Monthly Archives: February 2007

Writer in (Bed) Residence

Sometimes I get back into my pyjamas to write. The pillows here are amazing and the bed linen very luxurious. I use a Pilot fine pen and exercise books — children send them to me. In a small book you can write what looks like a lot very quickly.

from A Life in the Day: Michael Morpurgo

In my experience, writer-in-resident programs are at institutions. For example, Sam Swope, author of The Araboolies of Liberty Street, Jack and the Seven Deadly Giants and other books, was writer-in-residence at the Thurber House and DM Cornish, author of Monster Blook Tattoo is currently one at insideadog. However former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo has them beat. He is currently writer-in-residence at a hotel, London’s posh Savoy Hotel, to be exact. They give him pillows and he gives them ….well, that part of the bargain doesn’t sound too bad either: tea and conversation with Judith Kerr, for instance. Read more here.


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Filed under Children's Literature

Get your Golden Compass Toys Here!

Well actually not here and not right now, but they are on their way. A whole bunch of prototypes were on display by manufacturer Corgi, with dollar signs in their eyes, at the recent Toy Fair here in New York.

At this site (when it is not down as it suddenly seems to be) you can see photos of the armoured bears’ palace, gyrocopters, action figures Lyra, Pan, Mrs. Coulter, the golden monkey, and someone else (maybe Roger?), what appears to be a cuddly Iorek, (from a collection of “plush 18″ electronic talking bears”), a rather cheap looking alethiometer, some aww-aren’t-they-cute plush daemons (including the golden monkey), some that even transform, and a not-cuddly-at-all spy-fly (at least that is what I think it is).

Thanks to bridgetothestars for the heads-up. (And if the site is still down, here is an article where the toys are mentioned to read while you wait for it to be available again.)


Filed under The Golden Compass

Teaching with Blogs: Amistad Poetry

On Wednesday my class had a truly magical hour with poet Natasha Trethewey who is at our school this year as a visiting artist. Aware of Natasha’s interest in history and primary source documents, I asked her if she would be interested in building on my students’ work with Sarah Margru Kinson, a child on the Amistad. She was.

And so Natasha came and, after leading the class in a close reading of several of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from her collection American Sublime, guided them into creating a group poem of their own. After she left, the inspired children created individual Amistad poems and then presented them as collages. Please go see them here; they are quite wonderful!

In a couple of weeks, Natasha will return for a very special Literary Salon during which the children will perform their poems (which we will, of course, podcast).

And so, without further ado, here is the class poem:


What I remember of home is this:

green – green mangoes, green snakes, green bananas:
brown – my mother, my father, myself, the tree
trunks, the brown earth, the color of my language,
the only language I had
to describe these things.

Often I think of
how I came to be here:

my father pawning me, waving goodbye,
his face crumpled, tightened, looking
away from me.

I felt my captor’s white, cold hand
tighten around my wrist as if
he were a solid ghost taking me away.

Now I wish to see again
the green rice fields,
my father’s brown face,
clouds in the sky —
the only white things,

to hear someone speaking my language,
someone saying



Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Reading, Teaching

My Scrotum Week


The children’s literature world had been bubbling about this for a while, but it was only when my local newspaper, the New York Times, had a front page article about it that things got (pun intended) nuts. Once something ends up on the front page of the paper of record, it goes around the world. Both furious (because of the poor reporting in the article) and curious (as to how quickly things would escalate) I began googling “scrotum.” It took only a few hours for a link related to the controversy to show up on the second page; by now it is fourth on the first.


Could my hometown paper do anything further the sensationalize the situation? Yes. On Monday on the front page of the Times website appeared an invitation for readers: “The word “scrotum” was used in a children’s book. What do you think?” Of course I and several hundred others told them exactly what we thought and I’d say the vast, vast majority felt as I did. (They’ve since edited that request to include the book title and author’s name.) By then, as I’d anticipated, the story (as reported by the Times) was showing up in news media all over the world.


Monday had been a holiday so I first saw my my 4th graders on Tuesday. I told them that a controversy had erupted about the book (which had been on display in my classroom along with the other award winners for weeks). A couple already knew from their parents, but most did not. I told them I’d read the first few pages of the book and they could try to guess what the fuss was about. And so I did. When I reached the dreaded scrotum passage there was no reaction whatsoever… no confusion, no giggles, no questioning. I kept going to “….he killed that snake even though it bit him in the place where it hurts the worst for a male…” (3) where there might have been a smile or two, but no more. After a few more paragraphs I stopped. Eager hands went up. “It is about the drinking, right?” Others nodded. Finally, one said, “It’s about what happened to the dog?” The two who already knew and I nodded. And the kids all said they didn’t get it. That they see dogs with scrota every day after all. That it was no big deal.


The New York Times weighed in again; this time with an editorial. I read it to my class and then once more the offending passage in the book replacing, as the editorial noted someone recommended, “… that word with ‘a clearing-throat noise,’ a bleep in the form of an “ahem.” Now that made them giggle!


The Times published four letters on the topic. Two girls worked on one on their own to send.


I met with the two letter writers and then sent the letter off to the Times. Who knows? Maybe they will still be interested in publishing one from the intended audience. If not, here it is for you to read (with links to their blogs):

Dear Editor,

Our teacher read to us a bit of the book, The Higher Power of Lucky, and when she asked us what was wrong only one person knew it was about the word scrotum and the rest of us had ideas that had nothing to do with the word. We were appalled to hear that some librarians had banned the book from their libraries just because of some old word. Our teacher only read us a little bit of the book, but we thought it sounded very good and do not agree with people who banned the book.


M and H


Filed under Reading, Teaching, Writing

What I Do With Discomforting Words, Scrotum Not Being One of Them

When reading aloud The Kidnapped Prince, one of my former fourth grade colleagues told me that her students always giggled when she came to the name Dick. Yet when I read the same book aloud there wasn’t a smirk to be seen.My guess is that it was my colleague who had the problem, not her students. I grew up with the name Dick being as standard as standard (Dick and Jane anyone?), but she had not. For her the word was not a shortened version of Richard, but something else entirely, something that was private, grown-up, and not a word she’d normally say in polite company, much less read aloud to her class of fourth graders. That discomfort must have come through when she read resulting in the giggles she expected (as she figured she’d have reacted if she was their age). And since I had no such feelings, my neutrality as I read allowed my students to focus on the the story rather than a name that now may mean something else to some.

A different sort of word in a book did make me uncomfortable some years ago. I was reading aloud Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me. Harris, an isolated farm boy around the time of WWII, loves to play war games and there is one chapter where he manages to get the book’s narrator to battle “commie japs” — aka the pigs, with predictably hilarious results. That year I had M, a young Japanese boy, in my class who had already been in one difficult situation involving an assembly where excerpts from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado were presented. And so when I came to the “commie japs” I stopped. It wasn’t planned, it was a gut reaction. With M in my class, knowing what he’d already experienced in the assembly, I simply could not read that word aloud. And so (as I’d done after the assembly) I explained the situation to the kids. Named the word, explained how it was used in the book, why it was offensive, why it was funny (Harris having no real clue what “commie japs” were either), and why I wasn’t comfortable reading it. And then I went on with the story, skipping the word when I came to it.

Would I do the same with scrotum in Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky? Nope. Voicing words about our bodies, words like Dick and scrotum are no problem for me whatsoever. Cultural epithets, when one from the culture being maligned is among the listeners, can be for me. And either way, I’d still read aloud the book (as did my colleague redfaced as she was at points) and I’d still want the book in my school’s library. The idea that a word would keep a book out of a library — I don’t have any words to describe my response to that.

How very, very sad that it wasn’t winning the Newbery that propelled Susan Patron to the front page of the New York Times, but a bunch of jittery librarians.


Filed under Reading, Teaching

Five Blogs that Make me Think

J L Bell, on his Boston 1775 blog, has designated educating alice as one of five blogs that makes him think. Since his blog makes me think too, I’m incredibly honored by this. As for this particular meme, it apparently started at (where else?) ilker yoldas’s The Thinking Blog.

So now it is my turn to list five blogs that make me think. Since all the blogs I read regularly make me think, please, please do not be offended if yours is not here. There are many blogs that I visited multiple times during the day — they offer me wonderful tidbits of information on topics near and dear to my heart. The following blogs are a bit different. They don’t lend themselves to dipping in as do many other delightful blogs that I follow. Rather, these are blogs that force me to stop, to suspend completely whatever else I’m doing (e.g. multitasking) so I can give my complete attention to what I’m reading or viewing. Because of this I don’t visit some of them as often as I would like as I need to be ready to immerse myself in them and don’t always have the energy to do so.  But when I do I love to delve deep into them, follow the links, and consider all the provocative ideas raised.  Good stuff!

1. Arts & Letters Daily. This one is a bit different from what many tend to think of as a blog as it is an ever changing collection of links on a huge number of things. I adore this site/blog and have been visiting it regularly for years. Along with many others I was horrified when it went into a temporary death after its host of the time (the wonderful journal Linga Franca) went belly up. Fortunately, the Chronicle of Higher Education picked it up and it has been going strong ever since. If you have ever wondered where I get some of my seemingly more random links, my secret is out — they often come from here.

2. Oz and Ends. Now this may feel a bit of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” but I came across this other blog of J L Bell’s after I began reading his intelligent posts on child_lit. Bell is as into Oz as I am into Wonderland and Alice. But he is into all sorts of other stuff that I like too .  I especially like the way he tussles with issues related to children’s fantasy books (my favorite genre) in ways that make me — yes — think. He considers them often in ways that seem refreshingly different and always thoughtful. I can only hope that my posts occasionally cause readers to think as much as J L’s get me to think.

3. Maude Newton. I have been reading this blog for ages; it may have been one of the very first blogs I came across, in fact. Ms. Maude is witty, smart, prolific, and gets me to think outside my box over and over again. The blog’s subtitle is “occasional literary links, amusements, politics, and rants” which covers it all quite well.

4. A Commonplace Book I joined the child_lit list serve in 1994 and it was as if I had gone to a children’s literature heaven. At the time there were perhaps at most 200 subscribers — mostly academics because the list had been started by one, but others were there too. And one of the most significant others was Julius Lester. This supremely brilliant and caring man has been a steady presence on the list ever since, a true elder statesman and someone I might even be so bold as to call a mentor. Recently Julius started a blog that is absolutely lovely and like very single one of his child_lit posts, makes me think intellectually and emotionally.

5. Endicot Redux. This is an absolutely gorgeous blog connected to The Endicott Studio, “… an organization dedicated to literary, visual, and performance arts rooted in myth, folklore, and fairy tales. ” While there is plenty of terrific textual material here, what really gets me wondering and thinking are the images. Truly spectactular and highly recommended for anyone with a taste for fairy tales and illustration. The creators/contributors are Terri Windling, Midori Snyder, Helen Pilinovsky, Jamie Bluth, and Kathleen Chen.

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Teaching with Blogs: Guests from the “Old Country”

My school has a sweet combination of townhouses for our K-3 division and a rather more daunting looking 12 storey building that houses our 4-8 middle school and 9-12 high school. To help our 4th graders with this huge transition (from a cozy small place full of little kids to a very big place full of huge kids) we contrast our study of American immigration with their “immigration” from the “old country” of Little Dalton to the “new country” of Big Dalton.

Today, a few weeks after receiving their”Big Dalton Citizenship” in a lovely ceremony, my 4th graders took their first official trip back to that “old country.” There, in addition to visiting old teachers and noticing how small everything suddenly seemed, they did something quite wonderful, I thought. That is, they hosted their 3rd grade buddies on their blogs. Each buddy had prepared a paragraph about a wonderful service learning project they are doing (involving New Orleans) in their class and each 4th grader helped them type it, revise it if necessary, proofread it, and finally post it on their blog. Check them out here. And by all means comment!

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Filed under Teaching, Writing

Sarah Margru Kinson and Our Long and Winding Road



Millions and millions of African people were taken captive during the long and horrible time of the Atlantic slave trade. Mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, granddaughters and grandsons, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies were ripped away from their families and taken to the Americas. Untold numbers died. Countless others ended up on plantations. Very few ever went home.

Sarah Margru Kinson did.

Sarah Margru Kinson was a real person, one of four children on the famous slave ship, The Amistad. The Amistad captives were mostly Mende and came from the present-day country of Sierra Leone, a place I knew well as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s. The devotion to Africa that Margru expressed in her letters coupled with my own fond memories of Sierra Leone and its people, inspired me to research and tell her story.

After a bumbling first attempt to write about her in a time travel story many years ago, I found more success with creative nonfiction. In the letter I sent to publishers along with that version, I wrote:

My vision of the book is one heavily illustrated with primary sources In fact, I see Margru’s story as a perfect vehicle by which child readers could delve more deeply into Mende life, slavery, life in 1800s US, and more. I have this dream of seeing the narrative in the center of each page surrounded by related newspaper articles, maps, letters, drawings, engravings, paintings, photographs, and other firsthand materials as well as sidebars (say a short glossary of Mende words). That way the child reader would have multiple ways of exploring the book. He/she could begin by reading Margru’s story or perhaps by looking at the images. My fourth grade students adore such books.

Unfortunately, while those considering publishing it found her story fascinating, they complained that Margru was too distant. Readers, they said, wouldn’t be able to connect to her. Since they knew there was little firsthand information about her feelings as a child, they suggested I make it up — that is, write it as historical fiction. I was uncomfortable at first — I wanted to be sure that kids knew that she was a real person and besides, who was I to even try to imagine how she felt about her harrowing experiences? (Aha, you say, now I get her obsession with this genre!)

After many more drafts and discussions with editors, I finally came up with a fictional idea that kept her real, but allowed me a way to bring her closer to the readers too — a scrapbook. With that I was finally able to write it as historical fiction — imagining Margru herself putting that scrapbook together and writing down her story as she did so. This idea worked for one editor, but not her house. The next editor had a different idea — turn it back into nonfiction! Her reasons were valid and her suggestions strong. I was all set to do so last summer when I was told I had to withdraw it from the publisher until I was finished with the Newbery. Bummed doesn’t even begin to describe my feeling. I tried to do the revision, but my heart wasn’t in it knowing I couldn’t give it back till January 2008. So I decided to put it away, read and think, and return to Margru some day.

And then I began blogging with my kids and all sorts of ideas came bursting out including one of putting my manuscript on a private blog for my kids to read during our February study of forced immigration. And so I did and so they are and so far it has been great. I wasn’t sure it would be. A few years ago at the suggestion of an editor I read a bit of the manuscript to a class and found that a very weird feeling indeed. But this is different — they are reading it to themselves.

If you are interested in their progress and opinions you can check them out on our class blog and theirs as well. The manuscript is private as I still am optimistic that some day, somewhere, and somehow it will be published as a book.

ETA October 2010  I sold the book to Candlewick a year ago and so it will indeed be published as a book in a few years.

ETA January 2013 The book will be out this coming October!


Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Learning About Africa, Sierra Leone, Writing

Teaching with Blogs: Kids go Public!

A week or so ago we quietly made the kids’ blogs public. My technology colleague and I asked them if they were ready and they said they were. So now if you go to my class blog and click on one of the student blogs (all the way down on the right) you should get right in.

A few things to note:

  • Formatting My colleague chose a nice generic template for all the blogs. We are being pretty strict and controlling about what the kids can and cannot do. In our experience with MSWord they can become pretty distracted by formatting so they are not doing any of that for the time being with their own blogs. This may change (as I’d love to have them each have something personal as a banner on their blog), but we are taking this carefully and slowly. It is all so new, after all.
  • Adult Commenting I very much hope that visitors here will go visit the kids’ blogs and comment if you like. However, please understand that we have advised the kids to treat comments by strangers as they would comments by strangers in the street — be polite, but do not respond. If I recognize a commenter I will tell the kids and say it is then okay to respond. But otherwise, please understand that security and safety is very important to us. They are learning as are we.
  • Kid Commenting We did a lesson on commenting and the kids have done some on each others’ blogs. Time has been tight of late which is why there isn’t that much. Hopefully we will have time for them to do more in the future. I have many ideas, just not so nearly enough time to do them all!
  • Posts As you will see, their posts are pretty carefully constructed. I have been very strict about this to start. You can read what they have been asked to do in our posts on the main blog. Right now the only thing they are allowed to blog about (in addition to the required posts) are books. This is because we want them to take the idea of blogging very, very seriously. To consider audience and such. Actually what they seem to be turning into are portfolios of a sort (as most of their writing is now ending up on their blogs — interesting).


Filed under Teaching

Appealing Myths of History

It is fascinating to see what grabs the popular imagination in terms of historical myths and the process by which they are debunked. I, for example, was raised with the charming one about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then confessing as he would never tell a lie. Hopefully by now, most know this was complete fiction, made-up by Parson Weems to teach a lesson (what else?).

More recently has come a more difficult situation. This is the story of quilts providing signs for those in the Underground Railroad. Because quilts are so used in education, because the Underground Railroad is a standard part of the curriculum (particularly during February — Black History Month), and because the story is so appealing it is a difficult one to debunk. However, there is compelling evidence to indicate that this was simply not the case. How folks deal with this, whether they will chose to continue to teach it as history, as myth, or what else will be interesting to see. My guess is it will linger for a few more years and then quietly (as has happened with the George Washington myth of my childhood) slip away.

Another likely myth being presented as history is another George Washington story — this one of him hearing about the story of Hanukkah at Valley Forge. I had seen Stephen Krensky’s picture book Hanukkah at Valley Forge (illustrated by Greg Harlin) and wondered about the veracity of the story. And now here comes J.L. Bell to the rescue with a very detailed consideration of the story behind the book.

To me the answer is to always be a tiny bit skeptical  with history — the past is a sea of material, bits of which are always washing up onto the shore of the present for us to piece together into some sort of historical narrative.  And as new pieces wash ashore we have to continual rethink and rework those historical narratives.


Filed under Historical Fiction, History