Welcome to Lizard Motel

There is a spe­cial peri­od of … child­hood, approx­i­mate­ly from five or six to eleven or twelve — between the striv­ings of ani­mal infan­cy and the storms of ado­les­cence — when the nat­ur­al world is expe­ri­enced in some high­ly evoca­tive way … It is prin­ci­pal­ly to this mid­dle age range … that writ­ers say they return in mem­o­ry in order to renew the pow­er and impulse to cre­ate. —Edith Cobb

Welcome to Lizard MotelWel­come to Lizard Motel: Chil­dren, Sto­ries,
and the Mys­tery of Mak­ing Things Up, A Mem­oir
Bar­bara Fein­berg
Bea­con Press, 2004

At first glance, Wel­come to Lizard Motel, with its cov­er illus­tra­tion of a bureau and a lizard’s tail (pre­sum­ably) stick­ing out of one draw­er, seems an unlike­ly book about children’s lit­er­a­ture. That’s what I thought when I saw it on the edu­ca­tion shelf in Bor­ders. The sub­ti­tle, though, Chil­dren, Sto­ries, and the Mys­tery of Mak­ing Things Up, reeled me in.  

Fein­berg begins her mem­oir on a day in which her twelve-year-old son must read a New­bery-win­ning nov­el as his sum­mer assign­ment. He hates the book, hat­ed the book he had to read the sum­mer before (anoth­er New­bery medal­ist). She takes her son to the pool and learns from his friends that they all despise those books. Fein­berg decides to read them her­self. 

The first third of Lizard Motel is devot­ed to Feinberg’s thoughts about “prob­lem nov­els,” pop­u­lar in the 70s and still going strong in more lit­er­ary iter­a­tions through the 80s to the mid-90s.  Lyri­cal writ­ing pulls her through many nar­ra­tives, but she feels depressed by the bleak end­ings. “Don’t you think there’s an exces­sive amount of angst [in mod­ern children’s books]?” she asked a librar­i­an. “Weren’t our books cozi­er?” She remem­bers read­ing Anne of Green Gables and Eleanor Estes’ The Hun­dred Dress­es, books that didn’t shy away from harsh­er real­i­ties, but didn’t cheat the read­er. She takes to task books such as The Pig­man, Don’t Hurt Lau­rie, Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play, Dicey’s Song, Bridge to Ter­abithia, and oth­ers that fea­ture trau­ma.

Feinberg’s views spark con­tro­ver­sies. She rails against children’s books as teach­ing tools. “As a tool to fur­ther the notions of, say, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, an approach that could be deli­cious­ly rich, but which seemed nev­er able to move freely, since the strict humor­less watch­dog of Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness was always nip­ping at its heels.”    

When her sev­en-year-old daugh­ter invites Fein­berg to her school for a pre­sen­ta­tion of class writ­ing, Fein­berg exam­ines the Writ­ing Project then head­ed by Lucy Calkins at Colum­bia University’s Teach­ers Col­lege.  Her daughter’s class had been instruct­ed by a grad­u­ate from that pro­gram, who had the stu­dents write mem­oirs.  Each child’s first-per­son sto­ry was in the vein of, “My moth­er always cooked vanil­la pud­ding for me” or “My father put me to bed every night.” The past tense made the sto­ries sound like eulo­gies, as if “this moment we are shar­ing togeth­er has van­ished.” Young chil­dren don’t nat­u­ral­ly reflect on their pasts. One boy said he’d rather write about haunt­ed hous­es than his ter­mi­nal­ly ill sis­ter.

Com­ments on Lizard Motel range from “poor exe­cu­tion” to “delight­ful.” Some argue the mer­its of a par­ent writ­ing about children’s lit­er­a­ture, appar­ent­ly for­get­ting the book is a mem­oir and why shouldn’t par­ents dis­cuss what their chil­dren are read­ing? Sand­wiched between prob­lem nov­els and the Writ­ing Project is Feinberg’s own child­hood, the books that “pulled her out from some shad­ow I hadn’t known I’d been hid­ing in,” and, best of all, a pro­gram she began called Sto­ry Shop.  I longed to be one of those lucky kids who came week­ly to the rent­ed church base­ment to write and cre­ate. 

Should this book be in children’s lit­er­a­ture col­lec­tions? Maybe, if you enjoy prose like this: “I was charmed that the tiny chairs [from her Sto­ry Shop room] cast their own shad­ows, and each time I left and came back, I felt that some­one had just been, a moment before, sit­ting in the chairs. Once or twice I won­dered if it might be the chairs them­selves that were alive …” Maybe, if you believe an “out­sider” can express the view that not all chil­dren want to read sad, real­is­tic fic­tion. 

This book remind­ed me that when I was a kid, we had no assigned books, only the free­dom to choose what­ev­er we want­ed. I browsed the library shelves, avoid­ing any book with an N stick­er, indi­cat­ing a New­bery win­ner. To my nine-year-old self, those books were like med­i­cine.

As a children’s writer, Feinberg’s book made me want to write a Valen­tine to all the books I’d loved as a child. So, I wrote my own mem­oir for my master’s the­sis in children’s lit­er­a­ture. Yet my Valen­tine, begun in joy, turned dark as my trau­mat­ic child­hood crept in. I didn’t write the book I want­ed to. After re-read­ing Wel­come to Lizard Motel, I hope one day to pay prop­er trib­ute to the books that changed my life, minus the doom and gloom.


Sense of Wonder

The Sense of WonderIn her book A Sense of Won­der, Rachel Car­son wrote:

If I had influ­ence with the good fairy who is sup­posed to pre­side over the chris­ten­ing of all chil­dren, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of won­der so inde­struc­tible that it would last through­out life, as an unfail­ing anti­dote against the bore­dom and dis­en­chant­ments of lat­er years, the ster­ile pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with things that are arti­fi­cial, the alien­ation from the sources of our strength.

To a young child or a lis­ten­ing heart every­thing is a won­der. How do bees find the right flow­ers for nec­tar and pollen? How do birds find their hid­den migra­tion high­ways in the sky? How does a seed turn into a tree?

This month we want to write about children’s books that nour­ish that sense of won­der and get kids out­side.

Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the MeadowBut­ter­fly Eyes and Oth­er Secrets of the Mead­ow by Joyce Sid­man, illus­trat­ed by Beth Krommes, is itself a won­der of poet­ry and art. Two poems per dou­ble page spread, each of which ends with the ques­tion “What am I?” alter­nate with a dou­ble page spread that answers the ques­tions (although the art gives plen­ty of clues) and gives more infor­ma­tion about the rela­tion­ship between the two sub­jects of the pre­vi­ous poems. So spread with a poem about sleep­ing rab­bits and one about a hunt­ing fox is fol­lowed by a spread explain­ing how fox­es use their incred­i­ble hear­ing to hunt rab­bits and how baby rab­bits hide until they are ready to go out into the mead­ow on their own. (Their moth­er vis­its them only occa­sion­al­ly so as not to reveal their nest to preda­tors.) This book is a won­der­ful reminder to all of us to look close­ly, to pay atten­tion.

We both love the poem in which the owl is apol­o­giz­ing for his sharp talons, keen eyes, silent wings, and hooked beak, not as one first thinks, because he is sor­ry to be a preda­tor.

I’m so sor­ry. For you, that is.
All this works out quite well for me.

The com­bi­na­tion of ques­tion poems, expla­na­tion of the inter­con­nec­tions of species, and vivid, bril­liant art reveal the com­plex­i­ty of the mead­ow and make us want to ven­ture more often into the mead­ow, where a web of life as intri­cate as a spider’s wed exists.

The Salamander RoomThe Sala­man­der Room by Anne Maz­er, illus­trat­ed by Steve John­son, tells how a lit­tle boy Bri­an finds a sala­man­der in the woods and takes him home, where his moth­er asks him, “Where will he [the sala­man­der] sleep?”

Bri­an answers,

 “I will make him a sala­man­der bed to sleep in. I will cov­er him with leaves that are fresh and green, and bring moss that looks like lit­tle stars to be a pil­low for his head. I will bring crick­ets to sing him to sleep and bull­frogs to tell him good-night sto­ries.”

To each of his mother’s ques­tions — Where will he play? What will he eat? — Bri­an tells how he will trans­form his room to make it a home for a sala­man­der and friends. Brian’s expla­na­tions and the lumi­nous art turn his room into a place for birds and bull­frogs with trees and ponds until he has lift­ed off the ceil­ing of his room. To the last ques­tion, “And you — where will you sleep?” Bri­an answers,

I will sleep on a bed under the stars, with the moon shin­ing through the green leaves of the trees; owls will hoot and crick­ets will sing; and next to me, on the boul­der with its head rest­ing on soft moss, the sala­man­der will sleep.”

He answers.

Who wouldn’t want to sleep in a sala­man­der room? Mag­i­cal.

Wild BerriesWild Berries, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Julie Flett, one of our favorite authors and illus­tra­tors, tell how Grand­ma used to car­ry Clarence to pick wild berries and sing to him, but now he is big enough to car­ry his own buck­et, sing with Grand­ma, and pick berries with her tup tup.  [Flett so skill­ful­ly cap­tures the sound of berries drop­ping into a buck­et.] While they pick he and grand­ma eat berries until their lips turn pur­ple and Clarence observes the world around him.  An ant crawls up his leg, a spi­der spins a web, a fox sneaks past. He leaves berries on a leaf for the birds and oth­er ani­mals who say nanasko­mowak, Cree for thank you.

Each spread of this love­ly book includes Cree words print­ed in red in the same size font below the Eng­lish words in black. An end­note explains that this is Swampy Cree, one of sev­er­al dialects, and includes a pro­nun­ci­a­tion guide. A recipe for wild blue­ber­ry jam makes us wish it were ear­li­er in the sum­mer so we could go find some tart wild berries, pick them, and make jam.

Flett’s palette of greens, browns, blues, and soft yel­lows is punc­tu­at­ed by red on each page:  grandma’s red skirt, a red sun, red fox, red but­ter­flies, flow­ers, and red breast­ed birds that sing (nikamo) in the clear­ing.

Here again, we find the won­der of the nat­ur­al world. And the joy of look­ing close­ly.

Yellow TimeLau­ren Stringer’s Yel­low Time, illus­trat­ed by the author, is anoth­er lumi­nous book about fall and the turn­ing of leaves. The text describes yel­low time when the leaves all turn. It begins,

The squir­rels are too busy to notice.
And the geese have already gone.
Oth­er birds have left too,
But not the crows.
Crows love yel­low time.

So do the chil­dren, whom the art shows in increas­ing num­bers com­ing out to play, smelling the yel­low time air “like wet mud and dry grass with a sprin­kle of sug­ar,” run­ning in the swirling leaves, danc­ing in a whirl­wind of yel­low.

Every­where fills
with yel­low.
A sym­pho­ny
of yel­low.

 As the leaves all fall and the book winds down, the chil­dren return home, one by one with

bou­quets of yel­low
to press in thick books
to remem­ber…
what a love­ly yel­low time it was.

With lines and col­ors that swirl and with spare, poet­ic text, Stringer’s book is a sym­pho­ny to fall and the joy chil­dren take in leaves falling. And who is ever too old not to enjoy the swish of walk­ing through leaves?

Rab­bits, owls, sala­man­ders, berries, fox­es, leaves, crows, earth, trees, wind, sky: we are all relat­ed.

And isn’t that a won­der?


Native Realities

Native Realities logoA lit­er­ary super­hero him­self and an indige­nous leg­endary com­ic cre­ator, a pro­po­nent of Native Pop Cul­ture, and cre­ator of a new Native pub­lish­ing ven­ture, I am excit­ed to intro­duce to you Dr. Lee Fran­cis IV and his pub­lish­ing house, Native Real­i­ties.

What kind of press is this? Think Comics, books, inter­ac­tive. Native Amer­i­can authors and artists. Think Indige­nous Com­ic Con.

This new pub­lish­ing house is an indige­nous imag­i­na­tion com­pa­ny ded­i­cat­ed to pro­duc­ing high qual­i­ty media that dra­mat­i­cal­ly changes the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of native and indige­nous peo­ple through pop­u­lar cul­ture.

Native Real­i­ties pub­lish­es books and comics fea­tur­ing super­hero tales of indige­nous icons, First Nations free­dom fight­ers, Abo­rig­i­nal astro­nauts, and Native Amer­i­can super­heroes. In addi­tion to edit­ing and con­tribut­ing a sto­ry to the graph­ic anthol­o­gy Tales of the Mighty Code Talk­ers, Dr. Lee Fran­cis is the author of the comics Sixkiller, Native Entre­pre­neurs, and the upcom­ing Moon­shot Vol.3.

Native Realities books

Dr. Lee Francis IV

Dr. Lee Fran­cis IV

Dr. Lee Fran­cis is also the founder of Indige­nous Com­ic Con, now a nation-wide event that was held this sum­mer in Den­ver, Col­orado, and will be in Albu­querque in March 2020.  Indige­nous Com­ic Con high­lights and cel­e­brates the imag­i­na­tive new pop-lit­er­a­ture being cre­at­ed by young Native artists and authors. Lit­er­a­ture pre­sent­ed in comics is acces­si­ble, fun, sur­pris­ing, and chal­lenges past stereo­typ­ing. Native Real­i­ties has brought the indige­nous expe­ri­ence to the world of pop­u­lar cul­ture and to read­ers of all ages.

Dr. Lee Fran­cis IV was born in Vir­ginia as an only child, from a remark­able fam­i­ly, who were and con­tin­ue to be lead­ers and activists in pol­i­tics, cul­ture, and lit­er­ary arts. Lee’s father, Elias Lee Fran­cis III, was the founder of the Word­craft Cir­cle of Native Writ­ers and Sto­ry­tellers. Lee’s grand­moth­er, Ethel Haines, was of Lagu­na Pueblo / Anishi­naabe and Scot­tish descent. His aunt, Paula Gunn Allen, was a schol­ar of both Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Indi­an lit­er­a­ture, a pro­fes­sor at UCLA, and one of the fore­most voic­es in Native Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. And Leslie Mar­mon Silko is Lee’s Lagu­na cousin. 

Dr. Lee Fran­cis IV car­ries on the spir­it of his fam­i­ly in many ways, espe­cial­ly inno­v­a­tive ways that speak to young read­ers. I was for­tu­nate to meet with Lee at Red Plan­et Books and Comics in Albu­querque and ask him a few ques­tions:

What was the pas­sion that gave you the courage to form a brand new press?

The pas­sion was real­ly about my stu­dents. I want­ed them to have dynam­ic and pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Native peo­ple in the media they were engag­ing in. I want­ed them to see them­selves in the comics they were read­ing. I want­ed to cul­ti­vate their imag­i­na­tions and I was tired of wait­ing around for some one else to do it. So I start­ed pub­lish­ing.

What is most reward­ing about being a pub­lish­er? 

Being able to explore top­ics and ideas no one else is writ­ing about. Being able to see a fin­ished prod­uct, to hold it in my hands, to see some­one else tak­ing a copy home for their own library. Most reward­ing, indeed!

What are your chal­lenges as a pub­lish­er? 

Always dis­tri­b­u­tion. As Native folks, we are incred­i­bly cre­ative but there are still gate­keep­ers that con­trol access to the mar­ket.  

What are your visions and hopes for the future of your press?  

More books, more pub­li­ca­tions. We’d like to branch into toys and espe­cial­ly more games — table­top and role­play­ing!

 Who do you hope is read­ing and talk­ing about your books? 

Real­ly, every­one! Oprah? Oba­ma? Influ­encers of every sort? LOL. But seri­ous­ly, my hope is always that Native kid­dos and Native fam­i­lies are read­ing and talk­ing about our books and how they have impact­ed them in a pos­i­tive way. (But Oprah would be very cool.)

Tell us about a few of your recent pub­li­ca­tions and why they are unique.  

Deer WomanDeer Woman: An Anthol­o­gy is the only graph­ic anthol­o­gy com­plete­ly cre­at­ed by Native women. Native Entre­pre­neurs is a fun com­ic and entre­pre­neur work­book rolled into one. Ghost Riv­er (Decem­ber 1 release) is an incred­i­ble his­to­ry and teach­ing graph­ic nov­el about the mas­sacre of the Con­esto­ga peo­ple in Penn­syl­va­nia. Very proud of all the things we have worked on over the years.

How does one order books from Native Real­i­ties? 

You can find all our books as well as many more through Red Plan­et Books and Comics.We have lots of great titles and have begun to focus on dis­trib­ut­ing Native-cen­tric, Native-authored con­tent (books and comics) for insti­tu­tions.

For fur­ther read­ing, enjoy Cyn­thia Leitich Smith’s inter­view with Dr. Lee Fran­cis IV

or “The Stan Lee of Indi­an Coun­try: Comics Pub­lish­er Dr. Lee Fran­cis,” pub­lished by Indi­an Coun­try Today.


Skinny Dip with Sarah Sullivan

Sarah Sullivan

Sarah Sul­li­van

Bookol­o­gy is delight­ed to wel­come author Sarah Sul­li­van for an Octo­ber Skin­ny Dip. Look for Sarah’s A Day for Skat­ing, illus­trat­ed by Made­line Valen­tine (Can­dlewick Press, avail­able Novem­ber 5th), a love­ly book to read out loud before you go skat­ing or to explain what skat­ing is. Sarah’s pic­ture book Pass­ing the Music Down is a much-praised sto­ry about old-time fid­dlers inspired by the lives of renowned fid­dlers Melvin Wine and Jake Krack. It’s one of our cher­ished books. In All That’s Miss­ing, Sarah’s nov­el, young Arlo’s grand­fa­ther is slip­ping far­ther into demen­tia, rais­ing the specter of fos­ter care. Sarah is a thought­ful, wise sto­ry­teller.

My phi­los­o­phy:  One day at a time.  Do the best you can, but take time to be kind to oth­ers along the way.   

I don’t believe in: say­ing “it can’t be done,” until you’ve at least tried, (unless a task involves expos­ing your­self or oth­ers to phys­i­cal risk).  

The movie I watch when I want to laugh: Nobody’s Fool

If I could say one thing to my twen­ty-years-younger self, it would be: Hang in there. It’s going to get bet­ter.

I tell myself every day: Today you’re going to work on your nov­el, ride your bike or walk at least three miles, fix some­thing healthy for din­ner and stay away from the choco­late. I nev­er actu­al­ly check all four items off the list. Two is a good day. Three, I count as a win. 

What’s on my night­stand:

  • The Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries 2011, ed. Geral­dine Brooks
  • The Pio­neers, by David McCul­lough
  • The Time of Green Mag­ic, by Hilary McK­ay
  • Essays of E.B. White
  • Olive, Again by Eliz­a­beth Strout (okay, it’s not there yet but it will be, as soon as my pre-order is deliv­ered!) 

Sarah Sullivan's Reading Pile

My hero is: I have sev­er­al heroes. Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg is cer­tain­ly one of them.

The scari­est book I’ve ever read: Bag of Bones by Stephen King. The first time I read it, I was by myself at home and had reached a par­tic­u­lar­ly unset­tling point in the sto­ry, when the bell rang and there was a police­man at my door. He told me some­one had just robbed my next-door neigh­bor and he want­ed to know if I had seen or heard any­thing unusu­al. It was a very strange after­noon.

I yearn to: vis­it Scot­land and Ire­land. I want to see the cas­tle in Edin­burgh. I want to see the Shet­land Islands. I want to wan­der the streets of Dublin and see the view from the cliffs of Moher. I want to see Cork where my great-grand­fa­ther was born.

The food I can’t resist:  POTATO CHIPS. Can’t let them in the house unless some­one promis­es to eat them all. Too tempt­ing.

potato chips

The piece of cloth­ing in my clos­et I can’t let go: An Eddie Bauer rain­coat that I bought at a clear­ance sale for twelve dol­lars. Sad­ly, I had to toss it out a few weeks ago. It was falling apart.  But, for twen­ty-nine years it was the per­fect coat to stuff in a bag or throw in the car for any occa­sion. I will nev­er be able to replace it.

What I do when I want to feel joy: All I have to do is go out­side. Tak­ing a walk or rid­ing a bike through my neigh­bor­hood cheers me up imme­di­ate­ly. I can ride my bike in one direc­tion to a city park or in the oppo­site direc­tion to watch the sun rise over the York Riv­er. What more could you want? 


Going Rogue

Explo­ration is real­ly the Essence of the Human Spir­it.”

—Frank Bor­man

’Tis the sea­son for fall themes such as pump­kins, leaves, and turkeys.  As I was plan­ning pro­grams for Octo­ber and Novem­ber, I decid­ed it was time to go rogue and think of new themes. I start­ed search­ing terms such as “fun­ny fall cel­e­bra­tions” and “unusu­al hol­i­days.” From Nation­al Mad Hat­ter Day to Nation­al Cake Dec­o­rat­ing Day, my search helped me devel­op new pro­gram oppor­tu­ni­ties for fam­i­lies to enjoy includ­ing:

Nation­al Mad Hat­ter Day, Octo­ber 6, 2019

Jour­ney down the rab­bit hole and make Won­der­land come to life. This is a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to host a Mad Hat­ter tea par­ty. For the tea par­ty, use paper cups with han­dles, choose a sim­ple tea fla­vor such as Con­stant Com­ment© decaf or make cold brew tea and let it sit to get to room tem­per­a­ture. For games, you can cre­ate a Mad Hat­ter hat, cut the top off, and have chil­dren throw play­ing cards into the hat. Vis­it Brid­get Read­ing for more infor­ma­tion about host­ing a Mad Hat­ter tea par­ty. This pro­gram is rec­om­mend­ed for ele­men­tary chil­dren, 2nd through 4th grade.The fol­low­ing are my rec­om­mend­ed books to use for this pro­gram:

Mad Hatter's Tea Party

Nation­al Rep­tile Aware­ness Day, Octo­ber 21, 2019

Each year, rep­tile enthu­si­asts have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cel­e­brate these crea­tures and to share their love with oth­ers. This offers a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with a zoo, an exten­sion office, or a pet store to bring rep­tiles off­site for chil­dren to see and learn. Rep­tile Mag­a­zine has excel­lent resources.  This pro­gram is rec­om­mend­ed for all ages. You might enjoy using these books for this pro­gram:  

National Reptiles Day

World Jel­ly­fish Day, Novem­ber 3, 2019:

Did you know that jel­ly­fish are not actu­al­ly fish? Do you know that a group of jel­ly­fish can be called a smack? Cel­e­brat­ing World Jel­ly­fish Day pro­vides fam­i­lies an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn about these amaz­ing crea­tures and oth­ers liv­ing under the sea. You can pro­vide an inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence with this pro­gram where chil­dren pre­tend to move like a jel­ly­fish, enjoy view­ing videos from NOAA’s Ocean and Explo­ration Research and/or enjoy a glow-in-the-dark jel­ly­fish dance par­ty. This pro­gram is rec­om­mend­ed for all ages. The fol­low­ing are my rec­om­mend­ed books to use for this pro­gram:

National Jellyfish Day

Nation­al Dough­nut Day, Novem­ber 5, 2019:

Fam­i­lies can enjoy a tasty pro­gram cel­e­brat­ing donuts.  This is a per­fect pro­gram for kids to explore their cre­ative side.  For this pro­gram, chil­dren will cre­ate their own dough­nut using a paper plate and a selec­tion of sup­plies includ­ing pom-poms, mark­ers, crayons, con­struc­tion paper, glue, and even sprin­kles. This pro­gram is rec­om­mend­ed for all ages. Vis­it The Spruce Crafts for craft ideas to cel­e­brate Nation­al Dough­nut Day. Vis­it with a local bak­ery or gro­cery store to see if they can pro­vide dough­nuts for all ages to enjoy. Here are a few good books to use for this pro­gram:

National Doughnut Day


A Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky

A Cat's Guide to the Night Sky

A dear­ly drawn cat named Felic­i­ty — hon­or­ing Félicette, a stray cat in Paris who became the first cat in space on Octo­ber 18, 1963 — takes us on an explo­ration of stargaz­ing. As a book on obser­va­tion­al astron­o­my, it’s an  excit­ing book for kids and adults alike.

Short para­graphs cov­er what to wear when stargaz­ing, where to go for max­i­mum view­ing, the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of stars, con­stel­la­tions, plan­ets, galax­ies, and short-short sto­ries behind the con­stel­la­tions of each sea­son. The sun, the moon … what exact­ly are we see­ing when we gaze up at the stars?

This book will whet appetites for fur­ther study but, more impor­tant­ly, I believe it will encour­age kids to ven­ture out­side, to open their eyes, to explore the unknown … because this book is friend­ly, under­stand­able, and sump­tu­ous. It’s so invit­ing that I know that, as a child, I would have returned to it again and again, mem­o­riz­ing facts, and doing my best to under­stand the large con­cepts of the space sur­round­ing our earth.

A Cat's Guide to the Night Sky

A Cat's Guide to the Night Sky

A glos­sary and an index make this book use­ful for home and class­room ref­er­ence. And there’s so much inspir­ing infor­ma­tion!

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

A Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky
writ­ten by Stu­art Atkin­son
illus­trat­ed by Bren­dan Keaney
Lau­rence King Pub­lish­ing, 2018
ISBN 978−1−7862−7073−3


Cozy Reading Chili

We’ve been out­side enjoy­ing the sum­mer and fall weath­er, but now it’s time to set­tle in for a win­ter’s worth of read­ing. Enjoy this yum­my chili while you read.


Too Much

Page Break


Bee-bim Bop

I’ve been on the sto­ry­time cir­cuit this last month as I have a new pic­ture book of my very own. Read­ers of this col­umn know how much I adore sto­ry­time, so wher­ev­er I’ve gone to read my book, I’ve asked if I can do a whole sto­ry­time, the bet­ter to read oth­er pic­ture books, as well. Usu­al­ly the reg­u­lar belea­guered sto­ry­time read­ers are hap­py to have this hap­pen.

So I’ve set up a lit­tle sto­ry­time that cen­ters loose­ly around the themes of food, fam­i­ly, food, com­mu­ni­ty, food, fun, food…. What can I say? I love read­ing and writ­ing about food, so this is an easy sto­ry­time for me to put togeth­er!

I’ve had great fun, in par­tic­u­lar, read­ing Lin­da Sue Park’s Bee-bim Bop! It’s a made-for-sto­ry­time-read because it has that mag­i­cal refrain “Bee-bim Bop” on near­ly every page. So fun to say! Even the youngest among us can join in for Bee-bim Bop! I hard­ly have to cue them….

Almost time for sup­per

Rush­ing to the store

Mama buys the gro­ceries—

More, Mama, more!


Hur­ry, Mama, hur­ry

Got­ta shop shop shop!

Hun­gry hun­gry hun­gry

For some BEE-BIM BOP! 

The plot is sim­ple: a lit­tle girl and her Mama are mak­ing din­ner. They’re mak­ing the tra­di­tion­al Kore­an dish bibim­bap (var­i­ous­ly Eng­lish-ised as bee-bim-bap, bi-bim-bop, etc.) There are eggs to stir fry and flip high…rice to boil…garlic and green onion and skin­ny meat strips to chop…spinach, sprouts and car­rots to slice. There’s a detailed recipe in the back of the book — all sim­ple steps, many quite kid-friend­ly.

Bowls go on the table

Big ones striped in blue

I help set the glass­es out

Spoons and chop­sticks too.  

The illus­tra­tions by Ho Baek Lee match the ener­getic rhythm of get­ting sup­per on the table — three gen­er­a­tions and a dog dance around each oth­er get­ting every­thing togeth­er. Then they gath­er around the table, paus­ing for a qui­et moment of thanks. And then they make the bee-bim bop!

Bee-bim means “mixed up” and bop is the Kore­an word for rice. Each one makes their own bowl with rice in the mid­dle, and all the top­pings that have been pre­pared — a lit­tle meat, lots of veg­gies, an egg, and spicy kim­chi, too — on top. Every­thing is stirred togeth­er and a deli­cious col­or­ful meal results.

When I read this book I always ask, “Who here has eat­en bee-bim bop?” If it’s a younger group (under three) they all eager­ly raise their hands.  Such won­der­ful­ly open palettes — espe­cial­ly since many of their par­ents haven’t tried it! Tod­dlers seek­ing out new foods and fla­vors! Ter­rif­ic! This is what hap­pens when you take your kids to sto­ry­time, my friends!

At the last sto­ry­time I did, a lit­tle boy turned the ques­tion on me: “Do you like bee-bim bop?” he asked, giv­ing the bop extra empha­sis, and bop­ping my knee as he said it. I had to admit I’d not tried it, though I was sure I’d like it because I like all the things in it…. He all but rolled his eyes. It was obvi­ous I lost a lit­tle cred­i­bil­i­ty with him.

I thought about mak­ing it from the recipe in the book, but my hus­band and I decid­ed we would go to a good Kore­an place known for its authen­tic­i­ty for our first go around. It was deli­cious, just as I knew it would be. I hope to recre­ate it in my own kitchen this week.

Hur­ry, fam­i­ly, hur­ry

Got­ta hop hop hop

Dinner’s on the table

And it’s BEE-BIM BOP!



Pass the Ps Please – an Evening with Dav Pilkey

Pos­i­tiv­i­ty, prac­tice and per­sis­tence… a pow­er­ful approach to over­com­ing a mul­ti­tude of chal­lenges and unbe­liev­ably bad school expe­ri­ences. The one and only, Dav Pilkey, shared sev­er­al heart­felt sto­ries to inspire kids (and adults) dur­ing his recent stop in St. Paul as part of his “Dog Man, Do Good Tour.”

Dav Pilkey's Do Good Tour

With humor and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, Dav explained that as a kid with both ADHD and dyslex­ia, read­ing was any­thing but pleas­ant. To make mat­ters worse, his 2nd and 3rd grade teach­ers showed lit­tle com­pas­sion or under­stand­ing for fid­gety, day dream­ing, class clowns like Dav.  One of those teach­ers actu­al­ly made fun of him in front of his class­mates for read­ing slow. Unbe­liev­able, but true.

Dav Pilkey and several of the boys from Room 212Giv­ing tremen­dous cred­it to his mom for instill­ing the three “Ps,” Dav point­ed out that we all need some­one in our life who believes in us. Some­one who makes us want to be bet­ter peo­ple. Some­one who ulti­mate­ly helps us make the world a bet­ter place. Dav’s mom taught her son to ask him­self one impor­tant ques­tion any­time he was faced with some­thing bad, “How can I turn this into some­thing good?”

With an obvi­ous tal­ent for draw­ing and lots of time in the hall­way after being removed from the class­room, Dav did just that. Tap­ping into his cre­ativ­i­ty, famil­iar­i­ty with unkind teach­ers and a pen­chant for pulling pranks, he would go onto to make a mul­ti­tude of books loved by kids every­where (80 mil­lion have sold world­wide!).

Although it makes my heart hurt to think that he, and oth­ers like him, have to suf­fer through so many mis­er­able years at school, being a part of Dav’s audi­ence was indeed a treat. And although I sup­pose some teach­ers take issue with the neg­a­tive car­i­ca­tures of the evil edu­ca­tors found in his books, I am grate­ful for Dav and for his work. I am grate­ful that kids who deal with ADHD and/or dyslex­ia can see them­selves and all of their tremen­dous poten­tial, in some­one like Dav Pilkey.  I am grate­ful he had such a wise and car­ing mom.

I was for­tu­nate to be able to share this momen­tous event with six boys from Room 212. Their lev­el of excite­ment, smiles, screams and sheer delight, could quite eas­i­ly be com­pared to the thrill and fren­zy of fans who greet­ed the Bea­t­les on a Feb­ru­ary day back in 1964. The pho­tos and mem­o­ries are price­less and I can only hope that Dav’s mes­sage leaves a last­ing impres­sion. We could all use a gen­er­ous help­ing of the three Ps!

Several of the boys from Room 212


Constance Van Hoven and Her Reading Team
October 2019

Nikhil and the dust jacket for Grumpy MonkeyThis addi­tion to Rais­ing Star Read­ers fea­tures the theme “If you read it, they will come.”

As Con­nie (Gigi to her grand­chil­dren) explains: “Our read­ing team hit a bump in the road! On a recent trip to Col­orado, I intro­duced the pic­ture book Grumpy Mon­key (writ­ten by Suzanne Lang and illus­trat­ed by Max Lang) to Priya (now 2½) and Nikhil (now 10 months). This is a fun­ny, sweet sto­ry about allow­ing your­self to have a bad day every once in a while for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son.

Nikhil absolute­ly did not want to sit on my lap to look at the book. He did, how­ev­er, want to man­han­dle the bright red shiny dust jack­et.

Grandpa and Priya reading Grumpy MonkeyPriya did not want to sit and read either, though she was intrigued by the title. She kept repeat­ing, “grumpy mon­key” as she put­tered around the porch with her arm­ful of toys. It wasn’t until Grand­pa picked up the book, began to read aloud, and clear­ly enjoyed the sto­ry, that Priya couldn’t resist com­ing in for a look. Hence the moral of the sto­ry: If you read it, they will come!

With the addi­tion of Grand­pa, our read­ing team has now grown by one. And Priya’s dad reports that since we left, Grumpy Mon­key is Priya’s most request­ed bed­time sto­ry. It seems she has added Jim Panzee, Marabou, and Nor­man to her list of beloved book friends.”


Bookol­o­gy is always look­ing for new Read­ing Teams to help us cel­e­brate the joys of read­ing aloud togeth­er. Con­tact Lisa Bullard for fur­ther infor­ma­tion if you’re inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing.


No Wraiths or Fetches Necessary

To cel­e­brate our for­ti­eth anniver­sary this year, we decid­ed to take a Big Trip. My hus­band sug­gest­ed Paris. “Corn­wall,” I said. “Some­place old.” Not that Paris isn’t old. Instead of a crowd­ed city, I want­ed win­kles and pasties, lost gar­dens and stand­ing stones, piskies and Tin­tagel cas­tle. He agreed and I began putting togeth­er a trip that would send us back in time.

Hubble's BubbleMy motives weren’t entire­ly pure. True, I’ve been an Anglophile ever since I read the British children’s fan­ta­sy Hubble’s Bub­ble at the age of eleven and start­ed sav­ing pen­nies to go to Wales and Scot­land. Cur­rent­ly I’m writ­ing my first mag­i­cal real­ism mid­dle-grade nov­el. Build­ing the world of my sto­ry has tak­en near­ly three years, yet the book’s foun­da­tion feels as sta­ble as shiv­er­ing sands. By tramp­ing over ancient lands, I hoped Cornwall’s mythol­o­gy would seep through the soles of my Sketch­ers and I’d bring some back with me.

As much as I love America’s his­to­ry and var­ied land­scapes, I fret that the U.S. isn’t — well, Britain. Amer­i­ca has, as New Eng­land fan­ta­sy writer Jane Lang­ton once wrote, “less his­to­ry to draw on … It is bald of mythol­o­gy, bare of folk tale. Its open fields are not marked by stand­ing stones.” We do have Native Amer­i­can folk­lore and the tall tale adven­tures of larg­er-than-life char­ac­ters such as Paul Bun­yan and John Hen­ry. But those sto­ries are not part of my back­ground.

Langton’s essay is more than thir­ty years old and much has changed. Many fan­tasies today give read­ers pass­ports to worlds beyond medieval Europe, inspired by African, Asian, and indige­nous Amer­i­can cul­tures. My book is set in Vir­ginia, deeply linked to my Eng­lish roots, a place and voice I know. But Vir­ginia has no dead kings buried with bro­ken swords, no sleep­ing drag­ons under the hill, no fairies. How will I sat­u­rate the land­scape with mag­ic?

Seven-Day MagicWhen I think back, I didn’t always notice the set­tings of child­hood books. The open­ing line of Edward Eager’s Sev­en-Day Mag­ic hooked me right away. “‘The best kind of book,’” said Barn­a­by, “‘is a mag­ic book.’” I agreed and ripped through the Half-Mag­ic series, not car­ing that the books are placed vague­ly in Amer­i­ca (Ohio and Con­necti­cut, Eager’s stomp­ing grounds).

Mid­west­ern­er Eager grew up with the Oz books, the first true Amer­i­can fan­tasies for chil­dren. When he had his own chil­dren, he dis­cov­ered E. Nesbit’s books, which he praised for the “daili­ness of the mag­ic. Here is no land of drag­ons and ogres or Mock Tur­tles and Tin Wood­men … The world of E. Nes­bit is the ordi­nary or gar­den world we know, with just the right pinch of mag­ic added.” Every­day mag­ic, set wher­ev­er, suit­ed me fine.

A Diamond in the WindowYet when I found Jane Langton’s A Dia­mond in the Win­dow, I met an open­ing that left no ques­tion about its set­ting: “Edward Hall sat under the front porch of the big house on Walden Street in Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts, and thought about his two ambi­tions in life.” By page 4, I’d learned Con­cord was the site of the first bat­tle of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, Walden Pond was near­by, and Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, Louisa May Alcott, and Hen­ry David Thore­au, who­ev­er they were, had lived there. This Vir­ginia kid, clue­less about New Eng­land, was intrigued. Not far into the sto­ry — a delight­ful com­bi­na­tion of fan­ta­sy and mys­tery — the children’s naïve Uncle Fred­dy quotes Emer­son to the trash col­lec­tor:

 “Oh, call not Nature dumb!
The trees and stones are audi­ble to me …”

It’s a fun­ny scene, but the quote set me to won­der­ing. I’d often thought trees talked (it turns out they do!) and some­times wor­ried when I walked on rocks — did they hurt? The Dia­mond in the Win­dow has mag­ic, but it also has nature, which was more acces­si­ble to me. As a child, there was so much I want­ed to know about the ground beneath my feet, the trees stretch­ing toward the sky, the clouds and weath­er.

The Magic CityIn Langton’s essay, she admits British fan­ta­sy writ­ers can tap into “the thick inter­twin­ing of field and for­est with myth and his­to­ry.” She men­tions that Scot­tish writer Mol­lie Hunter once told her that fan­ta­sy “could only be com­posed by some­one stand­ing upon a coun­try­side drenched in myth and folk­lore.” Real­ly? I went fly­ing to an essay by Mol­lie Hunter in which she cred­its leg­ends, “a suc­ces­sion of folk mem­o­ries fil­tered through the storyteller’s imag­i­na­tion,” as the basis for true fan­tasies.

Vir­ginia, I’m afraid, sad­ly lacks super­nat­ur­al beings such as Celtic fetch­es and wraiths. But it has an abun­dance of nature, the kind E.B. White tapped into by watch­ing ordi­nary spi­ders and pigs and rats at his Maine farm. Lang­ton argues that “nature tak­en pure, nature in its sim­plic­i­ty and silent grandeur” car­ries its own brand of mag­ic. Instead of long­ing for stand­ing stones, I’ll be hap­py to extract “mar­veling won­der­ment” from the seashell-capped Blue Ridge Moun­tains, horse-pas­tured Pied­mont, and osprey-nest­ed Chesa­peake Bay.

As for Corn­wall, we dis­cov­ered that the five-hour car trip after an overnight flight to Heathrow, in which the only age-qual­i­fied dri­ver (who can bare­ly park her small pick­up) would nev­er man­age dri­ving stick-shift from the left seat on the left-hand side of the road. It’s okay. We will glad­ly take a bus from Lon­don to Stone­henge. My Sketch­ers will nev­er know the dif­fer­ence.


Why Writers Love Their Agents!


Winning the Road Race?

When I work with ded­i­cat­ed young writ­ers, there’s almost always a point where they ask how they can get pub­lished.

This is a tough ques­tion for me, because my instinct is to pro­tect young peo­ple. And I know first­hand how much dis­ap­point­ment, rejec­tion, and self-doubt often accom­pa­nies the quest for pub­li­ca­tion. Writ­ing was hon­est­ly a lot more fun for me before I was focused on writ­ing for pub­li­ca­tion.

Pre-Teen Writer. Source: ©Drobot Dean - Adobe StockThe two things — the act of writ­ing, and being pub­lished — are not the same thing. But in a soci­ety where we place so much empha­sis on win­ning and finan­cial suc­cess, it’s easy to get caught up in equat­ing “get­ting pub­lished” with “win­ning the writ­ing race.” With assum­ing there’s no val­ue in writ­ing some­thing that doesn’t lead to an official “look what I did” prod­uct.

And trust me, I total­ly get the allure of see­ing one’s name in print. It’s the same each time a box of author’s copies of a new book arrive. If past expe­ri­ence means any­thing, I will like­ly leave the box in my front entry for a few days (weeks?) so that each time I walk into my liv­ing room I feel that same buzz of excite­ment: it’s a book! A real, check-it-out-from- the-library book! And I wrote it!

So telling young writ­ers that get­ting pub­lished doesn’t matt‚er would be tru­ly disin­gen­u­ous of me. I just want to help them sep­a­rate the qui­et entice­ment of writ­ing as an impor­tant form of self-expres­sion from the admit­ted thrill of get­ting pub­lished.

Where does that leave me when I’m faced with the “how do I get pub­lished” ques­tion? I try real­ly hard to make sure stu­dents under­stand what a joy the act of writ­ing, in and of itself, is for me. I remind them that their fam­i­ly and friends, their most impor­tant audi­ence, will trea­sure any­thing they write from their hearts.

And then for the per­sis­tent ones, I point to some of the places where young writ­ers can sub­mit their work to mag­a­zines, online jour­nals, and con­tests. Here’s a fair­ly com­pre­hen­sive list of con­tests and sub­mis­sion des­ti­na­tions from New Pages.

The race might be tough, and win­ning isn’t every­thing — but run­ning races we might nev­er win is also a sig­nif­i­cant part of the human expe­ri­ence.


Riding a Donkey Backwards

Riding a Donkey BackwardsRid­ing a Don­key Back­wards:
Wise and Fool­ish Tales of Mul­la Nas­rud­din

Retold by Sean Tay­lor and The Khay­al The­atre
illus­trat­ed by Shirin Adl
Can­dlewick Press, 2019
ISBN 978−1−5362−0507−7

The wise fool or the fool­ish wise man? As the authors explain, “Nas­rud­din is the wis­est man in the vil­lage and also the biggest fool. … If he does­n’t make you laugh, he will cer­tain­ly make you think — and per­haps think side­ways instead of straight ahead.” Mul­la Nas­rud­din is an ancient Per­sian folk char­ac­ter, dis­cussed in Sufi stud­ies, famil­iar through­out India, Syr­ia, Turkey, Iran, and the Mid­dle East.

These two-page sto­ries are just right for read­ing out loud and then talk­ing over what hap­pened. You can have great dis­cus­sions about rea­son­ing, log­ic, and cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing. This will work with young read­ers as well as col­lege stu­dents and adults, per­haps in an ELL class.

When a man across the riv­er asks Mul­la Nas­rud­din how to get to the oth­er side, Nas­rud­din mut­ters, “What a bird­brain.” Then he shouts, “You are on the oth­er side.”

These are two-page sto­ries, each of which will pro­duce an eye roll, but always encour­ag­ing ques­tions. Side­ways think­ing indeed!

The illus­tra­tions in this book are wor­thy of close exam­i­na­tion, iden­ti­fy­ing the many objects the artist includes. The riv­er is rep­re­sent­ed by glass beads and paper. There are paper fish and a stick from a tree for a fish­ing rod. In anoth­er spread, the camel’s sad­dle is bead­ed, as is his teth­er. There are rich fab­rics, cro­cheted pieces, woven rugs, bas­kets, and cloth bags. The result is both con­tem­po­rary and ancient.

Why is the Mul­la rid­ing a don­key back­wards? The last page reveals all.

Mul­la Nas­rud­din should be on your book­shelves!



Watch­ing birds is one of the joys of the out­door year (or the indoor year, giv­en the right win­dow place­ment). Emi­ly Dick­in­son notes the “inde­pen­dent ecsta­sy” of their songs. And we can dis­cern per­son­al­i­ties in cer­tain birds. Jays will peremp­to­ri­ly take over a feed­ing sta­tion. Chick­adees perk­i­ly fly in for a seed or two or a sip of water. Spar­rows seem to eat any­thing and make up in num­bers for their drab gar­ments. With the com­ing of fall we have migra­tion. Many birds are on the move.

Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own BackyardSo it seems a good time to look at books about birds. For those who are think­ing about notic­ing more in the bird world, Look Up! Bird Watch­ing In Your Own Back­yard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Can­dlewick, 2013) is a good place to start. Cate tells us she is not an expert — even her binoc­u­lars don’t work quite right — she just loves watch­ing birds. This cap­ti­vat­ing book is a com­bi­na­tion of car­toon and prose. Begin­ning with “Bird-Watch­ing Do’s and Don’ts” a graph­ic sec­tion starts us out with an instruc­tion to “Do only go to places you know are safe. Do be respect­ful of birds, nature, and oth­er bird­watch­ers.” And con­tin­ues to “Don’t sit on poi­son ivy. Don’t tread on del­i­cate plants.”

Slight­ly snarky black­birds reg­u­lar­ly com­ment on the prose, adding a touch of humor and expand­ing on the infor­ma­tion in the text. Cate is clear on the rea­son for watch­ing birds. First, it can be fun. And it reminds is that “No mat­ter where you live, you are a part of the nat­ur­al world, just as the birds and oth­er crea­tures are.”

Cate opens the door to bird-watch­ing for read­ers of all ages. “You may not have a yard, but you do have a sky.” And the book takes us through the col­ors of birds, the shapes of birds, the sounds of birds, offers a close look at spar­rows and a dis­cus­sion of bird habi­tat.

Where Do Birds Live?An inter­est in birds in our own neigh­bor­hoods may also spark an inter­est in birds who do not live where we live. Clau­dia McGehee’s Where Do Birds Live (Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2010) takes read­ers on a tour of “four­teen habi­tats where birds live in the sum­mer months.” Each spread offers a page of infor­ma­tion on a spe­cif­ic bird in a habi­tat (for exam­ple the bobolink in the Tall­grass Prairie) and an illus­tra­tion that includes oth­er res­i­dents of that habi­tat. Read­ers trav­el from the Tall­grass Prairie to the West­ern Moun­tain Mead­ow (Moun­tain Blue­bird) to the Pacif­ic Rain­for­est (Com­mon Raven) through habi­tats all over the Unit­ed States to end in a Mid­west­ern Back­yard, which fea­tures the Ruby-Throat­ed Hum­ming­bird and the back­yard in the book adjoins a house that looks very much like McGehee’s house, includ­ing her cat. Read­ers will want to find their own region of the coun­try but will also enjoy “trav­el­ing” to find the birds in oth­er regions.

How to Paint a BirdPhyl­lis: I’ve been watch­ing the hum­ming­bird come to the feed­er in my urban back­yard this sum­mer, and a neigh­bor saw a goshawk one night. What do birds need? Food, water, shel­ter. Even in a small back­yard it’s pos­si­ble to offer those things, then sit back and enjoy vis­i­tors. And if you want to paint a bird, Jacques Prévert has some advice in a fic­tion­al book apt­ly titled, How to Paint the Por­trait of A Bird, trans­lat­ed from the French and illus­trat­ed by Morde­cai Ger­stein. In spare and lyri­cal text Prévert tells us that we must first paint a cage with an open door and paint some­thing inside for the bird, “some­thing use­ful and beau­ti­ful, but sim­ple.” Then take the pic­ture out­side, put it under a tree, hide, and wait “years, if nec­es­sary.” If a bird does come, wait some more while it enters the cage, then close the cage door with your brush, care­ful­ly erase the case and paint the por­trait of the tree “with the pret­ti­est branch for the bird.” Paint “the green leaves and the sum­mer breeze…the smell of the sun­shine and the flow­ers and the songs of the bees and the but­ter­flies.” (It’s hard not to quote the whole, brief, love­ly book.) If the bird doesn’t sing, you tried your best, but if the bird sings, sign the por­trait, take it home, and hang it in your room. The last spread shows a sleep­ing boy and the bird fly­ing out the win­dow while the text tells us, “(Tomor­row you can paint anoth­er one.)” I first came across this book in the Amer­i­can Folk Art Muse­um in New York City and have since giv­en it away mul­ti­ple times to fel­low writ­ers. I can’t think of a bet­ter descrip­tion, not just of paint­ing a bird’s por­trait, but also of the whole cre­ative endeav­or. Tomor­row we can always write anoth­er one.

Ostrich and LarkOstrich and Lark, by the poet Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, is beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed by the San artists of the Kuru Art Project of Botswana, peo­ple who live in the Kalarhari desert and whose hunter-gath­er­er way of life has been slow­ly dis­placed by devel­op­ment, as we learn in a note at the begin­ning of the book. Nelson’s pro­ceeds from the book are donat­ed to the Kuru Art Project. The bril­liant­ly col­ored art is one rea­son alone to buy this book, but Nelson’s orig­i­nal tale is anoth­er.

Ostrich and Lark begin each day togeth­er “at first light, day in and day out.” They nib­ble an ongo­ing meal “every day, all day, over the cicada’s drone, a driz­zle of buzzings…and a down­pour of bird­song.” Every day Lark, too, sings, but Ostrich is silent. Some­times at night Ostrich dreams of “singing the sky full of stars,” but every­day he is silent until, one evening, Ostrich booms TWOO-WOO-WOOOT, “like thun­der­storms on the horizon…like the rain­storm that ends the dusty months of thirst, like the promise of jubi­lant green…Ostrich boomed Lark right off his perch.” Ostrich had found his voice, “his own beau­ty, his big, ter­rif­ic self.” The com­bi­na­tion of vivid words and vivid art bring me back to this book again and again.

Fic­tion­al and non-fic­tion­al, our feath­ered friends delight us. Put out a feed­er, a bowl of water. Sit back. Wait. Who knows who might come? If a bird comes, watch it. Paint it. Write a poem about it. Boom about it in your own big, ter­rif­ic voice.

And if no bird comes today, maybe tomor­row.


Try Something New, Have a Blast!

A few months ago my daugh­ter, Aliza, came over after an evening out with her work friends. Aliza told us she and her friends had gone to the Min­neapo­lis Boul­der­ing Project or MBP, an indoor climb­ing gym where peo­ple climb “cir­cuits” of up to 17 feet high with­out ropes or har­ness­es. She was so excit­ed about it — they’d had a blast!

She said she couldn’t wait to go again, which didn’t sur­prise me.

Aliza tops out a wall

Aliza tops out a wall at the Min­neapo­lis Boul­der­ing Project.

Then she said I need­ed to try it, too, which sur­prised me a lot. After all, I am afraid of heights and climb­ing — with­out ropes — well, that wasn’t my thing. What was she think­ing?

After I bit of cajol­ing over the next few days, I final­ly agreed to go to MBP. Believe me, I was plen­ty ner­vous. I wasn’t sure if I’d like “boul­der­ing” or if the younger peo­ple in the gym would like shar­ing their space with some­one their par­ents’ age. (Isn’t it fun­ny the things we wor­ry about?) My oth­er daugh­ter, Mau­reen, said she would join us, too. At least it would be good “girl time” I told myself. I thought I would go just this once, be seen as a good sport, and leave the climb­ing to the young folks after that.

When we arrived at MBP, a staff mem­ber gave us a quick tour. He explained that boul­der­ing cir­cuits have col­or-cod­ed holds. The col­or of the holds defines the degree of dif­fi­cul­ty for each cir­cuit. There are a lot of cir­cuits for begin­ners, he told us, so we would find plen­ty to do. (As climbers get stronger, more flex­i­ble, and more con­fi­dent, they progress through the col­ors.)

MBP pro­vid­ed us with climb­ing shoes — spe­cial shoes that hug your feet and mush your toes. Rub­ber on the toes, soles, and heels pro­vides a bet­ter grip as you climb. Climbers use chalk on their hands, too, like gym­nasts do, to keep their hands from slip­ping. No oth­er spe­cial equip­ment is need­ed.

We now have our own special climbing shoes.

We now have our own spe­cial climb­ing shoes.

Applying chalk

apply­ing chalk

Aliza, Mau­reen, and I strapped on our climb­ing shoes and looked around. The gym was full of climbers of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Some looked like they were just learn­ing; oth­ers were so good they looked like they could give Spi­der­man a run for his mon­ey.

Let’s go!” Aliza said. We head­ed for a yel­low begin­ner cir­cuit.

Aliza demonstrates how to start a circuit.

Aliza demon­strates how to start a cir­cuit.

We climbed. We fell. We “topped out.” We cel­e­brat­ed.

And, need­less to say, we had a blast!

Why? Well, boul­der­ing is so much more than just exer­cis­ing. For starters, it requires a will­ing­ness to try some­thing daunt­ing, to look a lit­tle sil­ly at times, and to fail. The entire gym floor is cov­ered in a cush­ioned mat about 18 inch­es thick, which is good if you fall – and you will fall!

Boul­der­ing requires prob­lem solv­ing. All of the cir­cuits are dif­fer­ent and even the cir­cuits with­in the same col­or group­ing require dif­fer­ent skills: bal­ance, flex­i­bil­i­ty, grip strength, abil­i­ty to stand on tiny toe holds. This means you always have to think about what you’re doing. It also leads to cama­raderie among the climbers in the gym. Strangers will give you tips or show you how they’ve over­come a climb­ing hur­dle. It’s true team work. I love that.

Boul­der­ing also requires per­sis­tence. My daugh­ters and I try to give a new cir­cuit at least three tries before we move on. Often, that third try ends in suc­cess. And if it doesn’t, we’re right back at it the next time we’re there, usu­al­ly after talk­ing, mim­ing, and dream­ing about the cir­cuit over the course of the next few days. (I kid you not — at some time or anoth­er all three of us have dreamed of climb­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly hard route only to come up with a new idea about how to approach it.)

Aimee Bissonette climbing one of the walls at the Minneapolis Bouldering Project.

Aimee Bis­sonette climb­ing a wall at the Min­neapo­lis Boul­der­ing Project.

Boul­der­ing is a favorite activ­i­ty now. We go two or three times a week and we’re get­ting pret­ty good! It nev­er gets dull. The staff at MBP changes out the cir­cuits every week. Just when you think you’ve mas­tered all of the green cir­cuits in the 40,000 square foot gym, you arrive to find a whole new set to tack­le. We cheer each oth­er on and push each oth­er just a lit­tle. Aliza is espe­cial­ly good at get­ting us to try cir­cuits we think might be beyond our reach. We all ride home laugh­ing and exhaust­ed. (Did I men­tion what a great stress reliev­er it is?)

Could boul­der­ing be your thing, too? Maybe. But even if it’s not, con­sid­er this. The next time a fam­i­ly mem­ber or friend sug­gests doing some­thing out­side your com­fort zone, you could say “yes.”

Agree to go once.

Be a good sport.

Then be pre­pared … you just might have a blast!


Beethoven in Paradise

Beethoven in ParadiseFresh Lookol­o­gy fea­tures books pub­lished sev­er­al years ago that are too good to lan­guish on the shelf.

Mar­tin Pittman takes a reader’s heart and runs with it. He lives in a trail­er park called Par­adise, but his home life is any­thing but. Martin’s father is abu­sive, his moth­er com­plete­ly cowed. He has no sib­lings. His grand­ma, Haze­line, who comes on Sun­days to take him to the Howard John­son Prince of Wales buf­fet, is quite a char­ac­ter — one the read­er is unsure of at first. She’s a leath­ery, give-you-a-piece-of-my-mind, smok­ing, cack­ling sort of grand­moth­er — but she’s on Martin’s side, thank good­ness. So is his reclu­sive friend Wylene, a grown woman who can tol­er­ate only Martin’s gen­tle pres­ence in her trail­er and her life. And so is Sybil, the new girl who comes into town — Sybil is unlike any­one Mar­tin has ever met before.

Mar­tin needs these good peo­ple on his side. He faces bul­ly­ing at school, in town, and on the base­ball field, in addi­tion to the abuse at home. What keeps him going is music. Mar­tin loves music — all kinds — lis­ten­ing to it, mak­ing up tunes in his head, play­ing his har­mon­i­ca. Wylene says he has a gift. Haze­line and Sybil echo this encour­age­ment. Mar­tin wants to play a real instru­ment like a piano or a vio­lin, and when a vio­lin shows up at the local pawn shop, he can think of lit­tle else out­side of mak­ing it his own.

The prob­lem is his father. For some rea­son Ed Pittman thinks music — and espe­cial­ly the play­ing of it — is for sissies. He’s furi­ous with Mar­tin for his lack of base­ball skill, his love of music, and his friend­ship with Wylene. He’s furi­ous with life, real­ly. Haze­line con­firms this for Mar­tin. Ed doesn’t like any­one, she says — not Mar­tin, not him­self.

In the course of this short nov­el — and with the help of Haze­line, Wylene, and Sybil — Mar­tin learns that, although he can’t change his father, he can learn to stick up for him­self. He can live into being who he real­ly is. He can find a way to make music.

There are many jump­ing off points in this nov­el for social-emo­tion­al learn­ing. Beethoven in Par­adise is replete with scenes show­ing empa­thy, anger, sad­ness, hap­pi­ness, and wor­ry. It’s all about new and unex­pect­ed friend­ships. Although there is bul­ly­ing and abuse, Mar­tin expe­ri­ences kind­ness­es and shows kind­ness to oth­ers, as well. He learns that he can’t change peo­ple, but he can change how he reacts to them. He does not have to become like his father.

A class, read­ing group, or book­club could have fun learn­ing about dif­fer­ent kinds of music. Wylene and Mar­tin lis­ten to a diverse array of music, which is men­tioned by title/composer/performer — easy to look up and play. There are inter­est­ing details about har­mon­i­ca play­ing, musi­cal prac­tice (Mar­tin plays by ear), vio­lin, sax­o­phone, and Beethoven, as well. Music might actu­al­ly be con­sid­ered a char­ac­ter in this book.

Beethoven in Par­adise was pub­lished in 1997, but its time­less­ness — in theme, cir­cum­stance, and emo­tion — makes it an excel­lent pick for read­ing with mid­dle-grad­er read­ers today. With good humor, hon­est looks at hard things, and a won­der­ful cast of char­ac­ters, Bar­bara O’Connor gives us a com­ing-of-age sto­ry of friend­ship, com­mu­ni­ty, and genius that deserves a Fresh Lookol­o­gy here in 2019!