Monthly Archives: January 2012

SleepVolking a la Jack Gantos

Yesterday one of my 4th grade students was reading the ARC of Dead End in Norvelt (choosing it over the also-on-display hardcover) and came over to ask me what sleepVolking is. I suggested it was Mrs. Volker’s wit on display and then wondered if it was in the final book. (Unfortunately all my copies are at school and I’m at home so I can’t give a direct quote or page number — maybe someone else can though.) He went off to check and then returned showing me that it wasn’t. Now I suppose this story supports the decision to change it to plain-old sleepwalking, but once we discussed the idea that it was Mrs. Volker’s dry humor he enjoyed as much as I did. So I get why it was changed, but just wanted to say we LOVE sleepVolking!

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Stephen Colbert and Maurice Sendak Together At Last

Last year, after noticing the Today Show had decided to break their tradition of interviewing the Newbery and Caldecott winners the day after they won, I suggested that Stephen Colbert do it instead.  While it didn’t happen last year or this year (and I know for a fact that this year’s Newbery winner Jack Gantos could easily match Colbert, crazy comment for crazy comment), they did something arguably more awesome: they got Colbert interviewing “Mo” (as he calls him at one point) Maurice Sendak.

And so if you want to see one of the best octogenarians ever interviewed by Stephen Colbert, much no-holds-barred talk about children’s books, Colbert’s effort to write a children’s book, and so much more greatness go see “Grim Colberty Tales” Part 1 and Part 2 now, now, now.


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Thoughts on Newbery: The Day After

Ten years ago yesterday I received a phone call from my great friend Roxanne Feldman who was on that year’s Newbery Committee. She told me to guess the winner. “It was a book you liked!” she said excitedly. After a few poor answers she put me out of misery and told me the winner was A Single Shard.  Having vicariously lived through that year with her (and it was a particularly hard one for both of us New Yorkers because of 9/11) it was easy to convince me to attend my first banquet that summer. And before long I was no longer receiving my news about the awards by phone, but in person. Now there is twitter and live streaming, but it is still very special to be there in person as I was yesterday.

First of all, my congratulations to all the committees. Having been on the Newbery Committee myself I know what a complex thing it is to come to a consensus for winners. I also know how hard it is to understand why one book wins and another book doesn’t.  As others have pointed out — a different group of people with different tastes would probably chose a different set of books to honor.  So again, bravo, to those hard-working committees.

I was very happy with yesterday’s decisions — I knew many of the books, some well, but not all.  Here are some that I was especially pleased to see honored.

My first delight was that Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Why We Broke Up garnered a Printz Honor.  I adore that book and if you want to know more about why I do (in far more elegant language than I have the time to do right now) please read my New York Times review.  I concluded:

Filled with long, lovely riffs of language (some paragraphs of Min’s moody reflections go on for over a page), exquisite scenes of teenage life and the sad souvenirs of one high school relationship, “Why We Broke Up” is a silken, bittersweet tale of adolescent heartache.

Next was the thrill of seeing Melissa Sweet’s Balloons Over Broadway get the Sibert Medal.  Shortly before last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade I wrote in a post (which is mostly an interview with Melissa):

Mixing primary sources, toys she made herself for the book, collages, assemblages, comics, drawings, paintings, and more, she has created a picture book biography like no other. Through her text and art the brilliant Sarg bounds to life in this book as do his ideas, his creations, and his stories. Balloons over Broadway is a book that will be enjoyed by everyone in the family

And then I was elated to see Chris Rashka’s A Ball for Daisy get the Caldecott. Here’s what I wrote about it  in a post about forthcoming titles last February:

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.

In that same post I also wrote about  Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again which won a Newbery Honor:

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.

And finally, Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt which took the Medal. May I just say, “Yay, Jack (both the real one and the fictional one)!”  This was one of the books I wrote of as being “in the wings” for my Newbery hopefuls and I’m so happy to see it win.  As others have noted it is one of those rare birds, a funny Newbery.  And the man is hysterically funny too so we are in for a fantastic speech I’m sure.

So again, congratulations to all involved!

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Coming Soon: Tom Angleberger’s Fake Mustache

Yesterday a package of ARCs from Abrams arrived at my home, among them Tom Angleberger’s forthcoming Fake Mustache and, needing a light read before bed, I decided to give it a try. Next thing I knew a couple of hours had passed and I’d gulped down the whole delightful confection. It isn’t out till April so I hope this isn’t a dreadful tease, but I thought Origami Yoda fans as well as others looking for good and funny middle grade books might like to know what they have in store.

So wacky this is (as another beloved Angleberger character might say) in the best way which is no easy feat. For funny is incredibly hard to pull off; what has me guffawing can just as easily leave another reader cold and vice versa. As someone who too often has been left cold by silliness I was wary when I started this one, but within pages I was completely won over.

So where to begin with this over-the-top story? The beginning, I guess. The first section is narrated by seventh grader Lenny Flem, Jr who tells what happens when classmate-and-supposedly-best-friend Casper Bengue gets his hands (or rather his upper lip) on a very pricey fake mustache, the Heidleberg Handlebar #7 to be exact. Somehow Casper knows of the remarkable properties of this mustache and while I don’t want to give away too much I will say that they help him to begin taking over the world starting with state governor and moving on to president. And so Lenny along with a Hannah Montana-like television star called Jodie O’Rodeo (who narratives the second section of the book) alone have to save the day.

There are silly names (Casper and Lenny’s town is called Hairsprinkle), pitch-perfect-for-kids grossness (boogers play a significant role), and some lighthearted pop culture baiting (e.g. Jodie’s has-been status). There are wild and crazy chases and bad guys and much zaniness. One of my many favorite moments is when Casper in his new “I”m taking over the world” role changes Election Day to Monday so he can take over the US faster.

I will be eager to see what others think of this one, but for me it was a goofy froth of fun.


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Thoughts on Newbery: My 2012 Druthers

On Friday the members of the 2012 Newbery Committee will position themselves around a table in an undisclosed location and begin their work. After a few days they will make their decision at which point a puff of white smoke will come out of the Dallas Convention Center for the waiting multitudes.

Well, okay, no white smoke.  Instead we will get to see the Committee members wandering around looking inscrutable, exhausted, and exhilarated until Monday morning when all will be revealed.

Because it is always fun to put down in print beforehand what you’d like to see honored and see if the Committee ends up agreeing with any of them, here are some of mine for 2012.

Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming.  I’ve been a longtime fan of Fleming’s work. In fact I championed another of her books for Newbery not too long ago. This one is outstanding. I thought the parallel narratives of the search for Earhart and her life story were superb. Fleming’s research is impeccable, the writing crisp and tight, and she knows just what to bring out to make for a fascinating biography for children.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Back in September I wrote about this one, “A Monster Calls is a magnificent work — folkloric, allegorical, atmospheric —- a book each reader enters privately and differently.”  For more about my thoughts (as well as my Newbery hope for it) and an exchange between two of my friends and the author please read the post, “Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls: It’s What Makes Us Human.”

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. In a review of this I wrote, “The somber aspects of the novel are lightened by many delightful moments of humor, lightheartedness, and joy; it is all and all, a moving and transcendent reading experience.”

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright.  This is a dark horse, but such a charming one!  I read it aloud to my fourth graders and they concluded with me that it was Newbery-worthy.  Writers often reference people, ideas, and such as Easter eggs for adult readers and indeed this book is full of clever Dickensian bon motes, but they stand alone as clever bits of writing all by themselves. Take the opening, introducing the cat hero, “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.”  You don’t need to know the reference to enjoy it and my students certainly did.  A grand romp with a heart and delightful writing.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. I tend to be wary of verse novels these days, but not this National Book Award winner. I was taken immediately in when reading this powerful story of immigration based on the author’s own childhood. From the first page set in 1975 Vietman to the last in Alabama, I was utterly engaged throughout.  There is an incredible authenticity to the experiences, emotions, and language in this impressive debut. Virginia Euwer Wolff in a fine SLJ profile said it best in describing it as:

…a powerful story in slender, sinewy prose poems, just a few words in each line, inviting and intriguing young readers who are eight to twelve, some of whom may be meeting their first novel in verse.

In addition to the ones highlighted above, there are a whole bunch more here in the wings that I’d be pleased to see honored as well. Say Brock Cole’s The Money We’ll Save (and my thanks to Heavy Medal for drawing it to my attention), Jennifer L. Holm’s The Trouble with May Amelia, Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt, and (an even darker horse:) Uma Krishnaswami’s The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.  If the Newbery allowed consideration of art and design Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck would be in the wings too, but they don’t so it isn’t.

And then I always keep in mind that this year’s (or any year’s) winners may be none of the above, books I read and will need to revisit, or books that were completely off my radar. Whatever they are I will be celebrating them them all!


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2012 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Roger Sutton, chair of the committee, announced on his blog today that the 2012 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction has been won by Jack Gantos for Dead End in Norvelt, published by Farrar Straus Giroux. Excellent news!

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Data Play

But for me, that also points to the study’s limitations. Economists need to find a way to quantify everything. Teachers with high value-added ratings may indeed have long-term positive impacts on students. But it is also possible that teachers who are excellent at project-based education have an even stronger longterm impact and we would never know it because their results cannot be teased out of a million pieces of data.

From Michael Winerip’s “Study on Teacher Value Uses Data from Before Teach-to-Test Era.”  (via Marc Aronson)

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The Joys of Word Processing

My hunch is that using a word processor makes writing more like sculpting in clay. Because it’s so easy to revise, one begins by hacking out a rough draft which is then iteratively reshaped – cutting bits out here, adding bits there, gradually licking the thing into some kind of shape.

That is what John Naughton thinks in “Has Microsoft Word Affected the Way We Work? and is actually exactly what I’ve long thought — that very same metaphor, in fact, of sculpting because that is what it feels like when I write. I always hated writing longhand (perhaps because of my third grade teacher being disapproving about the slant of my cursive), detested typewriters since I made so many mistakes (and correcting made the pages look like a guy with a bunch of shaving cuts on his face), and took to computers with their non-judgementalness like a duck to water.  Now, on my trusty computer, I start out with an idea, push myself to get words down, and then keep improving, changing, adjusting, fixing, and otherwise revising to make it what I really want it to be.  That lump of clay becomes something.  Amazing.


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Judging Teachers (Yet Again)

A teacher’s “value-added” is defined as the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics (such as their previous scores).Is teacher value-added a good measure of teacher quality?

That is the question three economists asked in a study, “The Long-term Impact of Teachers: Teacher Valued-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood.”  A study that got quite a bit of media attention, but made me simply sigh because yet again the focus on good and bad teachers is all about students’ test scores.  And so my answer to their question (based on my firsthand experience which is nothing like their number-laden data) is: no, no, no.

Their answer, of course, is the opposite of mine. And what to do about it, in their opinion, is to focus on what isn’t working rather than what is; in other words, fire as soon as possible the dead wood. From the Times article:

The authors argue that school districts should use value-added measures in evaluations, and to remove the lowest performers, despite the disruption and uncertainty involved.

“The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,” Professor Friedman said.

Professor Chetty acknowledged, “Of course there are going to be mistakes — teachers who get fired who do not deserve to get fired.” But he said that using value-added scores would lead to fewer mistakes, not more.


For a superb response to this see Maria Bustillos‘s “The Evil Economics of Judging Teachers” (via @JBell).


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NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for Teachers

Betsy Bird recently posted about a fabulous NEH institute being held at her library this summer reminding me of these wonderful professional development opportunities, several of which I participated in years ago.  The first was a 6 week children’s literature seminar at Princeton University with the brilliant U.C. Knoepflmacher; it did much to change the direction of my life. A couple years later I did a folklore institute at Bank Street College (where I first met Jack Zipes) and then further on I did one more seminar on Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast at Rochester University with Russell Peck. (whose Cinderella bibliography is amazing)  All three were wonderful, intellectually stimulating, and life-changing experiences.

Among this year’s offerings is one I want to do very, very badly:  Golden Compasses as Moral Compasses: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Fairy Tales and Fantasy, a seminar at Harvard with Maria Tatar.  Here’s the overview:

What happens to children when they read and immerse themselves in other worlds? In this seminar, we will investigate how imaginative literature leads children into possible worlds, enabling them to engage in mind reading and explore counterfactuals in ways that are impossible in real life.

They are going to be looking at fairy tales, fantasy literature (Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandPeter Pan, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and literature across cultures. You can see the schedule in detail here.  It looks amazing and it is going to take all my will power not to apply (because I’m deeply into two book projects and will need every bit of the summer to write).


Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Classic, Fantasy, Harry Potter