Monthly Archives: July 2012

IBBY, Matilda, Beatrix, and Me

I’m heading to London next month post-Olympics for IBBY*’s annual International Congress. While I’ve long known of this remarkable annual event this is the first year I’ve been able to attend and I’m very excited indeed.  Here’s how the theme “Crossing Boundaries” is described:

London – a city of many cultures – provided the early inspiration for the theme of this congress.  Within this one vibrant city, communities from Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China, Greece and Latin America have made their home.  And so it is in cities and countries all over the world.  People and cultures migrate, travel and resettle and with them go their stories.  The old traditional stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, as well as the new stories that they have created on their journeys.

In the 2012 congress, we will explore how books and stories for children and young people can cross boundaries and migrate across different countries and cultures. The congress will look at issues such globalisation, dual-language texts, cultural exchange and the art of translation and we will explore how literature for children migrates and translates in all its forms.

As for what else I’ll be doing, first and most important (as I’ve been yearning to see it) I’ve got a ticket to the musical “Matilda” and can’t wait for that. Having had relatives and close friends in London I’ve been visiting since very small, but somehow never did much literary (other than anything Carrollian). This time I’ve got a yen to do some Dickens stuff so hope to make it to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the Inns of Court, Dennis Severs’ House, and other such places.  If you know of a hidden gem I should visit please let me know!  As for traveling outside of London, I’m going on a pre-Congress “Swallows, Amazons & Peter Rabbit” tour of the Lake District and will spend a couple of days in Oxford before coming home.

Do let me know if you will also be at the Congress.

*International Board on Books for Young People

Leave a comment

Filed under Other

The Arty Modern Olympics of Yore

Being an earlier riser I’m very pleased to have access to NBC’s live feed of the Olympics even with its glitchiness (both the feedfails and the seemingly constant commercials). What is also a lot of fun is being able to go poke around for stuff while listening and dipping back and forth into the live stream. And so I came across  this Slate article and learned that there were Olympic art competitions from 1921 to 1948  in keeping with the vision of the originator of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

According to the Olympic Museum site (which includes the awards for “Aeronautics and Aplinism” of all things), “The art competitions were dropped from the Olympic program because of the difficulty of determining the amateur status of the artists.”  The Slate article points out that they had difficulty attracting well-known artists, but given their rules I can’t say I’m very surprised. Not to mention de Coubertin sure threw his weight around, both insisting on the art medals and winning one of the first himself submitting a poem of his own under a pseudonym. I was able to read the German version, but thought it might be fun to use google translator to give you all a taste of it in English.  So here’s the first stanza. Pretty grim, but to be fair to de Coubertin a human translator might do a bit better (though I must say I doubt it).

Ode to the Sport

O Sport, pleasure of the gods, essence of life you appeared suddenly in the middle of the clearing where gray waves the thankless labor of modern existence as the messenger of the glorious ages vanished, in this age when humanity smiled and on the summit of mountains, a glimmer of dawn arose, and rays of light dotted the ground in the gloomy forests.

Far better to check out NPR’s Poetry Games.  “From the far reaches of the globe, we’ve invited poets to compose original works celebrating athletes and athletics. Each morning we’ll introduce a new poem on Morning Edition, and then you, the audience, will judge who should win the victor’s laurel crown.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Other

Harold and his Purple Crayon Odyssey Among Other Things in this Week’s NYTBR

To live above the merely personal does not require plying oars against colossal currents, either. “Harold and the Purple Crayon” is a great little book and deals with its own verities — the world is not in your control; courage begins at free fall; the best path is not the straight path. The lessons of the “Odyssey,” minus the sex. Harold draws his dream in crayon and then wants to go home, to his window, which has been there all along. The key to his destiny is that window, which is something to look out of, away from himself. At no time is Harold self-­conscious, self-pitying or self-congratulatory. He knows how to draw a life, and how to live.

From “How to Write Great” by Roger Rosenblatt among other entertaining, illuminating, and sharp “How To” essays in this week’s New York Times Book Review.  (I’m partial to Colson Whitehead’s “How to Write” myself.)


Filed under Other

Coming Soon: Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy

I am a huge fan of Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (see my NYT review and this post as to why) and am very happy to report that her new Liar & Spy is just as good. I read it a while ago, but because I reviewed it professionally only gave it a brief mention here. Yesterday I learned that my Horn Book starred review was made available to Random House and so, while I can’t put the whole thing here (be sure to keep an eye out for it in September), I will give you the quote from it that they are using:

Starred Review, The Horn Book, September/October, 2012:
“Stead’s spare and elegant prose, compassionate insight into the lives of young people, wry sense of humor, deft plotting, and ability to present complex ideas in an accessible and intriguing way make this much more than a mystery with a twist.”


Filed under Review

Middle Grade Readers and Informational Books

The Common Core recommendation for a greater percentage of informational reading in schools has created quite a bit of buzz these days. Since, like many of my middle grade colleagues, I already use a lot of informational material as a 4th grade teacher, I am hopeful that this new emphasis will only be a good one.

For example, when doing an author study of E. B. White I enrich our readings of his iconic children’s books with excerpts from his essays (especially “Death of a Pig“), letters, interviews, and even his obituary. And because I’m a big fan of the judicious use of primary sources to give kids a taste of what it was like back in time, I love leading my students in “translating” a bit of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source journal from some of the original Mayflower passengers, during our Pilgrim unit in which most of the reading is informational in nature. (For more about this see my book Seeking History: Teaching with Primary Sources in Grades 4-6.)

As for independent reading, I find my 4th graders gravitating to a wide variety of informational books.  Some have intriguing topics, some have unconventional formats, and some are just captivating for other reasons. Here are several new and forthcoming 2012 informational books that I feel are going to be very successful with my middle grade readers and yours too, I hope:

Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert by Elaine Scott

This is a clear and compassionate look at the circumstances and most of all the people involved in this riveting event. Caring, thoughtful, well-researched, this is a take that is perfectly calibrated for middle grade readers.

Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

A quirky, captivating, and original look at the iconic president. Middle grade readers are going to love Kalman’s ability to pull out intriguing facts on the man, her warm regard for him, and her absolutely unique and wonderful paintings.

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close

What a wonderful way to look at the creations and the creating process by the artist himself.  Simply and clearly told by Close himself, in this book children are going to be engrossed in both his words and his art. Of particular note is the section where they can mix and match parts of his different portraits to create new and unique ones.

Temple Grandin:How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

This is an excellent biography for middle grade readers about a unique woman.  Clear and without sentimentality, but still empathetic, this account of Temple Grandin’s life and her autism is done just right for this age group. In addition to showing how her autism actually accentuated Grandin’s particular sensibility for animals and thus led her to her life work with them, this book also gives young readers an age-appropriate view into the way the meat they eat comes to them.

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

This memoir of the author’s 1970s childhood in China offers young readers a personal take on a particular time and place. Eight stories tied together by family are delightfully presented in a graphic novel format.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos  by Jason Chin

A fascinating consideration of the development of these unique islands using a representational and imagined island. Well-researched (with the sources all clearly indicated at the end), simply told, and beautifully illustrated Chin gives a good sense of this remarkable region that fascinate us today as it did Darwin so long ago.

Leave a comment

Filed under Charlotte's Web, comic, In the Classroom, Nonfiction

Margaret Mahy

I was very sad to hear of Margaret Mahy’s passing. I first came to know her from her superb YA novel, The Changover and then became a complete fan by way of several delightful books for much younger readers.  In particular, I adored The Great Piratical Rumbustification & The Librarian and the Robbers. These two novellas were perfect read-alouds for 4th graders— silly, clever, and fantastic fun.

I was incredibly lucky to meet Margaret at a couple of the summer institutes of Children’s Literature New England and hear her wonderful storytelling first hand. I remember vividly her doing Down the Back of the Chair and telling several personal and hysterical stories, one that I can only recall as having something to do with her children and a hectic car ride (I think maybe involving someone having been hurt?).

A few of the many tributes:

Remembering Margaret Mahy

Giant of Children’s Literature Dies

Margaret Mahy’s intimate legacy


Another great loss to the world of children’s literature.

Leave a comment

Filed under Other

Real Authors Writing Real Letters to Real Kids

The Rumpus ‘s new Letters for Kids is a fantastic idea. I think I vaguely read about the adult version of this cool thing at some point and forgot it, but here is the kid version. Love, love, love it. I’m wondering if it is okay for a grown-up to subscribe just to see what it is like.  Or is that too creepy?

This Just In: Announcing Letters For Kids! Letters For Kids is just like Letters In The Mail, except intended for subscribers six and older. We’re helping people appreciate the post office at a younger age.

You’ll get two letters a month written by middle-grade authors like Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler, Adam Rex, Kerry Madden, Natalie Standiford, Susan Patron, Rebecca Stead, Cecil Castellucci, and more.

Some of the letters will be illustrated. Some will be written by hand. It’s hard to say! We’ll copy the letters, fold them, put them in an envelope, put a first class stamp on the envelope, and send the letters to you (or your child).

Many of the authors will include a mailing address on their letter so you can write back. But we can’t guarantee it. We can’t control these people. Some of them live in the woods.



Filed under Other

The Thing About Stars

The question of stars and book reviews is a complicated one. Especially here in the United States where there seems to be something in our national character that makes it hard for us to know how to acknowledge excellence. On the one hand we do recognize those who are heroes and great (especially in sports) while on the other hand find it difficult in our day to day lives to tag something or someone as being “better” or even “best.” Possibly because by doing so there is an implication that the rest not so labeled are somehow lacking. I think we do want everything to be like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon where “…all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

As a teacher, I definitely do. I hate giving grades — having to bluntly determine how and why one child rates highly and another doesn’t. My personal philosophy is learning for learning’s sake and I encourage my students to want to do their best for themselves not for me, their parents, or anyone else. I truly do think they are all above average in one way or another! Fortunately, my school doesn’t require me to give grades for 4th graders and so in my prose reports to parents I can focus on my students’ strengths and weaknesses and how they can be supported without having to reduce it all down to a single letter.

That said, book reviews (and the related stars) to my mind are a completely different thing. The intended audience is not the creator of the book (or for that matter their parents:), but those who might read it. Of course this is a hard thing as even though they aren’t the audience, for the creators those reviews and stars (or lack of them) are very much like receiving grades or the sort of progress reports I write for my students. But again, writers are not the intended audience for these, readers are.

As for stars there are two sorts, the professional ones that journals like Kirkus and School Library Journal give out to books they’ve decided are of exceptional merit and then those given out at sites like goodreads.  Recently Elizabeth Bluemle, a bookseller and blogger, tallied up recent professional ones over at her Shelftalker blog, pointing out that “Starred reviews are excellent guideposts, but they don’t tell the whole story, of course. There are amazing books out there that never receive a starred review but are popular and/or critical favorites nonetheless.” What starred reviews do though is give us a sense of wide professional admiration for particular books.  That is, there is something meaningful about such a range of journals and professional and knowledgeable critics separately deciding a particular book is so good, so above the norm that it deserves a special nod, a star.

While I don’t know how they are selected at other journals I do know a little of the process at Horn Book where I’m an occasional reviewer and can say that it is a decision carefully and thoughtfully done by a whole lot of professional reviewers there. And so knowing that I do pay attention to starred books. Not that I always agree with them. Occasionally books that didn’t work for me get multiple stars and I put that down to taste. That is, there are certain types of books many love that I don’t. And they get their stars for good reason. That I don’t care for these books is due to me and not to their quality.

And what about personal stars, those that I dole out on goodreads for example? Recently my friend Teri Lesesne gave her feelings about these and I do agree with her that there are so many books and readers out there and that what may work for one reader may not for another. I espouse that as well and see to it that I have a huge range of books in my classroom for that very reason. But I part ways with Teri when it comes to goodread stars for I have a lot of “friends” there whose opinions on books I value highly and so the stars they give mean something to me. At times they affirm my own feeling for a book, often they make me want to read a book I might otherwise overlooked or ignored, and occasionally they cause me to return to a book for another look. I love knowing of someone else’s passionate pleasure for a particular book and so I find these personal stars incredibly helpful.

Because of this I give them out myself. Not for every book. I only star those that stand out for some reason, usually because I found them particularly good, occasionally because I found them particularly weak. Sometimes I do actual reviews here and/or on goodreads (if a book stands out somehow and pretty much always if I’m marking it as not so great), but often I just want to indicate that I liked a book without having to write anything.  The stars, I find, are great for that.

Stars. Reviews. Love ’em or hate ’em, the reality is they exist.  It is how we consider them that matters.


Filed under Other

Great e-Book Debate

Australian author Isobelle Carmody decided to bring back one of her out-of-print older titles, Greylands, as an ebook and as part of its launch created a one-month-only website full of cool stuff including a Great e-Book Debate area where she has invited a bunch of smart people to post and discuss the whole idea of ebooks.  Today’s post, “I am not a Luddite” is by my pal Judith Ridge who is, as should be evident from the post’s title, not a fan for some very thoughtful reasons.

My feeling is that I keep evolving as a reader and a writer.  What doesn’t work for me at one point seems to down the line. For instance, years ago, while I loved writing on a computer, I still felt the need to have a printed copy of everything.  I did not trust digital archiving at that point.  But I’ve changed and I now only print things out now and then — mainly when I’ve reached a point when I feel I just want to look at it away from the computer.  Not anymore as a way to save a version.

Similarly I used to think I would never appreciate a book by listening to it.  But at some point years back I started listening to books while running and now am completely convinced that I can very much appreciate a book this way.  In fact, I think I sometimes do a better job appreciating them because I cannot skim through as I do when reading. I’m forced to slow down and listen to all of it. Of course, this only works for me when books are especially well-written on the sentence level.  I can overlook mediocre writing when reading, but not when listening.

And so, as for e-books I was open to them, but until recently had only read one or two.  This was because I’d only been reading them on my IPhone and that just wasn’t working for me.  But this winter I was given a Kindle Fire and now things are very different. I’ve read a number of galleys for books not yet out and others as well.  I’ve discovered classics for free, older books that are inexpensive, and (this is the best thing of all) books published elsewhere, but not in the US.  I’m almost afraid to mention this for fear it will be stopped, but I have discovered that if a book is out in the UK and not in the US I can still get it via amazon as an ebook for my Kindle.

I’m also someone who always has to have a book along to read and being able to bring the Kindle instead of a whole bunch of heavy books is bliss.  Especially on longer journeys.

While, like Judith, I still prefer to read a tangible book when I can (and am unable to read them when art of any significance is involved), e-books offer a great alternative and are working for me more and more.




1 Comment

Filed under Other

Suzy’s Books

Over the years I’ve been mixed about Wes Anderson’s movies, liking some very much and feeling neutral about others, and so I went yesterday to see his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, with no great expectations despite all the glowing reviews.  Well, I can say now that I was completely smitten. Of the many aspects of the film that charmed me, the children’s literature connections were of particular interest. I just loved the Peter Pan references as well as the delightful imaginary books that Suzy, one of the two protagonists, lugs along on their journey. Fascinated by the verisimilitude of these, I looked around and discovered that Anderson had them animated. Absolutely delightful.

Leave a comment

Filed under Other