  

Starstruck
writ­ten by Rachel Shuk­ert
Dela­corte Press, 2013

For read­ers most­ly aged 16 and old­er, this 1930s Hol­ly­wood nov­el tells the tale of Mar­garet Fro­bish­er, who is lit­er­al­ly dis­cov­ered in a drug­store. Because she looks like a movie star who’s gone miss­ing, she is swept into the stu­dio sys­tem, renamed Mar­go Ster­ling, and is sud­den­ly star­ring in a movie. It’s a lot for a young woman to han­dle and it turns out that Hol­ly­wood isn’t all glam­our and bright lights. Evil and dark­ness are a part of this new world and so are heartache and stark real­i­ty. The details are good, the char­ac­ters are well-drawn … it’s a good book to read if you’re hun­gry for Hol­ly­wood as it was in its Gold­en Age.  

Summerlost  

Sum­mer­lost
writ­ten by Ally Condie
Dut­ton Books, 2016

Cedar could be for­giv­en for mop­ing around in her new sum­mer home. Her father and younger broth­er Ben were just killed in an acci­dent. And yet she’s intrigued when she sees a boy in a cos­tume rid­ing past her house on a bicy­cle. She fol­lows him and dis­cov­ers the Sum­mer­lost the­ater fes­ti­val. Soon Cedar is work­ing con­ces­sions at the fes­ti­val and she’s caught up in the mys­tery of a ghost and mys­te­ri­ous gifts that show up in sur­pris­ing ways. Edgar Award nom­i­nee. It’s a good mid­dle grade nov­el that reads with great warmth and under­stand­ing of loss.

Surviving the Applewhites  

Sur­viv­ing the Apple­whites
writ­ten by Stephanie S. Tolan
Harper­Collins, 2002

Thir­teen-year-old Jake Sem­ple is a tough nut. He’s been kicked out of schools until there are no options left. That is until a home­school­ing fam­i­ly, the Apple­whites, offer to let him attend their Cre­ative Acad­e­my. Every­one in the fam­i­ly has an artis­tic tal­ent. Dad’s pro­duc­ing The Sound of Music at their local the­ater. Mom is a mys­tery writer who’s tak­ing a break to write the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el. Uncle is a wood­carv­er and Aunt is a poet. Even Cordelia and Des­tiny have their unique tal­ents. All except for E.D., who is quite pos­si­bly the only Apple­white who is orga­nized enough to keep the fam­i­ly run­ning. The book is told from Jake’s and E.D.‘s alter­nate view­points. And it turns out that Jake might not be as impen­e­tra­bly tough as he believes.

Swish of the Curtain  

Swish of the Cur­tain
writ­ten by Pamela Brown
Long­wa­ter Books (reprint­ed edi­tion), orig. 1941

Most Sev­en chil­dren from three fam­i­lies orga­nize The Blue Door The­ater Com­pa­ny, ren­o­vat­ing an old chapel and pro­duc­ing their own plays. They write, direct, stage, sew cos­tumes, design scenery, and rehearse on their own. Their goal is to com­pete in the dra­ma con­test at the end of the sum­mer, the prize for which is a schol­ar­ship to attend dra­ma school. The group has the goal to be in the pro­fes­sion­al the­ater. Pamela Brown began writ­ing this book when she was 14, but it wasn’t pub­lished until she was 17! She was a UK author, and her series of books about this dra­ma troupe was immense­ly pop­u­lar, being trans­lat­ed to radio, tele­vi­sion, and movies. A true clas­sic. 

Theater Shoes  

The­ater Shoes
writ­ten by Noël Streat­field
Year­ling, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1946

The three Forbes sib­lings are orphaned. Their grand­moth­er, a famous actress, forces them to go to a the­ater school. They can’t afford the tuition but the Fos­sil Sis­ters (yes, the sis­ters from Bal­let Shoes) spon­sor them with a schol­ar­ship. They don’t believe they have any tal­ents but they’re deter­mined to live up to their spon­sors’ expec­ta­tions so they make their best effort. And they dis­cov­er that they are tal­ent­ed indeed. The “Shoes” books were favorites for read­ers who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They still read well today. Many chil­dren of those years pur­sued careers in the arts because of Noël Streatfield’s sto­ries!

The Wednesday Wars  

Wednes­day Wars
writ­ten by Gary D. Schmidt
Clar­i­on Books, 2007

Holling Hood­hood, sev­enth-grad­er, has a lot of chal­lenges. He’s the only Pres­by­ter­ian in his Catholic and Jew­ish school. He’s being forced to read Shake­speare by his teacher, Mrs. Bak­er. His father is demand­ing that Holling and his sis­ter are always on their best behav­ior so his busi­ness can suc­ceed. There’s a bul­ly that won’t leave Holling alone. And Holling’s base­ball heroes are com­ing to town to sign auto­graphs on the same day he has to put on yel­low tights and appear in a play. If that weren’t enough, the anx­i­ety of the Viet­nam War sur­rounds Holling’s life. A book that’s thor­ough­ly enjoy­able to read and unfor­get­table. It received a New­bery Hon­or.

Will Sparrow's Road  

Will Sparrow’s Road
writ­ten by Karen Cush­man
Clar­i­on Books, 2012

Will Sparrow’s father sells him to an innkeep­er in exchange for a dai­ly sup­ply of ale. The innkeep­er is cru­el so 13-year-old Will runs away … to a world that is not kind. Steal­ing food to eat, lying, Will thinks of him­self as a bad per­son. When he meets Grace and her trav­el­ing the­ater troupe of “odd­i­ties,” he dis­cov­ers an assem­bled fam­i­ly that cares for one anoth­er. Wills learns the per­form­ing skills nec­es­sary and he real­izes that he is some­body with worth in his Eliz­a­bethan Eng­land world. Filled with Karen’s Cushman’s ele­gant and fun­ny lan­guage, the era comes alive because of her care­ful research.

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Superheroes and Bad Days

Even Superheroes Have Bad DaysI don’t know about you, but I’ve been wish­ing for an hon­est-to-good­ness super­hero to save the day.

If adults are feel­ing that way, kids, who pick up all of our emo­tions, are wish­ing for the same thing. Bat­man and Won­der Woman led the list of most pop­u­lar Hal­loween cos­tumes in 2016. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of super­hero movies is hard to ignore. But there are very few books about super­heroes that are appro­pri­ate for the 3–7 year age range.

With rhyming text and a car­toon illus­tra­tion style that has a sophis­ti­cat­ed palette and deli­cious details, Even Super­heroes Have Bad Days is a book every­one can use right NOW. For kids of that cer­tain age, Shelly Beck­er and Eda Kaban have teamed up to give us a row­dy, exu­ber­ant book filled with images of super­heroes in action.

We first learn what they could do when they’re hav­ing a bad day: kick­ing, punch­ing, pound­ing, shriek­ing. They could be quite destruc­tive with their super­pow­ers.

But upset heroes have all sorts of choic­es …
Instead of destruc­tion and loud, livid voic­es
They burn angry steam off with speed-of-light hik­ing
Or super-Xtreme out­er space moun­tain bik­ing. “

They clean up oth­er people’s mess­es, they pro­tect peo­ple from harm.

Even Superheroes Have Bad Days

There’s no deny­ing that super­heroes could use their pow­ers to wreak hav­oc, make may­hem, but:

Instead they dig down to their super-best part,
The strong super-pow­ers con­tained in their heart!”

There are lots of images to look at while you read togeth­er, includ­ing eight super­heroes cre­at­ed just for this book. Beast­ie, Zing, Thrash, Laser­man Mag­nifique, Screech­er, Typhoon, and Icky are good writ­ing prompts, espe­cial­ly for dif­fi­cult days.

Every sin­gle one of us has those crab­by days, down days, exas­per­at­ed days. How are we sup­posed to act? We can look to these super­heroes for inspi­ra­tion to be our best selves.

Cap­tain Amer­i­ca and Avengers star Chris Evans chose to read this book on the CBee­bies ‘Bed­time Sto­ry’ on the BCC!

Fun and emo­tions and resilien­cy and good read­ing all in one pack­age! It’s a mes­sage book but one that will res­onate with many kids. Rec­om­mend­ed for school libraries, pub­lic libraries, and exu­ber­ant book­shelves every­where.

Even Super­heroes Have Bad Days
writ­ten by Shelly Beck­er
illus­trat­ed by Eda Kaban
Ster­ling Children’s Books, 2016

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Tunnel Vision

Writing Road Trip - Tunnel VisionDri­ving through a tun­nel effec­tive­ly nar­rows our field of vision. The walls and ceil­ing restrict our view to only that which is inside the tun­nel. It doesn’t mat­ter if there’s a moun­tain parked on top of the roof, or an ocean of water being held back by the walls: when we’re inside the tun­nel, those things are out­side our view.

This con­cept of tun­nel vision pro­vides a good way to talk with your writ­ing stu­dents about using first per­son point of view. This view­point is dis­tress­ing­ly easy to mess up. When we’ve cho­sen to tell a sto­ry using the “I” voice, it’s all too sim­ple to slip into anoth­er character’s head. But it’s a no-no to wan­der into a land­scape that is beyond the “view” of the per­spec­tive char­ac­ter.

Some­times it hap­pens because the writer has been tempt­ed to bring in infor­ma­tion that the char­ac­ter doesn’t know, per­haps to increase ten­sion or sus­pense (Will the snake the author has told us is hid­ing under the bed strike a fatal bite? Will she ever real­ize that he’s secret­ly attract­ed to her, as the read­er knows because the writer snuck into his inner­most thoughts?).

And some­times it hap­pens just as a slip: sud­den­ly the writer has entered anoth­er character’s thoughts, or intro­duced action, that is out­side the field of vision of the per­spec­tive char­ac­ter.

There’s a sim­ple line I use to remind stu­dents that they can’t devi­ate from their character’s “tun­nel vision” this way: in first per­son, the action has to stop when­ev­er that char­ac­ter falls asleep, slips into a coma, or leaves the room.

The char­ac­ter can cer­tain­ly come back into the room (or wake up from the coma) and guess that some­thing has hap­pened: they might read someone’s face and guess they’ve been cry­ing, or see a bro­ken vase and inter­pret that some­body threw it in a rage. But what hap­pened inside that room after the char­ac­ter left is offi­cial­ly “out­side the tun­nel,” and there­fore out of bounds of the character’s direct expe­ri­ence for sto­ry­telling pur­pos­es. If the writer wants what hap­pened to be part of the story’s action, they have to find a clever way for the point of view char­ac­ter to dis­cern what has gone on; they can’t sim­ply sneak into some­body else’s head.

What hap­pens out­side the tun­nel, stays out­side the tun­nel.

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The Bluest Eye

 

It’s been years since I could keep up with my kids read­ing. When they first began read­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, I’d often read (or at least skim) the books they were work­ing on so I could ask ques­tions and talk about it with them. Then for sev­er­al more years, they would sim­ply tell me about what­ev­er they were reading—often in great detail. Some­times I’d read it, some­times not, but we could con­verse about it giv­en the amount of detail they shared. But even­tu­al­ly they read at a pace much faster than me, and they read more wide­ly, too. Both read way more fan­ta­sy than I do. #1 Son reads a lot of his­to­ry, and Dar­ling Daugh­ter a lot more YA than I man­age. These days, it’s often me ask­ing them for books to read.

As they each entered high school I decid­ed to try and read with them on the books they were read­ing in Eng­lish class. This is large­ly a re-read­ing of the clas­sics for me—I was an Eng­lish major, after all. And a few more con­tem­po­rary books, too. I haven’t man­aged to read every one, but many I have, and been glad I did. None more so than this spring’s Hon­ors Eng­lish 9 selec­tion: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Min­neapo­lis’ Guthrie The­ater is putting on The Bluest Eye this spring, and we had tick­ets in our sea­son pack­age. Last fall when they came I thought, “Oh, we should read that before we go…..” But I’d lost it in the dai­ly shuf­fle. I was thrilled when Dar­ling Daugh­ter told me The Bluest Eye was next on the syl­labus.

Toni Mor­ri­son!” I said. “I haven’t read The Bluest Eye in ages! I’ll dust my copy off and have a read with you.”

Mr. W. says it’s pretty…intense,” Dar­ling Daugh­ter said.

Indeed,” I said, as I scanned the book­shelves. “And beau­ti­ful. That’s how Mor­ri­son writes.” But The Bluest Eye was not in the M sec­tion on my shelf. Nor was it “mis­filed” some­where else—I looked every­where for it the next few days and final­ly gave up and bought a copy.

Twen­ty pages in I real­ized that I’d prob­a­bly nev­er read it. I had it all con­fused with Beloved, I think. It is quite a read. Intense seems like too sim­ple a word to describe it. So heart­break­ing. Appalling in too many ways. But such gor­geous writ­ing! And…important. It feels impor­tant to read this book. I’m grate­ful my kid has an Eng­lish teacher will­ing to take it on.

Our Guthrie tick­et night came and we went and watched the intense, heart­break­ing sto­ry on stage. I could hard­ly breathe through much of it. The hard scenes of rape and racism and hor­ror were beau­ti­ful­ly han­dled and I was so grate­ful to be sit­ting next to my four­teen year old as we watched. I was plumb full of grat­i­tude, in fact. Grate­ful for Morrison’s work; grate­ful for the work of the play­wright, Lydia R. Dia­mond; grate­ful for the actors who pre­sent­ed it to us with such exquis­ite artistry.

None of us will for­get this book and its play. I’m very glad to have final­ly read The Bluest Eye, and I’m thrilled to have read and seen it with my kid­do.

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I Need a Grant

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The Funny and the Heart

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Amy Krouse Rosen­thal

Jack­ie: Recent­ly Phyl­lis and I read a heart-break­ing col­umn in The New York Times, writ­ten by author Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, who wrote many children’s books, and a cou­ple of books for adults.

The col­umn, writ­ten as a love-note to her hus­band from a dying wife, was heart­felt, sad, and fun­ny all at the same time. We both wished we had known Amy Krouse Rosen­thal. But it was too late. We looked at a few of her books and found the fun­ny and the heart that char­ac­ter­ized that col­umn.

As a way of pay­ing trib­ute, we want to share just a few of her books with you. And I should add that we both want to do this but Phyl­lis is out tramp­ing around after Min­neso­ta wild­flow­ers for a book project so I am on my own this month. I will miss my big-heart­ed friend in writ­ing a col­umn about anoth­er writer with heart, but will do my best.

Yes Day!Humor and heart char­ac­ter­ize all the Amy Krouse Rosen­thal books I have read. A favorite of my grand­chil­dren is Yes Day! Once a year the exu­ber­ant child in this book wakes up to a day in which his par­ents answer all his ques­tions with, “Yes.”

Can I please have piz­za for break­fast?” Turn the page and he is about to enjoy what we know to be, because it’s steam­ing with fla­vor, deli­cious sausage piz­za.

Can I use your hair gel?” Turn the page and the fam­i­ly is pos­ing for a por­trait with our hero stand­ing in front with superbly spiked hair.

Can I clean my room tomor­row?” Yes. Or pick all the cere­als?  And we see in the gro­cery cart Puffed Sug­ar Cere­al, Marsh­mal­low Fluff cere­al (“with bits of actu­al cere­al”), Hot Fudge Sun­dae Flakes (“1 whole oat per serv­ing”).  There are no bad wish­es. Mario can come for din­ner. Our hero can stay up real­ly late. And on the last two pages we see the Yes Day cel­e­brant lying on the ground,  under the stars with his Dad. “Does this day have to end? We know the answer. But his last words are “See you again next year!”

This pic­ture book is so sat­is­fy­ing. Our grand­daugh­ter Ella is sev­en and enjoys the Har­ry Pot­ter books, Bev­er­ly Cleary books, as well as many graph­ic nov­els. But she loved this book, too. And sat through repeat­ed read­ings, laugh­ing at all the jokes.

ChopsticksElla also loved Chop­sticks. This sto­ry of the friend­ship of two chop­sticks is loaded with visu­al and ver­bal puns. “They go every­where togeth­er. They do every­thing togeth­er.” Until one of them snapped. “Chop­stick was quick­ly whisked away,” car­ried by a kitchen whisk. “The oth­ers all wait­ed qui­et­ly. /No one stirred,/ not even Spoon.”

When Chop­stick returns from his surgery, he tells his friend to go off, have adven­tures on his own. One of his hilar­i­ous adven­tures is con­duct­ing an orches­tra of kitchen imple­ments. The turkey baster plays French horn, a fork plays an oven ther­mome­ter that looks like a bas­soon. Who could not love this page?

Who could not love this book which ends with the chop­sticks play­ing “Chop­sticks” on the piano?

Exclamation PointAmy Krouse Rosen­thal had a light touch with seri­ous sub­jects, too. Excla­ma­tion Mark is the sto­ry of a punc­tu­a­tion mark that does not fit in. Hilar­i­ous already, right?  The text and illus­tra­tions appear on what looks like the wide-lined school paper of the ear­ly grades. The book begins “He stood out from the very beginning—on the next page we see a row of cir­cle-drawn peri­ods with lit­tle faces and one peri­od with a long line above it—the Excla­ma­tion Mark. “He tried every­thing to be more like them./But he just wasn’t like every­one else. [Line of peri­ods.] Peri­od.”  After a while he meets a ques­tion mark. Of course it only speaks in ques­tions. “Who are you? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite col­or? Do you like frogs?” And on and on—until Excla­ma­tion Mark says, STOP!” The Ques­tion Mark loves it and asks him to do it again. “Hi!” And again, “Howdy!”  And more. “It was like he broke free from a life sen­tence.” With all its puns and sil­ly phras­es, this is at its core a sto­ry of find­ing one’s place in the world. And that is always sat­is­fy­ing

SpI was famil­iar with only two of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books, Spoon, the sto­ry of a spoon who is unhap­py with its role in life, envies the oth­er imple­ments. He says of Chop­sticks, “Every­one thinks they’re real­ly cool and exot­ic! No one thinks I’m cool or exot­ic.” Even­tu­al­ly Spoon real­izes a spoon’s work can be cool—and fun. Such a great idea to tell this tale from the point of view of a spoon. We all need to be remind­ed and remind­ed that we all have a place in the world. And how light-heart­ed to let a spoon char­ac­ter do the remind­ing. And there’s the advan­tage of giv­ing kids per­mis­sion to talk to their spoons.  How many kids now have con­ver­sa­tions with their spoons when they eat their morn­ing cere­al and have Amy Krouse Rosen­thal to thank?

from Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, illus­tra­tion copy­right Scott Magoon

Duck! Rabbit!The sec­ond book in my AKR men­tal library was Duck! Rab­bit!, It’s a sto­ry told total­ly in dia­logue about two friends who see a crea­ture that could be a rab­bit with long ears or a duck with a beak. ”Are you kid­ding me?/It’s total­ly a duck./It’s for sure a rabbit./See there’s his bill./What are you talk­ing about?/Those are ears, sil­ly.” It’s a clever turn on two char­ac­ters who can look at the same picture/event/person and come to com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.  Final­ly one says, “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rab­bit.” And the oth­er says, “Thing is, now I’m actu­al­ly think­ing it was a duck.” After this com­ing togeth­er, the sto­ry ends with them see­ing an anteater/brachiosaurus. And we take off again.

If I were a teacher I’d keep a stash of Amy Krouse Rosen­thal books in my bag for those times when kids are antsy, or stand­ing in line to get into the audi­to­ri­um, or just need a good laugh or a good pun. I’m def­i­nite­ly going to keep a stash for my grand­kids. I wish I had said, “Thanks,” when she was still liv­ing. The best I can do is pass these books along to read­ers of all ages who need a smile or actu­al­ly would like to start the day talk­ing to their spoons—or their chop­sticks.

Phyl­lis:  Thank you, Jack­ie, for this month’s col­umn.  Like these books and their author, you, too, have an amaz­ing heart and a sense of joy and delight.  Now, back to my book dead­line….

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Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jack­son

We are hon­ored to inter­view the high­ly respect­ed Richard Jack­son, who is on to his next career as a writer. His most recent­ly pub­lished book is all ears, all eyes, a lush and irre­sistible read-aloud book, illus­trat­ed by Kather­ine Tillit­son (Simon & Schus­ter). We thought we’d take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with him about the pro­gres­sion from his edi­to­r­i­al career to his writ­ing career and the four books he has writ­ten.

Edi­to­r­i­al Career

Will you please tell us a bit about your edi­to­r­i­al expe­ri­ence?

After Army ser­vice, I grad­u­at­ed from NYC in 1962 with a Master’s degree in edu­ca­tion. I worked first at Dou­ble­day, not with children’s books, then at Macmil­lan and David White.

In 1968, you co-found­ed Brad­bury Press. You moved to Orchard Books in 1986 and then began the non­fic­tion pub­lish­ing imprint DK Ink in 1996. Three years lat­er, in 1999, you had your own imprint at Simon & Schus­ter with the ven­er­at­ed Atheneum Books. Has this jour­ney tak­en you around unex­pect­ed bends in the road?

I’ve nev­er been sub­ject­ed to a job inter­view.

As you were gain­ing expe­ri­ence, which edi­tors do you feel taught you the most?

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmil­lan.

Do you think most pic­ture book edi­tors are equal parts visu­al and ver­bal?

Most like­ly. For me, as writer, as edi­tor, the words are of first impor­tance.

What did your authors teach you?

Empa­thy.

While you were an edi­tor, did you always have a yen to write your own books?

No. But retirement—in so much as I am retired; I still work on a few books annu­al­ly by old pub­lish­ing friends—suddenly stretched rather bland­ly before me. I began tin­ker­ing with words, with play, with word­play…

You’re work­ing with an edi­tor now, a col­league. What do you look for from your edi­tor?

Effi­cien­cy. A sense of humor. Taste. Candor—i.e., a will­ing­ness to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties of some­thing not yet final.

Con­sid­er­ing the Books You’ve Writ­ten

Have a Look, Says Book

inte­ri­or spread for Have a Look, Says Book by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kevin Hawkes

Have a Look, Says Book

Have a Look, Says Book
illus­trat­ed by Kevin Hawkes
Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schus­ter, 2016

Kevin Hawkes illus­trat­ed this book that is play­ful­ly focused on adjec­tives. The text rhymes but not in a way that feels read-aloud con­fin­ing. How do you work on the poet­ry in a pic­ture book?

In my head, often while dri­ving.

Sto­ry­time librar­i­ans are focus­ing more than ever on teach­ing. This book offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about the plea­sure of books, the love of words. Have you always been fond of words?

A ver­bal child was I. As opposed to ath­let­ic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

The sim­ple but enor­mous word “touch” has at least two mean­ings… There are many see, hear books, a few smell and taste books—hardly any about touch. Watch­ing chil­dren and grand­chil­dren touch the pages and pic­tures of a book, I thought…let’s see if I can hon­or that young-kid impulse: to point out, to make con­tact with a fin­ger, to search a book for a tac­tile dimen­sion equal to see­ing and hear­ing.

In Plain Sight

inte­ri­or spread for In Plain Sight, by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Jer­ry Pinkney

In Plain SightIn Plain Sight
illus­trat­ed by Jer­ry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books
Roar­ing Brook Press, 2016

The sto­ry in this book is uni­ver­sal, a grand­fa­ther and grand­daugh­ter who enjoy each other’s com­pa­ny. Grand­pa, who lives in a bed­room in Sophie’s house, always has some­thing for them to do togeth­er, to find some­thing he’s hid­den In Plain Sight.

What inspired this uni­ver­sal sto­ry of love?

Well, I was the Grand­pa, I think. Sophie, a sis­ter who died at four. She always announced her pres­ence with “Here I ahm.” In my imag­i­na­tion, the game ele­ment was as impor­tant as any­thing, so it was based upon a game my father played on us, his chil­dren, on Christ­mas night—find objects hid­den in unlike­ly places, such as a dol­lar bill wrapped around a book’s spine in a bookcase—very tricky!

It’s so impor­tant for chil­dren who have old­er gen­er­a­tions liv­ing with them to see them­selves in books, to under­stand that fam­i­lies extend them­selves when need­ed.

Was it your idea to have Grand­pa sup­port­ed by a wheel­chair?

Jerry’s, I think. As was Grandpa’s ath­let­ic and mil­i­tary past, as was the cat.

This man­u­script was inter­pret­ed by the much-admired author and illus­tra­tor, Jer­ry Pinkney. How was he brought into this project?

Neal Porter’s idea, at Roar­ing Brook. They had not worked togeth­er before. I asked Neal, quite casu­al­ly, I remem­ber, if this fam­i­ly might be black (they weren’t while I was fol­low­ing the con­ver­sa­tion which accounts for the sto­ry here). Jer­ry widened and deep­ened every image; note Sophie’s school clothes, for instance. Or the illus­tra­tion on the bind­ing of the book—not a repeat of the jack­et, but some­thing new and on its own; that’s Grandpa’s nature, don’t you think; there’s always a lit­tle more to give.

all ears, all eyes

inte­ri­or spread, all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

all ears, all eyesall ears, all eyes
illus­trat­ed by Kather­ine Tillot­son
Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schus­ter, 2017

Your text for this book is so evoca­tive of being out­doors at night, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a forest­ed or wild area. Why did you want to share that expe­ri­ence with read­ers and lis­ten­ers?

The set­ting is a bit of woods, across a brook near our house in the coun­try north of New York City. Real coun­try, if you can believe. One night a yodel­ing fox awoke me and my wife. Moon and most­ly dark­ness. Still­ness, except for Mr. Fox. Mag­i­cal. We got the chil­dren up (they are part of my ded­i­ca­tion for this book) and, bare­foot, we went out­side, across the grass, up to the brook’s bank. We lis­tened and with­out enter­ing the woods, let the woods enter us. I hoped to write a poem to that night, that fox, that fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence.

When you wrote the text for all ears, all eyes, did you have an illus­tra­tor in mind? Why?

Yes indeed, the text was for Kather­ine Tillot­son always, once the open­ing words sprang from my mem­o­ry. She sug­gest­ed the project some­how, and inspired it all along, from a very ear­ly ren­di­tion of a lurk­ing owl. Next came Cait­lyn Dlouhy and Ann Bob­co (Atheneum’s bril­liant art direc­tor), and the four of us played for months and months. Until quite close to the “end,” I was fuss­ing with rhymes and line breaks. Such fun.

Many peo­ple who want to write books for chil­dren have been told that they’ll nev­er work direct­ly with their illus­tra­tor. Did you include instruc­tions for how the text might be illus­trat­ed? As an edi­tor, does your mind work that way?

I give a lit­tle guid­ance when the artist will need it—the main boy wears glass­es, for exam­ple. And I break the text into page and page turn units. In my head I’m imag­ing a movie. But the illus­tra­tor is the cam­era­man (or woman), and often comes up with total­ly sur­pris­ing and often just-right new views.

Don’t miss read­ing our inter­view with Kather­ine Tillot­son about this book.

inte­ri­or spread from This Beau­ti­ful Day, by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Suzy Lee

This Beautiful DayThis Beau­ti­ful Day
illus­trat­ed by Suzy Lee
Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schus­ter, 2017

In August of this year, we’ll be treat­ed to anoth­er book you wrote, this one filled with humor and whim­sy. It begins with a bor­ing, rainy day, but the atti­tude of the three chil­dren and their moth­er brings out the sun.

With your con­sid­er­able expe­ri­ence as an edi­tor, do you reflex­ive­ly envi­sion your text on the page?

Reflex­ive­ly? I think not. I do imag­ine page turns—and often, as sug­gest­ed above, an illus­tra­tor will have a bet­ter idea and I’ll be tick­led.

When you were an edi­tor, did you look for­ward to the sur­prise of the illustrator’s rough sketch­es, their inter­pre­ta­tion of the author’s sto­ry?

Father Time and the Day BoxesYou bet! I once pub­lished a pic­ture book, George Ella Lyon’s and Robert Parker’s Father Time and the Day Box­es (o.p), using the sketch­es, which were per­fect as they were. Had I imag­ined them as Bob pre­sent­ed them? No way. It’s ide­al to be sur­pris­ing and just right from the get-go.

Now that it’s your man­u­script being inter­pret­ed, how does that expe­ri­ence dif­fer?

Not much dif­fer­ent. I hadn’t imag­ined a rainy begin­ning to this day, so was tak­en aback at first; even­tu­al­ly, I have come to see the wis­dom of giv­ing the nar­ra­tive this “hinge” in mood. What you sug­gest (that sun is atti­tude induced) is irresistible—and com­plete­ly Suzy’s idea.

____________________

Thank you for shar­ing your thoughts with us, Richard Jack­son!

I’ve admired the books he’s edit­ed, some of the finest in the children’s lit­er­a­ture canon, so it’s a plea­sure to hear from him as he walks his next path as a writer. 

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Katherine Tillotson

Katherine Tillotson

Kather­ine Tillot­son

For this inter­view, we turn to the illus­tra­tor of a new book, all ears, all eyes, whose work I’ve long admired. This is a very spe­cial book. Open it and you’ll be cap­ti­vat­ed by the for­est at night. Such unusu­al art! But, then, her pri­or books have also been dis­tinc­tive, each in their own way. I hope you enjoy this vis­it with Kather­ine as much as I did.

In each of your recent books, Kather­ine, you’ve used a dif­fer­ent illus­tra­tion style. All the Water in the World is whoosh­es and swoosh­es, whirls and swirls, liq­uid on paper.

All the Water in the World

inte­ri­or spread from All the Water in the World, by George Ella Lyon, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

For Shoe Dog, your pages were light-heart­ed, full of chaot­ic ener­gy that por­trayed Megan McDonald’s dog who finds shoes irre­sistible.

Shoe Dog

inte­ri­or spread from Shoe Dog, by Megan McDon­ald, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

For It’s Pic­ture Day Today!, you assem­bled famil­iar home and school­room craft­ing sup­plies into adorable crea­tures prepar­ing for pic­ture day. I like to imag­ine you fold­ing paper and sort­ing through but­tons and peel­ing glue off your fin­gers dur­ing the mak­ing of this book.

It's Picture Day Today!

inte­ri­or spread from It’s Pic­ture Day Today!, by Megan McDon­ald, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

In your newest book, all ears, all eyes, you’ve accom­plished yet anoth­er com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent look. Your por­tray­al of the for­est in the dark brings the night to life. The read­er is deep inside the for­est, see­ing it, feel­ing it, while Richard Jackson’s poet­ry pro­vides the sound track.

all ears, all eyes

inte­ri­or spread from all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

I find myself with lots of ques­tions!

When an edi­tor sends you a man­u­script, what hap­pens in your mind as you’re read­ing it?

 I always hope to have my imag­i­na­tion awak­ened. I usu­al­ly do not have an idea where I might take a new sto­ry with the illus­tra­tions but I can per­ceive an open­ing for my part of the sto­ry­telling. If it is the right man­u­script for me, there is a feel­ing of excit­ed antic­i­pa­tion.

What moves you to agree to a project, know­ing it will take you (how long?) to cre­ate the illus­tra­tions?

I am slow and it is a long time from begin­ning to end. I can eas­i­ly slip into being hope­less­ly over­whelmed or impos­si­bly anx­ious. It is always best if I think of the process in small steps instead of a dis­tant des­ti­na­tion. Col­lab­o­ra­tors are also invalu­able. Many a time, my edi­tor or art direc­tor has helped me through a bumpy bit along the way. And I belong to a most won­der­ful cri­tique group. Togeth­er we cheer and help each oth­er move the books for­ward.

How do you begin a new book?

I love to sit down in a com­fy chair with a cup of cof­fee, the man­u­script, and a big pile of books. The books are often on artists but I also have a large col­lec­tion of Bologna Annu­als. I keep a sketch­book near­by and let my mind and my pen­cil wan­der.

all ears, all eyesFor all ears, all eyes, the title page reveals that you com­bined water­col­or and dig­i­tal tech­niques. Could you tell us more about this process?

I strug­gled a lot with tech­nique for this book. Ear­ly on, I exper­i­ment­ed with acrylic and oil. Nei­ther worked. I real­ly want­ed to use water­col­or and I even had a few lessons from my friend, Julie Down­ing, a very accom­plished water­col­or illus­tra­tor, I longed to lay down the paint with the con­fi­dence of a mas­ter, yet I did not have time to mas­ter the tech­nique. Water­col­or involves a lot of lay­er­ing (Julie tells me she can have fifty to eighty lay­ers on a paint­ing). Yet I found the more lay­ers I added to a paint­ing, the more I was afraid I would mess up. With each new lay­er, my ren­der­ing became stiffer and stiffer. In mulling over the prob­lem, I thought I might paint more expres­sive­ly if I knew I could lay­er in Pho­to­shop, thus dis­card­ing any lay­ers I did not like and keep­ing only those I did. This tech­nique gave me the free­dom I craved.

Do you make a con­scious effort to make each book quite dif­fer­ent? Why?

No, it real­ly isn’t a con­scious or intel­lec­tu­al choice. There are so many ways to make marks. Shoe Dog was orig­i­nal­ly going to be ren­dered in oil. When he devel­oped into a scrib­ble, it just felt right.

Well and then there is the fact that I love art sup­plies so much. I could spend almost as many hours in an art sup­ply store as in a book­store.

Do you study oth­er illus­tra­tors’ work? What do you see when you do?

Oh, yes! Def­i­nite­ly! There are won­der­ful illustrators—from all over the world. I have so many favorites. My shelves are over­flow­ing with their pic­ture books. I try to use the library or my book buy­ing habit could eas­i­ly spin out of con­trol.

Most of all, I love how illus­tra­tors extend and enhance the sto­ry­telling, stretch­ing beyond the words. An exam­ple would be Migrant, illus­trat­ed by Isabelle Arse­nault. Well, and then there is Chris Rasch­ka. I love the expres­sive pow­er of his work. Some­thing I am always aspir­ing to. I could keep going and going… I find so much to admire and inspire in my fel­low illus­tra­tors’ work.

For all ears, all eyes, you illus­trat­ed a Richard Jack­son man­u­script. He has been your edi­tor for 15 years. Now he’s the author. It is typ­i­cal in the pub­lish­ing process that author and illus­tra­tor don’t com­mu­ni­cate direct­ly, but rather indi­rect­ly through their edi­tor. How did that work for this book?

When we began, Dick was very involved in both author­ing and edit­ing the book. As the process con­tin­ued, he began to focus more on his writ­ing life. My com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­tin­ued with my new edi­tor, Cait­lyn Dlouhy, and my art direc­tor, Ann Bob­co.

I miss Dick as my edi­tor. He is real­ly the one who taught me how to think about pic­ture books, but I was los­ing my vision of the book and try­ing to please every­one. My process was becom­ing scat­tered and dis­con­nect­ed. When we returned to a con­ven­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion mod­el, the book resumed tak­ing shape.

all ears, all eyes

inte­ri­or spread from all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jack­son, copy­right Kather­ine Tillt­son

There is noth­ing about the illus­tra­tions in this book that whis­pers “dig­i­tal” to me and yet the copy­right page says “a com­bi­na­tion of water­col­or and dig­i­tal tech­niques.” Would you share with us how your dig­i­tal skills have evolved?

Thank you! I use very few of the func­tions avail­able in Pho­to­shop. Most of my com­put­er time has to do with scan­ning and plac­ing the lay­ers (and there are lots of lay­ers). I am con­stant­ly try­ing to find ways to min­i­mize my time on the com­put­er and spend most of my time sketch­ing and paint­ing. I believe that the draw­ing board is where I can find the loose­ness and emo­tion I want.

When you went to art school, what was your vision of your artis­tic future?

I grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado with an art major with an edu­ca­tion minor. I have always loved mak­ing art, but I did not have a clear vision of how to find a career that incor­po­rat­ed art mak­ing. I took night class­es to devel­op new art-relat­ed skills and through hap­py coin­ci­dence met a fel­low stu­dent who intro­duced me to Har­court in San Fran­cis­co. For many years, I designed edu­ca­tion­al books dur­ing the day and worked on illus­tra­tion sam­ples at night and week­ends. It wasn’t until I paint­ed this lit­tle guy (an ear­ly ver­sion of what evolved into Shoe Dog) that doors began to open. Dick Jack­son saw the piece and took a chance on me.

"If

What is your vision of that future now?

I would love to write and illus­trate a sto­ry. I have a cou­ple ideas that I am think­ing about and a few char­ac­ters rat­tling around in my head. Now if I could just get them to come out and play.…

Don’t miss Bookol­o­gy’s inter­view with the author of all ears, all eyes, Richard Jack­son.

______________________

Thank you, Kather­ine, for let­ting us peek inside your process, your work, and your pas­sion as an illus­tra­tor. We always look for­ward to the next book you’re cre­at­ing.

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Spring Break 2017

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

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome

Don­a­lyn Miller and Mau­r­na Rome

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

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

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

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

Our Legacy Zaharis Elementary School

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

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

Our Mentors - Zaharis Elementary School

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

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

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

Mr. Oliver's Office

Mr. Oliver’s Office

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

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

Pri­ma­ry Class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School

First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

First grade class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School

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

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

 Our Mis­sion

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

At Zaharis…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behind the Poem, “What She Asked”

one of Virginia’s many pop­u­lar books for upper mid­dle grade and teen read­ers

Lis­ten to Virginia’s poem, “What She Asked,” on Poet­ry Mosa­ic, the April 7th entry, and then read her descrip­tion of the real-life event behind the poem.

In a rur­al Ore­gon high school where I taught Eng­lish more than 20 years ago, we had big teach­ing areas sep­a­rat­ed by screen-wall things, but they came nowhere near reach­ing the high ceil­ing, because a few years ear­li­er the design of the school had been to have a giant Resource Cen­ter and Library, and teach­ers and groups of stu­dents would ide­al­ly meet in sec­tions of the mas­sive room, and that would be school. Didn’t turn out that way (of course): Acoustics were the main prob­lem, but also the con­tin­u­ous human traf­fic through, com­ing and going in the Library sec­tion. So the dividers arrived, and we had some­what dis­crete class areas, but not real­ly. If the neigh­bor­ing class area was noisy, focus and con­cen­tra­tion were dif­fi­cult. In one or two peri­ods of the day, my area’s near­est neigh­bor was Human Health and Sex­u­al­i­ty, and we who were study­ing fic­tion heard “and the con­doms don’t always work,” etc.

What She Asked,” is includ­ing in this poet­ry anthol­o­gy, pub­lished by Pome­lo Books, 2016

There were the occa­sion­al paper air­planes. One or two per week, maybe. 

One after­noon, in the sleepy after-lunch peri­od, I whis­per­ing­ly asked my class (high school juniors, maybe some sopho­mores) to make paper air­planes and we would send them, on sig­nal, over the wall to Human Health and Sex­u­al­i­ty.

Can we make more than one?” “Sure! As many as you can fly all at once,” said I. I insist­ed that they under­stand that only at my sig­nal would the fleet of air­planes have the desired effect of simul­tane­ity. I, too, made one paper air­plane.

On my own per­son­al count of 3, it worked. I think we must have sent over 40+ air­planes into the next class. Great fun. The teacher had a fine sense of humor (her fields were Biol­o­gy and Ski Coach­ing) and she liked the dra­mat­ic moment of it. Of course Human Health and Sex­u­al­i­ty sent the planes back, but I sup­pose we won because we had done it first. And simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

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