Monthly Archives: February 2011

Ipad Kid Book Apps

While I’m still not ready to plunk down $500 for an Ipad of my own (and will make do for the time being with my beloved Iphone and the Ipads my school has), as a long-time techie, I am very, very interested in book apps. While many are rather limited and seem to be one-shot experiences for kids, others are innovative and exciting. Yet it can be hard to find them as the various app stores have yet to provide what the older sites provide — a relatively easy way to know what is what. And so I’m very appreciative that the established review publications are coming on board to help.

As this new world of apps and ebooks keeps building and building I for one am glad the old world is keeping apace.

Also at Huffington Post.



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NCTE Notable Children’s Books 2011

Having been a past chair, chair, and member of this fantastic committee I’m always on pins and needles waiting to see the latest list of the best books of the previous year for use by language arts teachers.  And so I’m tremendously excited to see that this year’s list is now announced and viewable here; it is fantastic as always.  My congratulations to all the book creators honored this time round and most of all to the committee:

Mary Lee Hahn—Chair
April Bedford, Mary Napoli, Donalyn Miller, Nancy Roser, Yoo Kyung Sung
Janelle Mathis—Past Chair


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Benjamin Lancomb’s Il était une fois

I came across Heidi Anne Heiner’s wonderful SurLaLune fairy tale website many years ago and more recently was delighted to discover her blog which she fills with fey riches of every conceivable sort. This week she introduced me to the fantastical art of Benjamin Lancomb (whom she learned about from Mitali Snyder) with the book trailer below for his lovely pop-up Il était une fois and then with a second post filled with some of his wonderful illustrations for Snow White.



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While much of the research on play focuses on young children, the implications go well beyond third grade. In junior high, play is more likely to be called “discovery learning.” When professors try to get college students to look up from their iPhones, it’s probably referred to as “active engagement.” But the principles are the same. Stuart Brown, one of the authors of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, has reviewed thousands of life histories and concluded that play is essential for children and adults. He’s intent on spreading that gospel through his organization, the National Institute for Play, whose mission is to make human play a “credentialed discipline in the scientific community.”

via The Case for Play – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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In the Classroom: Amistad Poetry

Central to my unit on forced immigration (part of our yearlong study of immigration) is the Amistad Affair.  After reading and discussing Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Rising picture book I have my students read my to-be-published book, Africa is My Home: The Story of Sarah Margru Kinson.  That is followed by a look at some poetry related to the event, most notably those of Elizabeth Alexander‘s.

After a wonderful time last week looking closely at several of Elizabeth’s poems the class created a found poem of their own (inspired by Elizabeth’s “Other Cargo.”). You can read it here.  Now they are working on their own poems. When they are published (on their individual blogs), I’ll be sure to let you all know.

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Coming Soon: A Smattering of Titles

Just thought I’d give you all a heads-up on some terrific forthcoming books.

Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming
I loved the way this book is set-up first and foremost as a thriller — threaded throughout the biographical chapters are interludes detailing the communications (and lack thereof) regarding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.  The sidebars are terrific, perfectly adding more fascinating information about flight, Morse Code, and even bloomers.  And all the shrewd PR that Amelia planned out along with those who called some of it a “racket” to make money — perfect to know that it has been going on for ever.

A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka
A wordless picture book involving a dog and a toy, this one is artistically outstanding.  Caldecott-level-outstanding in my opinion.  Admittedly, I’m now a dog person, but I just loved the warmth and characterization, and story-development — all wordless and all wonderful.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
A very moving verse novel based on the author’s own family history, immigrating from Vietnam to the US.  I’m generally wary of novels-in-verse, but this one worked for me. Somewhere I saw it described as a series of prose poems which I think it is.

Orani: My Father’s Village by Claire A. Nivola
Haven’t seen any mention of this one yet, but it is a beautiful and lyrical fictionalized memoir of the author’s.

Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem
Others have already had many good things to say about this book and so…ditto to what they’ve said. The voice, the plot, the characters — compelling, fresh, and very enjoyable. One thing I’d love those who have read it to comment upon — it made me think of some of Diana Wynne Jones’ domestic fantasies — where there are different generations involved and things keep going wronger and wronger — anyone else feel that?


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Battling Books, Why?

Recently, an individual I admire mentioned SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books with distaste. Why, this person wondered, does everything have to be a competition? As someone who doesn’t follow sports of any kind, hates spelling bees and similar sorts of school activities, and doesn’t watch the Oscars or American Idol, I find it an excellent question. And so why despite my dislike of competition did I come up with this event?

I was inspired by The Tournament of Books which features adult literary fiction and offers a live rooster to the winner because of something to do with David Sedaris’s brother. In last year’s ToB contender announcement the organizers wrote:

But note that the arbitrary nature of this contest does not make it more random than other book awards. For all their diligence and secrecy, book awards rely on the particular tastes of a very few individuals combined with the art of compromise. Not only can book awards not tell you what the best book of the year is, frequently the winner of a book award is not anyone’s actual favorite, but rather not anyone’s least favorite.

What the Rooster stands for is not definitiveness, but transparency. Transparency and fun.

And fun is what I’ve found it to be. Over the years I’d loved their smart discussion about the books, often ended up reading some of their contenders because of it, and thought it would be wonderful to do something similar with children’s books. Roxanne Feldman and Jonathan Hunt thought so too as did SLJ (who came up with the name, I’d probably have gone with something less, er, warlike) and so we were off.

It is, to my mind a game, a way to consider last year’s books, and to consider literature in a wide variety of ways. I see it as a competition only in the way that Shark vs Train is a competition. In other words, the tournament concept gives us a structure that allows us to have fun, be silly and lighthearted; it is a way to consider intellectually and intelligently a handful of the many wonderful books that came out the year before. (For an excellent take on last year’s ToB that I feel captures what the BoB is about as well, check out this column by Laura Miller.) The judges have been absolutely incredible and I can’t thank them enough for their smart write-ups.  We also have a terrific bunch of loyal followers who comment, blog, read, and otherwise have a great time along with us.

This past week Jonathan asked them:

… what is the primary value of Battle of the Kids’ Books for you? Is it purely entertainment? Is it instructive? Is it motivational for children and teenagers? Or strictly for an adult audience?

The responses have been heartening and for those of you who wonder about the idea, I suggest checking them out.  And join in if you disagree. We can take it. After all, we completely understand that what we like about the BoB may not be everyone’s cuppa tea.

ETA Please check out Roxanne’s thoughtful and detail response to this.


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When You Reach Me Reaches the UK

Rebecca Stead’s wonderful When You Reach Me has just come out in the U.K. and there have been some lovely responses from Philip Ardagh in the Guardian and Bookwitch.


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Jane Austen Goes to the Super Bowl with Rosanne Cash

One hopes the unfortunate incident involving the lady’s corset is not repeated on this occasion.

It must be a truth universally acknowledged that Miss Rosanne Cash is possessed of the good fortune of a sharp wit equal to that of Miss Eliza Bennet. Forget about all those other Austen mashups. The best par none are Rosanne’s #JaneAustenAtTheSuperBowl tweets. Starting a few hours before kickoff, Ms. Cash kept the ball in the air for hours, soon joined by other like-minded ladies and gentlemen of twitter. Here are few more choice bon mots of hers, but better still — walk to Netherfield — I mean to Twitter to see more of hers and the many others that joined in.

Regarding the Legume Chorale, it grieves me to note that the spectacle exceeds the musicality.

Are they to be murdered on the field?! Such an ill-advised display of manhood is indeed alarming.

The extraordinary costumes worn by the gentlemen are indeed indicative of the rapaciousness of the event.

There is a uniformity of ill-favor in the appearance of the spectators. Who are their families? Tradesmen, surely.

Such lust for possession of an inanimate object so entirely lacking in aesthetic merit does not bode well.

The gentleman in the stripes? A known blackguard! I send no compliments to his mother.

Some ladies are determined to sport bonnets made of cheese. I must take to my bed.

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.


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In the Classroom: First Do No Harm

Recent conversations with my school colleagues about the teaching of writing has me reflecting on my own practice. And as I do, the same overriding precept keeps coming to mind: first do no harm. This belief underlies every choice I make about what and how to teach, guides me in decisions about whole group lessons, conversations with individual children about their work, communications with their parents, and is deeply ingrained into the very core of my being as a teacher. Why, you may wonder, is that? Sadly, it is because a teacher unknowingly did harm me, causing me to be terrified and incapable of writing for twenty years.

This may surprise those of you who know me today as the author of books, articles, reviews, and blog posts. But that is now. Then was 1970, my senior year of high school. I’d always liked writing and thought I was pretty good at it. Certainly until then, despite my miserable spelling, I’d always felt appreciated and supported by family and teachers. But that year I was in an AP English class taught by a teacher we admired beyond all reason. You know how it is in high school — there is always at least one incredibly smart and charismatic teacher — ours was Oscar Wilde-like in his witty snarkiness. Sure, he was often scathing, telling us he didn’t know what any of us were doing in the class, but somehow it didn’t matter. He was brilliant and, in spite of all the harsh talk, he made us feel brilliant too. I was certain, by the end of the year, that he’d concede, confess that we weren’t all that bad after all.

But then there came a day that is still vivid in my memory decades later. It seems embarrassingly pedestrian today, but that is why it is so important to describe. Because it is just the sort of thing we teachers can easily do, things that affect our students in ways we can’t imagine. On that day my parents told me that this teacher had recommended I not take a part in the spring play because I needed to “work on my writing.” Theater was then my passion, and the idea that this godlike teacher thought my writing was so problematic had me miserable. I had no idea what he thought was wrong with my writing as he never volunteered to help me and I was far too in awe of him to ask. Instead, I’d stay up until 2 AM hopelessly trying to “fix” it even though I didn’t know what needed fixing or how to do it.

At college things got worse. My poor performance in freshman English sent me to a weekly remedial writing tutorial with the head of the department. She diagnosed my problem as emotional and felt she had no cure to provide. So I came up with my own — to stay away from the always-enticing English Department offerings for the rest of my matriculated life (and I’ve an undergraduate and two graduate degrees). I read voraciously on my own, took intellectually stimulating courses in other departments, and would looked longingly at the literature offerings in the course catalogs before quickly turning the page.

When I became a teacher I was determined that my students would feel like writers  — always. And so they did loads of the same sort joyful writing I had done when young — reports, stories, poems, reviews, journals, and more. Sometimes we published and sometimes we didn’t. I had them think about audience, introduced and reinforced the necessary language conventions, supported them through the revision process, helped them become independent proofreaders, and met privately (sometimes after school) with those who needed the sort of individual attention I didn’t get. My introduction to the writing process approach in the early 1980s was nirvana.  So were computers.

Yet I was still not a writer myself. Oh, I went through the motions. After all, I had to write all the time — papers for graduate school, curriculum and lesson plans, reports to parents about their children. But deep down I felt totally incompetent, still that person nailed by her high school AP teacher as needing to work on her writing. Until 1990 when I saw an announcement for a fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton and wanted to do it — badly. So much so that somehow I wrote (and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote) the required essay well enough to be one of the fifteen selected out of the over one hundred who applied. After all that time an English professor  (one of those I’d avoided for twenty years) thought I could write; evidently he didn’t think I needed to “work on my writing” at all. From then on everything was different. I started writing seriously and a lot, perhaps making up for all those lost years. I came across the childlit list serve and made a name for myself with extensive and opinionated posts on a range of topics.  I wrote my first book for teachers. I was told often that I was a good writer and my editors were surprised when I told them of my earlier difficulties. The curse had been lifted, but it took twenty years.

I still remember that high school teacher with great fondness. He was such a grand character and introduced me to some wonderful writers and playwrights. I’m sure he never had a clue that he did anything to me. And that is what I take away from this — that as a teacher I have to be so careful, to be sure my classroom is a safe place to learn, to be certain that my students have the confidence and feel secure enough to take risks. I need to be aware of their individual sensitivities, their private weaknesses, and to always support them in every possible way as developing writers and human beings. Most of all, I must try to do no harm.


Filed under In the Classroom, Teaching, Writing