Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

The Stuff of Stars

I’ve been anx­ious­ly await­ing the book birth of The Stuff of Stars by Mar­i­on Dane Bauer, illus­trat­ed by Ekua Holmes. I heard the text a year ago and for­got to breathe while the author read it out loud. And then I heard who the illus­tra­tor was. Let’s just say, what a pair­ing!

When I opened my much antic­i­pat­ed copy — after oohing and aaahing over the cov­er — and read the first page, I heard cel­lo. A deep deep cel­lo note, under the words.

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark…. 

As I con­tin­ued to read, I con­tin­ued to hear cel­lo music — almost a synes­the­sia kind of expe­ri­ence, though thor­ough­ly explained, I sup­pose, by my intense love of cel­lo.

And so, when it came time to read it to an audi­ence — sto­ry­time in wor­ship at church — I con­tact­ed a won­der­ful cel­list in our midst and asked if she was the sort of per­son who liked to impro­vise, draw­ing pic­tures with her cel­lo, etc. She is that sort of per­son, luck­i­ly enough. I emailed her the text and she emailed back her excite­ment.  I said, “Wait ‘til you see the art….” (She gasped when she saw the art.)

I gave her com­plete artis­tic free­dom. We agreed to meet before church to run through it a cou­ple of times. I sat so she could see the pic­tures as I read. We ran through it twice — dif­fer­ent both times. Won­der­ful both times. We did it anoth­er two times in each of our church’s ser­vices — dif­fer­ent those times, too, and won­der­ful in all new ways because the kids were lis­ten­ing.

She’s an extreme­ly tal­ent­ed musi­cian work­ing on a degree in com­po­si­tion — obvi­ous­ly not every­one could do this. But it was just glo­ri­ous, my friends.

She played how “the cloud of gas unfold­ed, unfurled, zigged, zagged, stretched, col­lid­ed, expand­ed…expand­edexpand­ed….” My heart near­ly burst when she played that expan­sion. The chil­dren sat rapt, their eyes wide at the  col­laged mar­bled papers illus­trat­ing the first moments of our cos­mos.

The cel­lo illus­trat­ed for our ears how the star­ry stuff turned into “mito­chon­dria, jel­ly­fish, spi­ders…” It helped us hear the ferns and sharks, daisies and gal­lop­ing hors­es. The gal­lop­ing hors­es were fan­tas­tic. 

When the dark refrain returned…

…one day…

in the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark… 

…so did that low low note on the cel­lo. The chil­dren noticed. Their heads turned to look at the cello…and then back at the mar­bled dark­ness in the book.

It was pow­er­ful.

The Stuff of Stars is pow­er­ful with­out cel­lo music, I assure you. I’ve since read it to young and old alike with­out accom­pa­ni­ment, and it’s a delight­ful — I will even say holy—expe­ri­ence every time. If you’ve not seen this book, you must! Pick up a few copies — it makes a won­der­ful new baby or birth­day gift;  for the sto­ry of the birth of the cos­mos moves to the birth of our planet…and then to the birth of the indi­vid­ual child “spe­cial as Love.”

We need more books like this one — books that hold togeth­er won­der, sci­ence, awe, love, and our place in nature along­side the inevitable ten­sions of life. We need gor­geous books for chil­dren. Too much of the world is ugly right now. Chil­dren need beau­ty, sto­ries, and art. They need to hear:


   and me

      lov­ing you.

          All of us

              The stuff of stars.


For fur­ther read­ing, I high­ly rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing:

Mar­i­on Dane Bauer inter­views her illus­tra­tor, Ekua Holmes.

The writ­ing process for The Stuff of Stars.


Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Eerdmans Books for Young ReadersEngag­ing.  Diverse. Page-turn­ers. Spir­i­tu­al.  Sur­prise! Gen­tle. Com­pas­sion. Old – over 100 years old! and Clas­sic.

Wm. B. Eerd­mans Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny has been, and still is, an inde­pen­dent, fam­i­ly-owned pub­lish­er since 1911. Their new imprint—Eerd­mans Books for Young Read­ers—began in 1995 and has been pro­duc­ing over a dozen new children’s books each year.  Each year many of their books are top award-win­ners.

There is a rea­son why this press has sur­vived and con­tin­ues to pub­lish impor­tant books — books of diver­si­ty, com­pas­sion, and authen­tic­i­ty.

Kathleen Mertz, Eerdmans Acquisitions and Managing EditorI asked Kath­leen Mertz, Acqui­si­tions and Man­ag­ing Edi­tor:

What is the pas­sion that gives you the courage to con­tin­ue pub­lish­ing books? Her reply reflects the pas­sion many edi­tors feel about cre­at­ing excit­ing, won­der­ful, and impor­tant books for young read­ers.  One book in the hands of one child can make a dif­fer­ence — in one child’s world, in one entire nation’s world. It hap­pens.

Kath­leen answered, “Pub­lish­ing books does take a lot of courage. It’s a tough indus­try — the prof­it mar­gins are often nar­row, the mar­ket is always chang­ing. And there are so many good books — and great books — being pub­lished that it can be easy for even a won­der­ful title to get lost in the shuf­fle and not find its way into the hands of the read­ers who would fall in love with it.

Most of us in pub­lish­ing do what we do because we love it, and I’m no excep­tion. I’m grate­ful to work with a small team of incred­i­bly pas­sion­ate peo­ple who care deeply about the books we pro­duce. I’m grate­ful to be able to have a hand in bring­ing so many books from oth­er coun­tries to a U.S. read­er­ship that might not oth­er­wise ever encounter them. I’m grate­ful to work for a pub­lish­er that tries to pub­lish brave, hon­est books that speak tru­ly about the world. These are the things that sus­tain my pas­sion for the work I do.”

RainKath­leen describes two new­ly released books that reflect this pas­sion and also the inclu­sion of books from oth­er coun­tries: 

Rain—This col­lec­tion of haiku was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Swedish, and is struc­tured around a very broad con­cept of “rain” — includ­ing not only the driz­zle that might first come to mind, but also flur­ries of snow, show­ers of ash­es, gen­tle drifts of cher­ry blos­som petals. It’s an evoca­tive book that cel­e­brates nature, poet­ry, and cul­tures from around the world — and it’s a book that looks beyond the obvi­ous for the unex­pect­ed com­mon threads.

I'll Root for YouI’ll Root for You—A wit­ty and whim­si­cal book of poems about sports of all sorts, but with a unique focus. This one is for all the folks who don’t come in first: “Today we’ll root for the losers. / Today we’ll cheer the oth­er way round. / Today we’ll love every­body / whose som­er­sault / nev­er got off the ground.” It’s a joy­ful and encour­ag­ing reminder that win­ning isn’t every­thing.”

Inspired by Kathleen’s descrip­tion of the pas­sion that fuels the pub­li­ca­tion of books, I then asked Kath­leen “What is most reward­ing about work­ing in pub­lish­ing?” I was again inspired to hear Kath­leen speak about com­mu­ni­ty, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and the excite­ment of shared cre­ation.

Kath­leen said,  “I still remem­ber what it felt like to receive the fin­ished copy of the first book I edit­ed — a book whose every word I’d pored over, a sto­ry that would go out into the world and find read­ers who would fall in love with it them­selves.

One of the great­est joys of being an edi­tor is get­ting to watch (and have a hand in) how a sto­ry grows from man­u­script to fin­ished book. It’s incred­i­bly sat­is­fy­ing when I can help an author hone their sto­ry in a way that will help it reach an audi­ence even more effec­tive­ly. And then I get to see the artist take that sto­ry and bring their own bril­liance to it — those days when we get sketch­es or final art in for a project are tremen­dous­ly excit­ing.  

To work on children’s books is to be part of some of the most won­der­ful com­mu­ni­ties — the dri­ven and end­less­ly cre­ative peo­ple who dream up words and art to tell the world new sto­ries, the pas­sion­ate and thought­ful peo­ple who invest their lives in pub­lish­ing, the teach­ers and librar­i­ans and read­ers of all ages who find end­less joy in sto­ries and are always on the look­out for the next book to fall in love with.”

I want­ed to hear more about Eerd­mans’ new books. Kath­leen, tell us about a few of your recent pub­li­ca­tions and why they are unique.

Here are two more of our fall books that I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed about:

Paul Writes (a Letter) and The Little BarbarianPaul Writes (a Let­ter)—Chris Rasch­ka is just bril­liant. Each spread of this book depicts Paul writ­ing to his friends, cap­tur­ing a core idea or two from each of the epis­tles. It’s earnest and warm and sur­pris­ing­ly fun­ny — a more human depic­tion of Paul than I’ve ever seen before.

The Lit­tle Bar­bar­ian—This is the first com­plete­ly word­less pic­ture book we’ve pub­lished. It might be short on words, but it’s not short on adven­ture or imag­i­na­tion! With the help of his trusty steed, our fear­less lit­tle bar­bar­ian must bat­tle one ter­ri­fy­ing adver­sary after anoth­er. I love the dis­tinc­tive for­mat of this book, and the look of delight on people’s faces when they get to the sur­prise twist of an end­ing.”

I have always enjoyed re-read­ing many of Eerd­mans’ books. So many are excel­lent ways to begin mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions with read­ers or to enrich the study of many top­ics with “sto­ry.” I asked Kath­leen, “What recent ‘old­er’ books of yours would you espe­cial­ly rec­om­mend to teach­ers and librar­i­ans?”

Nile Crossing, Hidden City, Story Like the Wind

Nile Cross­ing—I describe this book as a back-to-school sto­ry set in ancient Egypt. It’s about a young boy named Khep­ri who is leav­ing his life as a fish­er­man to start scribe school. It’s lyri­cal­ly writ­ten, the art is stun­ning, and it’s got a ton of addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion at the back — per­fect for any class doing a unit on Ancient Egypt.

Hid­den City—A col­lec­tion of poems cel­e­brat­ing the ways that nature exists even in the mid­dle of our cities. The poems are acces­si­ble, the art is col­or­ful and fun, and there’s some real­ly good addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion at the end of the book. This is a great way to encour­age kids to keep an eye out for the flo­ra and fau­na that they might encounter in their own lives.

Sto­ry Like the Wind—This is a beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed mid­dle-grade nov­el about a group of refugees adrift at sea in a tiny raft. One of them, a boy named Rami, takes out his vio­lin (the only thing he’s man­aged to bring with him) and with it tells a sto­ry about an indomitable stal­lion — a sto­ry that helps them all remem­ber the past and find some hope for the future. It’s a pow­er­ful book that tack­les hard sub­jects and also reminds read­ers how impor­tant sto­ries can be.”

Check out an Eerd­mans’ title at your local library or inde­pen­dent book­store.  You will enjoy a fresh way of see­ing, a deep­er way of think­ing.


Skinny Dip with Nicola Davies

We’re pleased to wel­come author Nico­la Davies to our Skin­ny Dip col­umn. She writes such fine books about our nat­ur­al world. Her most recent book, The Day War Came (Can­dlewick Press), relates the sto­ry of a refugee child who real­izes that war fol­lows her in the closed doors and turned backs. It is through the kind­ness of oth­er chil­dren that she finds hope. Share this book with your class­room and your favorite chil­dren.

Nicola Davies

Nico­la Davies

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

I’ve often read on the decks of var­i­ous small boats while I’ve been on watch in the mid­dle of the night — usu­al­ly whilst study­ing sperm whales — so hav­ing to break off from read­ing every so often to lis­ten to sperm whale clicks on the hydrophone, take the tem­per­a­ture of the water and record the wind speed and direc­tion.

Do you keep your book­shelves in a par­tic­u­lar order?

Fic­tion and poet­ry, by author in alpha­bet­i­cal order. Non fic­tion about biol­o­gy in tax­o­nom­ic order of sub­ject, and every­thing else… a bit hap­haz­ard .

How many book­cas­es do you have in your house?

Not enough.

What’s the pre­dom­i­nant col­or in your wardrobe?

I don’t real­ly have a pre­dom­i­nant colour — but I don’t have much that’s pink, red  or orange. Lots of blue, acid green, black, white, grey, olive.

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

Two actu­al­ly. The library of the town where I lived until I was sev­en, and went to most weeks with my grand­pa. I remem­ber the smell and the sound that the librar­i­ans stamp made on the books as they were checked out. The oth­er was the library of the zool­o­gy depart­ment of Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty where I spent hours and hours whilst doing my degree. I loved the rit­u­al of track­ing down sci­en­tif­ic papers in the great bound vol­umes of sci­en­tif­ic jour­nals. All third year stu­dents were giv­en their own space to study there. 

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

No one book, but the expe­ri­ence of read­ing, the sense of com­plete immer­sion in anoth­er world and anoth­er kind of liv­ing. The way you read as a child is hard­ly ever expe­ri­enced as an adult, the inten­si­ty and the com­plete sur­ren­der to the world with­in the pages of the book. I learnt things about the pow­er of my imag­i­na­tion and about the pow­er of words to con­jure and to com­mu­ni­cate.

buttered toastWhat’s your food weak­ness?

But­tered toast.

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise?

Swim­ming, and run­ning.

What do you con­sid­er to be your best accom­plish­ment?

Man­ag­ing to make a liv­ing by work­ing cre­ative­ly.

What’s your favorite flower?


Have you trav­eled out­side of your state? Which state draws you back?

Um….I’m not from the US.

Which coun­try is your favorite to vis­it? Why?

I’ve trav­elled to the US sev­er­al times and to many coun­tries across the world… so many places I adore, but Mex­i­co is my cur­rent favourite. The peo­ple are won­der­ful, kind, wel­com­ing incred­i­bly hard­work­ing and set great val­ue on cul­ture.

Who’s your favorite artist?

Wow… too hard, but I guess Hock­ney or Matisse.

Garden 3 by David Hockney, on exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gar­den #3 by David Hock­ney, on exhib­it at The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

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

A fab­u­lous one-woman show com­bin­ing music and spo­ken word to con­nect per­son­al sto­ries of love and loss with land­scape: “Wind Resis­tance” writ­ten and per­formed by Karine Pol­wart.

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


What would you wear to a cos­tume par­ty?

I wouldn’t go. I real­ly hate cos­tume parties…all that trou­ble to dress up in some­thing that’s uncom­fort­able and that you can’t dance in.

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

Maya Angelou and Jane Goodall

Maya Angelou and Jane Goodall

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

A brown bread roll

What are your favorite piz­za top­pings?

Anchovies, mush­rooms but actu­al­ly I almost nev­er eat piz­za

Do you remem­ber your dreams?


If you could have din­ner with any­one from his­to­ry, who would you choose (don’t wor­ry about lan­guage dif­fer­ences.)

Charles Dar­win and Alexan­der von Hum­boldt

Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt

What for­eign lan­guage would you like to learn?


Do you read the end of a book first?

That’s an out­ra­geous ques­tion to ask a writer. Does any­one say they do this? NO absolute­ly NOT.

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

Under the ocean. Ocean is full of life but space is dead.

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

The one I will write next.

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

The abil­i­ty to remove car­bon diox­ide from the atmos­phere in amounts that would stop glob­al cli­mate change.

Lots, The Pond, The Day War Came


That’s How I Roll

Pretend wagon trainAs a kid I was the one who insti­gat­ed a lot of the fun. It might be play­ing pirates in the tree house, or cops and rob­bers in my mom’s parked sta­tion wag­on, or spies who wrote secret code in lemon juice (lat­er reveal­ing the mes­sage by hold­ing it over the toast­er). Often our make believe reflect­ed what­ev­er sec­tion of the library I hap­pened to be work­ing my way through at the time. So after I binge-read every pio­neer tale I could find, I cre­at­ed a new game for us called “wag­on train.” We’d stock my youngest brother’s lit­tle red wag­on with sup­plies and head out across the prairie, fac­ing dan­ger at every turn.

The Inter­net tells me that on a good day, a real wag­on train might have cov­ered fifteen miles in a day. Fam­i­ly road trips move along at a much brisker rate nowa­days. When peo­ple trav­eled fifteen miles a day, they couldn’t help but take note of even the small­est details of the jour­ney. When we’re rac­ing along an inter­state at sev­en­ty miles an hour, it’s much eas­i­er to miss all the pecu­liar and intrigu­ing sights along the way.

But quirky details are always there to be noticed if we only remind our­selves to adopt the right out­look. Here’s a sim­ple trav­el writ­ing game you can play with the kids you have packed into your “cov­ered wag­on” — whether you are on a long dri­ve dur­ing the upcom­ing hol­i­days or just a trip around town. Give every­one their own small note­book and writ­ing uten­sil at the start of the trip. Tell them it’s their job to “col­lect” at least three unusu­al things dur­ing the course of the day; they don’t need to phys­i­cal­ly col­lect the items, sim­ply make note of them in their note­book (or take a pho­to with their cam­era). It can be any­thing that catch­es their atten­tion: a per­son, an ani­mal, a build­ing, a bizarre tourist attrac­tion. Then the next day in the car, tell the kids that it’s their job to write a sto­ry or a poem fea­tur­ing the three items they col­lect­ed the day before. Plus they need to col­lect three new items for the fol­low­ing day. Along with encour­ag­ing every­one to take note of their sur­round­ings as you trav­el, they’ll each end the trip with a unique memen­to.

The truth is, I would have made a hor­ri­ble pio­neer: I’m too big a fan of my crea­ture com­forts. I’m sure I’d like­ly have been vot­ed “first per­son we should eat if we get trapped by win­ter bliz­zards” by my fel­low pio­neers, because they would have grown so weary of my whin­ing about need­ing a show­er. But despite my inabil­i­ty to fit into those times, I rec­og­nize that trav­el­ing only fifteen miles a day has a huge advan­tage for a writer: you can nev­er for­got that the time spent get­ting there — not just what hap­pens after you arrive — is in itself the real adven­ture.




Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret

Explorer Academy: The Nebula SecretExplor­er Acad­e­my: The Neb­u­la Secret
Tru­di Truett
illus­trat­ed by Scott Plumbe (with a blend of pho­tos)
Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Part­ners, 2018
ISBN 978−1−4263−3159−6

Done with the Har­ry Pot­ter series, maybe not quite ready for the Alex Rid­er series, what do you sug­gest?

Explor­er Acad­e­my. Emphat­i­cal­ly. 

The book opens in Hawaii, where Cruz Coro­n­a­do (not quite 13) is get­ting packed and say­ing good­bye before he heads to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to attend Explor­er Acad­e­my. His moth­er worked there. His aunt Marisol is a pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy, pale­on­tol­ogy, and cryp­tol­ogy. Cruz des­per­ate­ly wants to go. Out for a last surf before his dad dri­ves him to the air­port, some­one grabs his ankle and tries to drag him down. Cruz sens­es dan­ger and man­ages to escape.

That’s just the first few pages. Arriv­ing at the Acad­e­my, we are treat­ed to sat­is­fy­ing descrip­tions of Cruz’s fel­low stu­dents, his teach­ers, the fan­tas­tic build­ings of the Acad­e­my, and the library with its spe­cial col­lec­tions room. Cruz meets his room­mate, Emmett Lu, who is inven­tive and great best friend mate­r­i­al.

The stu­dents are vying for the North Star award, giv­en to the most promis­ing stu­dent at the end of their first year. That sets up some ten­sion but it’s the sim­u­lat­ed envi­ron­ment explor­ing they do, much of it to aid in con­ser­va­tion efforts, that proves to be risky and turn-the-page engross­ing.

There are sev­er­al lay­ers of sto­ry here. Cruz’s moth­er died at the Acad­e­my sev­er­al years ear­li­er but no one knows why. She left clues in code for Cruz because she’s con­fi­dent he’ll fig­ure out what’s going on. Some­one always seems to be fol­low­ing Cruz and there are sev­er­al char­ac­ters who pop up along the way who are unset­tling. All of this and his class assign­ments are dif­fi­cult but fas­ci­nat­ing. Who would­n’t want to go to this school?

The char­ac­ters will become the read­er’s friends: Sailor, Bryn­dis, and Emmett will become close friends, a team, and Dugan, Zane, Ren­shaw, and Ali round out their explor­er group. Back in Hawaii, Cruz’ best friend Lani helps him  think things through, do inter­net research, and whips up life-sav­ing mea­sures because she sens­es he needs them. There’s even a dog! 

Each of the chap­ters is chock full of cool gad­gets, cut­ting-edge sci­ence, astron­o­my, anthro­pol­o­gy, every bit of which had me look­ing things up on the com­put­er. At the end of the book, there’s a thought­ful sec­tion of real-life sci­en­tists pur­su­ing the research and inven­tions described in the book, let­ting us know what’s real and what’s near­ly real. 

As always, this Nation­al Geo­graph­ic book is so well designed that it becomes anoth­er ele­ment of the sto­ry, pulling us through. (At one point, I flipped through to see what oth­er intrigu­ing illus­tra­tions there might be.) Scott Plumbe com­bines good char­ac­ter stud­ies with cool maps and exam­ples, some of which are blend­ed with pho­tos. Alto­geth­er the look and feel of the book sup­port this fast-paced, well-writ­ten thriller of a sto­ry.

I can’t wait for book two, The Fal­con’s Feath­er, because Cruz’s moth­er chal­lenges him to a quest that will take him and the explor­ers all around the world and this read­er wants to be by their side.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.


Story Time for All

A cou­ple of weeks ago, Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I made our way to the Farm­ers Mar­ket. I’ve been recov­er­ing from a bit of surgery, and truth be told, I wasn’t feel­ing great that morn­ing, but need­ed to get out and about. We wan­dered the stalls, got our veg­gies, our goat cheese, our sunflowers…then some cof­fee and lemon­ade and car­damom donuts so as to sit down and rest a bit. And then…

Sto­ry­time! STO­RY-time!” A voice sang out to the crowd.

As any read­er of this col­umn knows, I’m a huge fan of sto­ry time. Give me a kid or two and a stack of books and I will read and sing and play hap­pi­ly for as long as they will. Tru­ly, sto­ry time gives me Great Joy. I’m usu­al­ly the sto­ry­teller or sto­ryread­er, though. Too sel­dom do I attend sto­ry times now that my chil­dren are fair­ly grown.

I rec­og­nized the voice imme­di­ate­ly. It belonged to a local actor here in the Twin Cities — he’s part of the Guthrie com­pa­ny as well as being a reg­u­lar at sev­er­al oth­er the­aters. Most recent­ly he played the Lorax at the Children’s The­ater Com­pa­ny in Min­neapo­lis and the Old Globe in San Diego. His name: H. Adam Har­ris. And does he ever have a voice!

When I saw this tal­ent­ed man do sto­ry time at the farmer’s mar­ket last sum­mer I was also thrilled and car­ried away by the expe­ri­ence — I wrote about it for Red Read­ing Boots, in fact. This year, he was every bit as won­der­ful — and he read some new-to-me books I loved and have since added to my sto­ry time stack. But it was my per­son­al expe­ri­ence of the sto­ry time this year that was so mean­ing­ful.  

I, a mid­dle-aged moth­er with teen daugh­ter in tow, was not the tar­get audi­ence for this sto­ry time. But I enjoyed it every bit as much as the lit­tlest ones there.  Yes, I loved all the kids gathering…the fam­i­lies set­ting down their bas­kets and bags and sit­u­at­ing their kids on the blue mat and them­selves on the steps…I loved the kids’ laugh­ter, and Mr. Har­ris’ won­der­ful voic­es and expres­sions and enthu­si­asm. It was a beau­ti­ful day, the sto­ries he’d select­ed were ter­rif­ic….

But on that par­tic­u­lar Sat­ur­day, what my tired and recov­er­ing body loved most was sim­ply being read to. I loved the sto­ry time itself. I just melt­ed into the steps and gave myself over to the expe­ri­ence. What a gift it is to be read a sto­ry! Why do we not do this for each oth­er more often? While I think it the most fab­u­lous thing in the world that we read to chil­dren, the only thing more fab­u­lous would be also read­ing to each oth­er as adults.

Dar­ling Daugh­ter sug­gest­ed I bite the bul­let and just get already. I do adore audio­books. But I think it’s not quite the same as some­one read­ing to you live and in per­son. The rela­tion­ship between read­er and lis­ten­er is lost with­out a lit­tle eye con­tact, with­out a well-placed ques­tion or chuck­le. No, I think the thing has some­thing to do with being read to, not the lis­ten­ing itself.

So I com­mend it to you — find some­one to read to. Find some­one to read to you. Sit back and enjoy it.

Sto­ry­time! STO­RY-time!”




ImagineThere are times when I open a new book that my pulse quick­ens and times when I need to be con­vinced. Some­times I can sense myself slid­ing com­fort­ably into the sur­round­ings of a pic­ture book, feel­ing wel­comed, under­stand­ing every­thing about the book because it is so well craft­ed. That’s this book.

First off, this is an auto­bi­og­ra­phy … so as a men­tor text it is ide­al. 

Bookol­o­gy has been focus­ing on sto­ries of immi­grants and refugees this fall and this is an excel­lent sto­ry to share for engag­ing empa­thy.

Most of all, it is writ­ten so lyri­cal­ly, so evoca­tive­ly, that you and your stu­dents will be charmed by Mr. Her­rera’s sto­ry. He paints word pic­tures so well — and cap­tures emo­tions we all share in com­mon — that we believe in this lit­tle boy. We can imag­ine our­selves tak­ing a jour­ney like his, attain­ing our dreams. 

If I helped Mom­ma feed
the hop­ping chick­ens
and catch the crazy turkey 
in the front yard
of our new vil­lage,


This lit­tle boy, Juan Felipe Her­rera, grows up to become the Unit­ed States Poet Lau­re­ate (2015−2017) and win recog­ni­tion far and wide. This is the jour­ney he takes from a small child play­ing among chamomile to stand­ing on the steps of the Library of Con­gress, read­ing his poet­ry to the nation. (It’s also a good men­tor text for telling a life sto­ry in an under­stat­ed man­ner, with­out brag­ging.) It is an encour­ag­ing book, a fine exam­ple of what can come true if you imag­ine, if you work to make your dreams come to life.

Lau­ren Castil­lo’s illus­tra­tions are at once soft and strong, using a defin­ing black line against a warm, tex­tured back­ground. I found myself reach­ing out to touch the pages to expe­ri­ence the set­tings as they changed through­out Mr. Her­rera’s life. Each illus­tra­tion invit­ed me to linger, to look at the home the boy is leav­ing behind, the creekbed he explores, the fre­quent changes in his sur­round­ings. These illus­tra­tions pro­vide depth and won­der and detail in all the right places. 

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed. This book belongs on tables in libraries, class­rooms, and homes where it can be eas­i­ly picked up and read again and again.

Juan Felipe Her­rera
illus­trat­ed by Lau­ren Castil­lo
Can­dlewick Press, 2018
ISBN 978 – 0763690526


The Beauty of Imperfection

As I reflect on the start of my 27th year of teach­ing, I am struck by what an unusu­al first week of school it was. Room 212 was filled with a sense of calm that doesn’t usu­al­ly accom­pa­ny my first few days of a new school year. The fact that our school build­ing was closed all sum­mer due to con­struc­tion projects meant that I had just three days to set up a class­room before twen­ty-four eager learn­ers walked through the door. Exam­in­ing my beliefs helped me pri­or­i­tize my actions.

Cul­ti­vat­ing a class­room com­mu­ni­ty based on stu­dent voice, col­lab­o­ra­tion and kind­ness tops my list of what I val­ue as an edu­ca­tor. Cre­at­ing an abun­dance of authen­tic lit­er­a­cy expe­ri­ence is a close sec­ond. Fig­ur­ing out how to make both of these a real­i­ty from Day One was eas­i­er than I could have ever imag­ined. All it took was a healthy dose of embrac­ing the beau­ty of imper­fec­tion. 


In past years, I would have been fraz­zled try­ing to get every last detail of my class­room set up with so lit­tle time. The class jobs would have been post­ed. The birth­day poster would have been filled out. The bath­room pass­es would be hang­ing up. The take-home fold­ers and home­work bas­ket would be labeled. And every sin­gle bul­letin board would be filled with clever themes and designs. But not this year. This year I was hope­ful that my solu­tion to deal­ing with lim­it­ed class­room set-up time would not only avoid becom­ing stressed out but would actu­al­ly con­tribute to a deep­er sense of stu­dent agency. Again, all it took was a healthy dose of embrac­ing the beau­ty of imper­fec­tion.


I dis­cov­ered that involv­ing my stu­dents in the orga­ni­za­tion and design of our learn­ing spaces sim­ply meant that the things might take a lit­tle longer to com­plete. The words on the lists, signs and walls might not be care­ful­ly spaced or aligned and they aren’t spelled cor­rect­ly. We might have used more tape than was nec­es­sary and the recy­cling bin may have end­ed up with some extra messed up paper. How­ev­er, the beau­ty of imper­fec­tion has led to a num­ber of refresh­ing and pos­i­tive out­comes.

Engage­ment… check. Empow­er­ment… check. Enthu­si­asm… check.

As I look around the class­room, the sweet evi­dence of a student’s touch can’t be missed. I am over­whelmed with an even sweet­er sense of sat­is­fac­tion for our class­room com­mu­ni­ty that is being built with authen­tic and pow­er­ful imper­fec­tion. 


The Need for Secret Places

honeysuckleIn the fifth grade, my best friend and I dis­cov­ered a tan­gle of hon­ey­suck­le in the scrub­by woods bor­der­ing our school play­ground. It would make the per­fect recess refuge. All we had to do was pull the hon­ey­suck­le from inside the cir­cle of saplings it was twined around, leav­ing a cur­tain of vines.

The next day, we sprint­ed into the thick­et and began rip­ping out vines. Hon­ey­suck­le, we learned, often grows with poi­son ivy. When we were no longer coat­ed in calamine lotion, we fin­ished our hide­out. Each recess, we dashed down the hill when the teacher wasn’t look­ing and zipped into Hon­ey­suck­le Hide­out. Hav­ing a secret place at school, where we were cor­ralled by adults, gave us an exhil­a­rat­ing sense of free­dom.

Until the day three sixth graders invad­ed our Hide­out. The pres­ence of sneer­ing, old­er girls shat­tered our pri­va­cy. Our haven sud­den­ly seemed child­ish and the pow­er we’d felt spy­ing on oth­ers dimin­ished in an instant. We were back in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion of ordi­nary kids.

Although I had my own room at home, I made a den from a blan­ket-cov­ered card table, cob­bled a makeshift play­house inside my clos­et, and claimed the nook behind the fur­nace in our base­ment. In these places I felt safe and seclud­ed. The books I read fueled the need for secre­cy: the gate­house-turned-club­house in the Trix­ie Belden mys­ter­ies, the Melendy sib­lings’ Office in The Sat­ur­days, the dumb­wait­er Har­ri­et the Spy squeezed into, the Bor­row­ers’ realm beneath the floor­boards.

four books

Once, I spread a tarp inside a roll of unused chick­en wire sit­ting along one side of our gar­den. I crawled inside. Rag­weed and tall grass cloaked the fence roll from view. The tarp floor smelled musty. I tucked a box of Milk Duds and my library book in a fold at one end. The cat joined me. We whiled away sum­mer after­noons as bum­ble­bees drowsed in the clover and a thrush sang sweet­ly deep in the woods.

I didn’t know then that place-mak­ing helped con­nect me to the plan­et. Qui­et and hid­den, I began to under­stand I was part of the larg­er space shared by the bum­ble­bees, the thrush, and the cat. I con­tin­ued to cre­ate these sanc­tu­ar­ies no mat­ter where I lived. As poet Kim Stafford said in his essay, “A Sep­a­rate Hearth:” I would take any refuge from the thor­ough­fare of plain liv­ing … there I pledged alle­giance to what I knew, as opposed to what was com­mon.

The geog­ra­phy of our pasts is lit­tered with snow forts and retreats beneath rhodo­den­dron bush­es, tree hous­es and havens under front porch­es. Secret spaces, no mat­ter how tiny or crude, expand to accom­mo­date kids’ fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Children’s den-mak­ing, says Col­in Ward in The Child in the City, car­ries over into adult­hood. “Behind all our pur­po­sive activ­i­ties, our domes­tic world, is this ide­al land­scape we acquired in child­hood.” I still carve out sanc­tu­ar­ies to escape dish­es and laun­dry and, nowa­days, the inva­sion of email.

In my 1920s themed sit­ting room, the small­est room in our house, I sit on the floor sur­round­ed by vin­tage children’s books, old per­fume bot­tles, and McCoy vio­let pots filled with col­ored pen­cils. I write notes using my grandfather’s cedar chest as a desk, read, or work on art projects. Each evening, I wind down in this cozy room and let the day waft out the win­dow.

Secret PlacesWhere do today’s chil­dren craft their pri­vate spaces? I nev­er see kids in my neigh­bor­hood build­ing forts or play­hous­es or even sit­ting under a tree. As Eliz­a­beth Good­e­nough says in her book, Secret Spaces of Child­hood, “With­out a cor­ner to build a world apart, [chil­dren] can’t plant what [author] Diane Ack­er­man calls ‘the small crop of self.’”

Many kids escape adults in their bed­rooms, holed up with lap­tops or Play Sta­tions. Apps and games let chil­dren cre­ate mar­velous king­doms. A house made of sticks can hard­ly com­pete with, say, the sophis­ti­ca­tion of Fortnite’s “Loot Lake.” Yet a space of the child’s own mak­ing pro­vides soli­tude and expands to accom­mo­date fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Secret places in games are bound­ed by adult-cre­at­ed rules, the prod­uct of some­one else’s imag­i­na­tion. Those seem­ing­ly lim­it­less options are con­tained in a box.

How will chil­dren find their place in the world in front of screens? Hands tap­ping plas­tic keys can’t feel the fiber tough­ness of hon­ey­suck­le vines or the rough sur­face of a sun-warmed tarp. Eyes focus­ing on flick­er­ing avatars can’t track the up-and-down flight of a blue­bird. The player’s sense of iden­ti­ty, dis­guised in a “skin,” is mere­ly a reflec­tion in the glass.

Bet­ter to seed that small crop of self with books which give a child ideas, words that flour­ish into men­tal pic­tures, and send her out the door to build her own pri­vate king­doms.


A Serious Question


Tuned in to Talk Radio

When I was a lit­tle girl and my Min­neso­ta grand­par­ents came to vis­it, we shared them around for sleep­ing pur­pos­es. One night I would share my dou­ble bed with Grand­ma, and the next night my broth­er and I would switch places, and I’d sleep on his top bunk while Grand­pa set­tled into the bot­tom bunk.

Grand­ma was a bit of a night owl like I am, so it was nev­er hard to keep her talk­ing. Grand­pa was raised a farm boy, and in his mind night­time was for sleep­ing. But I devised a clever sys­tem: if he paid the ran­som of telling me one sto­ry from his boy­hood, after that I’d stay qui­et and let him drift off. sto­ries — about bot­tle-feed­ing the lit­tle black lamb, or the fight with his broth­er Hen­ry that end­ed with Grand­pa dump­ing an entire buck­et of cow-fresh milk over Henry’s head — are the ear­li­est tales in what has now become my exten­sive per­son­al col­lec­tion: I’ve been stock­pil­ing sto­ries from my “peeps” ever since.

One of the “ask the author” ques­tions kids present me with over and over again is, “Where do you get ideas for your sto­ries?” For me, a big part of the answer is, “through oth­er peo­ple.” I love hear­ing oth­er people’s sto­ries — and what I find is that the more I’m will­ing to lis­ten, the more peo­ple will tell me. I’ve appar­ent­ly cul­ti­vat­ed my lis­ten­ing skills to such a degree that even strangers share deeply per­son­al accounts. In the inter­ests of pre­serv­ing friend­ships, I’ve tak­en to insert­ing a warn­ing label into my con­ver­sa­tions: “I’m a writer, you know. This is real­ly good stuff. Unless you swear me to secre­cy, I will use this.” Sur­pris­ing­ly few peo­ple take me up on that offer; the truth, I think, is that most peo­ple want their sto­ries to find a life out­side them­selves. If they don’t plan to write them out on their own, they’re delight­ed at the idea of some­one else writ­ing them down.

So I use their sto­ries, but I do main­tain some sense of dis­cre­tion: They are often heav­i­ly dis­guised, and the names have been changed to pro­tect the inno­cent.

Encour­age your young writ­ers to imag­ine they’re rid­ing though life while tuned into talk radio. For younger writ­ers, help­ing them to devel­op strong lis­ten­ing skills may be the key. For slight­ly old­er writ­ers, you might want to also dis­cuss issues around respect­ing pri­va­cy. And encour­age them to explore how real-life sto­ries work great as seed mate­r­i­al, but don’t always trans­late direct­ly into good fiction: Some­times the writer’s art is not in find­ing good mate­r­i­al, but in know­ing how much of it, and how best, to use it to tell a sto­ry that the world wants to hear.


Chasing Peace: Refugee Stories

This sum­mer, deeply trou­bling sto­ries about migrants and refugees at the US-Mex­i­can bor­der have come to us in news­pa­per sto­ries, record­ings, pho­tographs, and videos. In choos­ing to sep­a­rate chil­dren from their par­ents, our gov­ern­ment has shown a dis­turb­ing lack of empa­thy for peo­ple flee­ing vio­lence and tur­moil in their home coun­tries. It is our hope that these pic­ture books will help fos­ter empa­thy and shed light on the com­plex issues of migra­tion for young read­ers, while giv­ing a sense of the courage, resilience, and human­i­ty behind each jour­ney.


The Jour­ney
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Francesca San­na 
Fly­ing Eye Books, 2016

This remark­able book had its begin­nings when author/illustrator Francesca San­na met two girls in a refugee camp in Italy and lis­tened to their sto­ry. Soon, she began col­lect­ing many more sto­ries of peo­ple forced to flee their home­lands and decid­ed to cre­ate a col­lage of these expe­ri­ences in this stun­ning pic­ture book. The Jour­ney feels at once uni­ver­sal and spe­cif­ic as it fol­lows one fam­i­ly on their long, dan­ger­ous voy­age from their beloved home­town, which has become a war­zone, toward an uncer­tain future in “a coun­try far away with high moun­tains”, where they can be safe. We don’t know the details, but evoca­tive illus­tra­tions use dark, abstract­ed shapes to great psy­cho­log­i­cal effect through­out the book to depict the fear the chil­dren feel as they flee the war that “took” their father.

from The Jour­ney, illus­tra­tion copy­right Francesca San­na

The jour­ney is a pre­car­i­ous one as the fam­i­ly trav­els first by car, then hides in trucks, trav­els at night by bicy­cle and then on foot, only to arrive at a bor­der, where they must hide and lat­er be smug­gled across. An illus­tra­tion depict­ing the crowd­ed boat pas­sage feels aching­ly famil­iar from images in the news. After cross­ing many bor­ders, the sight of migrat­ing birds fly­ing sug­gest the hope of a secure future for this brave and resource­ful fam­i­ly.

Susan Marie: 

A Dif­fer­ent Pond
writ­ten by Bao Phi
illus­trat­ed by Thi Bui
Cap­stone Press, 2017

A Dif­fer­ent Pond is a sto­ry from a Viet­namese refugee fam­i­ly liv­ing in Min­neapo­lis, Min­neso­ta. A boy and his father go fish­ing at a city lake in the chilly, ear­ly morn­ing dark: “We stop at the bait store on Lake Street. It always seems to be open.” When the two return home with their catch at sun­rise, the boy’s par­ents will head off to their Sat­ur­day jobs. Author Bao Phi and illus­tra­tor Thi Bui have received major awards for this pic­ture book, a Char­lotte Zolo­tow Award and a Calde­cott Hon­or, respec­tive­ly.

Both the text and the art weave togeth­er three strands: the grit­ti­ness of life in the city, the trau­ma of refugee strug­gle, and the sim­ple beau­ty of human expe­ri­ence. Take, for exam­ple, the moment when the boy and his father sit and eat togeth­er. Their break­fast is two sand­wich­es, plain cold bologna on white bread. The two talk for a moment about how the father used to fish by a pond with his broth­er who died in the war. And yet the moment is also beau­ti­ful. Bui’s illus­tra­tion recre­ates the glow of a small fire and the play of light on their faces, while Phi’s text cap­tures a bit of mag­ic: “There’s half a pep­per­corn, like a moon split in two, stud­ded into the meat.”

from the book A Dif­fer­ent Pond, illus­tra­tion copy­right Thi Bui.

A reward­ing read­ing project for adults inter­est­ed in this book is to read it along­side adult titles also pub­lished in 2017. Bao Phi’s most recent book of poems, Thou­sand Star Hotel, pub­lished by Cof­fee House Press, and Thi Bui’s graph­ic nov­el mem­oir, The Best We Could Do, pub­lished by Abrams, are pierc­ing and beau­ti­ful accounts of the expe­ri­ence of their refugee fam­i­lies.


Stepping Stones: a Refugee Family's JourneyStep­ping Stones: A Refugee Fam­i­ly’s Jour­ney
writ­ten by Mar­gri­et Ruurs
art­work by Nizar Ali Badr
Orca Book Pub­lish­ers, 2016

This sto­ry of a fam­i­ly leav­ing war-torn Syr­ia is anchored by unusu­al and evoca­tive stone col­lages cre­at­ed by Syr­i­an artist Nizar Ali Badr. A young girl, Rama, nar­rates the chang­ing land­scape of her dai­ly life with her fam­i­ly, where she goes from the peace of lis­ten­ing to Mama prepar­ing break­fast (“bread, yogurt, juicy red toma­toes from our gar­den”) to the vio­lence of flee­ing Syr­ia “when bombs fell too close to our home.” As the fam­i­ly under­takes this per­ilous jour­ney, the weight of stone in the illus­tra­tions con­veys a sense of grav­i­ty and resilience as the fam­i­ly forges ahead and makes new mem­o­ries “not of war, but of peace.” The text is bilin­gual in Eng­lish and Ara­bic and a por­tion of the pro­ceeds of this book goes to sup­port Syr­i­an refugees.

from The Step­ping Stones: A Refugee Fam­i­ly’s Jour­ney, illus­tra­tion copy­right Nizar Ali Badr

Susan Marie: 

Two White RabbitsTwo White Rab­bits
writ­ten by Jairo Buitra­go
illus­trat­ed by Rafael Yock­teng
trans­lat­ed by Elisa Ama­do
Ground­wood Books, 2015

This pic­ture book, Two White Rab­bits, is a work of art for all ages, told from the point of view of a young girl who is mak­ing her way north through Mex­i­co with her father. The dif­fi­cult world of the sto­ry is depict­ed with remark­able ten­der­ness. Del­i­cate shad­ing in the draw­ings details every­thing from the feath­ers on hens, to the rolled sleeves of men rid­ing atop freight cars, to the bushy tail of the chu­cho (mutt) that trav­els along on the har­row­ing jour­ney. At the open­ing of the sto­ry, the lit­tle girl explains, “When we trav­el I count what I see,” and she counts cows, birds, clouds, peo­ple by the rail­road tracks, while her ever-atten­tive father nav­i­gates their com­pli­cat­ed route. She rides with her father through the night in the back of a pick­up truck: “Some­times, when I’m not sleep­ing, I count the stars. There are thou­sands, like peo­ple. And I count the moon. It is alone. Some­times I see sol­diers, but I don’t count them any­more.”

illus­tra­tion from Two White Rab­bits, illus­tra­tion copy­right Rafael Yock­teng

Author Jairo Buitra­go, who lives in Mex­i­co, and artist Rafael Yock­teng, who lives in Colom­bia, have worked togeth­er on a num­ber of acclaimed books trans­lat­ed from the Span­ish, includ­ing Jim­my the Great­est! (2010), Walk with Me (2017), and On the Oth­er Side of the Gar­den (2018), all pub­lished by Ground­wood Books.


The Arrival
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Shaun Tan
Loth­i­an Books, 2006

I think of The Arrival as an unusu­al and fas­ci­nat­ing pic­ture book/graphic nov­el hybrid. It is 128 pages, word­less, and makes use of both pan­els and full page spreads to tell the sto­ry of a man jour­ney­ing ahead of his fam­i­ly to forge a life for them in a new coun­try. This sur­re­al tale begins in the man’s home­land, which has been over­run by the loom­ing shapes of omi­nous mon­sters. The sto­ry unfolds after he arrives in an over­whelm­ing­ly for­eign city full of strange ani­mals, cus­toms, and an unfa­mil­iar lan­guage (cre­ator Shaun Tan made up a visu­al lan­guage to sim­u­late the expe­ri­ence of dis­ori­en­ta­tion for the read­er). The com­mon strug­gles many refugees face of find­ing work, hous­ing, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing are all present in the rich­ly detailed pen­cil illus­tra­tions.

from The Arrival, illus­tra­tion copy­right Shaun Tan

Through inno­v­a­tive use of fan­ta­sy ele­ments and emo­tion­al speci­fici­ty, Shaun Tan has cre­at­ed a sophis­ti­cat­ed nar­ra­tive that feels whol­ly orig­i­nal and is itself a visu­al jour­ney.

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