Monthly Archives: January 2014

Thoughts on Newbery: This Year

I’ve been deeply involved with the Newbery award for years, mostly by reading and speculating during a given year and once as a member of the Committee itself.  I’ve enjoyed tremendously advocating for my favorites on this blog, participating in the Heavy Medal discussion, making my own goodreads list of possibilities, and so forth. Because being on the committee itself gave me a better sense of things, last year I wrote a post for the Nerdy Book Club to help others better understand the process behind the award and recently I was interviewed for this article about those who serve on the various award committees. So I feel I’ve been on that side of things for many years. I know it pretty well. I know, for instance, how personal the committee process is. That is, each committee is a collection of individuals and they will come together and interact in a particular way. A different collection of people will most likely act in a different way. This, to my mind, more than anything explains the variety of choices.  And it is why I applaud and celebrate the decisions every year whether my favorites were selected or not.

This year…well, this year was oddly different for me. I wanted to do what I usually do — champion my favorites and so forth, but  then there was this: my very own debut book for children was being touted as a contender. This  was unexpected, thrilling, and totally marvelous.  Because I felt it was wild and I wanted to avoid thinking too much about it, I tried to keep going as usual. However, I couldn’t completely.  Yes, I did keep my goodreads list and yes, I did comment on Heavy Medal, but I did barely anything here. No post about my Newbery druthers, for example.

And then came this past weekend.  I was at Midwinter networking as usual.  I looked at forthcoming books, talked with friends, and enjoyed myself as usual. We talked about what we’d like to see win awards and so forth.  And mostly there was little mention of the elephant in the room — my book that is. But every once in a while there was.  Someone would say they would be rooting for me on Monday. Someone else would suddenly connect that I was the author of that book and gush.  One of the best comments made to me was an editor who reminded me that just being considered a contender made my book a winner.

Now I have to confess that I had fantasized quietly this year about getting the call, figuring it a harmless game. I imagined going down to my hotel’s Starbucks early Monday morning, getting the call, and keeping it a secret so as to surprise my roommates at the announcements. They were kind and didn’t say a thing, thank goodness (other than suggesting the night before that I should take a sleeping aid which wasn’t actually necessary:). And when it didn’t happen I was absolutely fine. I mean, for all my fantasizing,  I really didn’t imagine it could possibly really happen. And so I was excited as always as we went to the announcements and delighted when titles I’d especially liked were honored for various awards. It was a happy day as always.

But then I went home.  And while I respected greatly the Newbery choices, especially the winner which I’d read aloud to my class last year (and will again this year),  I think perhaps I was feeling a tad disappointed that none of my favorites had been recognized. I was tired Tuesday morning and a bit cranky. At school I fussed about a missing adaptor for my laptop, dealt with various small issues, worried about a doctor’s appointment that afternoon, and was all in all a little off.  By the next day with some sleep and distance I was fine again. And it made me wonder — did my grumpiness have something to do with something I was trying very hard not to think about — how my book fared at the awards?  I can’t quite say because I don’t want to go there in my thinking. I’m still thrilled at the reception my book has gotten. I’m thrilled it was even being mentioned in this way.

But it also makes me even more sympathetic to all those children’s book creators out there when it comes to this time. Those who were winning Mock Newberys and Caldecotts, who were getting huge amounts of buzz, and then were shut out from the real thing. I hope they can feel as happy as I do now, happy to have been so seriously considered. And happy for those who were honored — those are good books too.

This is a rambling post, I know. But I think I’m an unusual case as someone who, after so many years being deeply involved in the selection side of things suddenly was on the other side. And so I just want to say thank you to those who saw Africa is My Home as an award contender.  And congratulations to all involved in the winning titles —  the authors and illustrators and editors and publishers and designers and copy editors and marketers and publicists and editors and agents and friends and family members and everyone. Lastly, bravo to all those hard working committee members.  You did a great job.


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Just so you know — the BoB Judges are being announced…

starting today.

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The Little Prince, Peter Sis, and the Morgan Library

I recently received an advance copy of Peter Sis’s forthcoming The Pilot and the Little Prince and will have more to say about it closer to its publication date. (That said, it is gorgeous.)  And for those who can’t get enough of everything to do with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his well-known book, the Morgan Library’s fascinating-sounding new exhibit, “The Little Prince: A New York Story,” has just received a very favorable New York Times review. The two will come together on April 22nd when Peter will be at the Morgan talking about his book with the exhibit’s curator, Christine Nelson.


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Adam Gopnick Considers Travers and Disney (and the Cohns and Dave Van Ronk)

On another front, I have never enjoyed a film that I disapproved of so much as “Saving Mr. Banks.” It is, so to speak, the “Birth of a Nation” of family movies: it presents so skewed and fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand that you are all the more astounded by how well it’s done.

From Behind Two Good Movies, Two Great Books.

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My Father and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1922, my father Lewis J. Edinger, who passed away in 2008, fled with his mother to America at the age of fourteen; his father chose to stay, hoping to ride things out, but was deported and killed. Years later, as a newly minted PhD, my father took whatever jobs he could find; one of those was in Montgomery, Alabama at the time of the bus boycott where, among other things, he met Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here are some excerpts from his memoir about that time in his life.

I got my haircuts at Maxwell Air Force Base from a black barber with unsteady hands named Raymond Parks  — a negro for polite white Montgomery society, a “n-” for most of the whites, and a darky for those who might say one and think the other. Raymond’s wife Rosa was a seamstress I had never head of until she was arrested. She had refused to comply with a city segregation ordinance that required her, like any black, to give her seat in the front of a city bus to a white man and find one in the back. Legend had it that Rosa Parks was defiant because she was simply too tired to surrender her seat. Actually it was a deliberate protest against the all-pervasive racial discrimination by a prominent activist of  Montgomery’s black community. Her arrest started the now famous, well-organized boycott of all the city’s public transport by half of its population. Fifty years after that unforgettable experience I remain proud to have had some part in it.

Early on I had an opportunity to challenge Martin Luther King Jr. on adopting Gandhian non-violent principles for the boycott. I owed our meeting to my wife Hanni and, more directly, to a mutual friend, Virginia Durr, a white woman from a prominent family who played a role in the boycott. She and Hanni had become friends through the small local chapter of the League of Women Voters that often met at our place and then through our membership in the Montgomery branch of the anti-segregationist, interracial Southern Conference for Human Welfare. At that—for me memorable—meeting with King I told him that while Gandhian tactics wore down law-respecting Englishmen in India they could not overcome white segregationists in Montgomery. Virginia Durr set the outside agitator –me — straight with an anecdote.

A debutant and prominent member of the Junior League in Mobile, the young Virginia was sent out of the Deep South where she was raised to get a degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. When she came to the dining room for her first breakfast she found the only available seat was next to a black girl and promptly returned to her room, true to her segregationist upbringing. Her grandpappy had fought and died to preserve Southern ways, as she put it to me, and her family expected her to remain loyal to a tradition that put negroes in their place below and most certainly not next to whites. That’s what she told the dean to whom she rushed to explain her position, whereupon that lady told her that if she could not abide by the rules at Wellesley she was free to leave. As she found that impossible Virginia stayed on and learned to live by new rules. And that, the knowledgeable Southern insider predicted, was how it would go with the segregationist rules of Montgomery once they had been declared unconstitutional. And indeed, respect for the law carried the day after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the city ordinance that triggered the precedent-setting, non-violent protest movement led by King.

Some incidents in our direct involvement with the boycott remain unforgettable. One was the impressive evening when a few of us white supporters were just for once allowed to stand in the back of a packed church to witness one of the  mass rallies that  sustained the commitment of the blacks. It took the form of a Baptist religious service with one after another of the local clergy evoking ever more fervent supportive responses from the congregation, capped by shouts of “who is the king – he is the king” when the boycott leader appeared for the climax.

Another time Hanni was driving our young cleaning woman  home when she was flagged down by a Montgomery policeman. He gave her a ticket for an alleged traffic offense, a mild form of harassment in light of what others in our support group experienced. A librarian living alone was driven by ever more threatening anonymous phone calls to commit suicide.

When the boycott did not end quickly the board of Montgomery’s city commissioners joined the radically-segregationist White Citizen Council and that led our little group to draw up a petition in which “we white citizens of Montgomery” asked them to reconsider such an action directed against the black half of their constituents. We decided to submit this petition if we got enough signatures to make an impression and then a work colleague and I approached those we thought would sign. Some did, others would not. It was an unpleasant surprise when supposed liberals from the North lacked the courage to stand by their expressions of anti-segregationist convictions. Phony excuses were induced by fear of McCarthy-style retribution.

Our principled position was put to the test when we asked a visiting black historian Hanni knew from New York for dinner. It seemed a great idea until it struck us that the parents of children Monica played with in our complex would then no longer let them do that. Reluctantly we decided that we could not let our three-year old suffer for principles that were beyond her understanding and moved the dinner to friends who lived in a house and not an apartment.  We thought it the right decision but were never entirely reconciled to it. It left us with a better comprehension of family conformism in Nazi Germany.


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ALSC Notable Children’s Books Discussion List is Here

Notable Children’s Books – 2014 Discussion List

I love to sit in, but will have to be more selective about when I do this year. That is, I do not plan on being there when my book is discussed.

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Laurie Halse Anderson on Her New Book, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Laurie Halse Anderson is a familiar name in the world of children’s and young adult literature with a prodigious output ranging from picture books (e.g. The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to Schoolto historical fiction (e.g. Chains the first title in her Seeds of America series) and young adult works (e.g. Speak). In her latest, The Impossible Knife of Memory, we meet 17 year-old Hayley Kincaid whose mother died when she was small and who has spent the past five years homeschooling herself while traveling with her trucker father, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recognizing Haley’s need for a real school and home, they have now settled into her father’s hometown where he struggles with post traumatic stress disorder. Having been away from others her own age for so long, school is a mixed bag for Haley; however, one major plus is her appealing classmate Finn. Deftly balancing Haley’s worry and care of her father with her own needs and evolving romance, Anderson offers readers a powerful exploration into the impact of PTSD on parents and young people today.

Interested to know more about the background for the book I was pleased when the author graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions:

What was your inspiration for The Impossible Knife of Memory?

When my father was 18 years old, his Army unit was sent to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp which had just been liberated. What he experienced there (burying the dead and trying to help the living) changed his life forever. He tried to lock away the memories, but they haunted him.

His PTSD worsened as I grew up. When I entered middle school, his drinking took over and our lives imploded. Dad lost his job and was deeply suicidal. I remember coming home from school and stopping just inside the front door to listen, afraid he’d be dead and just as afraid that he’d be alive and angry. Bills went unpaid; the electricity was turned off. My parents borrowed money from friends and relatives, and then cut off contact with them because they were ashamed they couldn’t repay the loans.

The most confusing thing was that we didn’t talk about any of this. I think silence was the only way my parents could cope. I bumbled my way through school feeling lost and alone. My memories of a happy childhood hurt so much, I tried to forget them.

It wasn’t until our soldiers began to return home from Afghanistan and Iraq that I had the perspective to see my dad’s suffering as a legacy of the war. Knowing how PTSD affects the children of soldiers, I began to ponder how to write this book.

What sort of research and preparation did you do to write the book?

Because the main character’s issues with her father came from my emotional truth, I didn’t need to research this book as much as I had for others. However, two sources proved enormously helpful. Dr. Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming gave me important insight into the challenges faced by returning vets. I also benefitted from corresponding with a dozen homeschooled and unschooled students who shared their world with me. Understanding how they felt when they entered a traditional school setting was very helpful.

Hayley is a wonderful protagonist, especially in her incredible, but realistic caring and worry about her father. How did she come into being?

Like all the best characters, she showed up one day and started whispering in my ear. I wanted her to be strong and brave and smart, but also unsure of how to get by in the social world of high school and definitely not ready to fall in love. While all of her worries focused on her father, she needed to learn about her own trauma. Hayley was just as wounded by the past as her father. Until she came to terms with that, she’d couldn’t start planning for the future.

The title The Impossible Knife of Memory is incredibly powerful. How did you arrive at it?

The working title was KNIFE because I knew this was going to be a story that had pain in it. However, I wanted to move beyond my traditional one-word title. Change is good! The final title dropped in my head once I understood that if the good memories of Hayley and her father had become painful, and that until they started dealing with their past, it wouldn’t let them go.

Your books capture adolescent issues in a timely and pitch perfect way. This is especially evident from the moving stories you have shared in person and online of young people communicating with you after reading one of your books. With some advanced copies of this one out before the book was published, has it already made its way to young readers and, if so, what are they saying to you about it?

The feedback has been quite lovely. A few readers have already written saying the book gave them new insight into their parents. On the lighter side, a number said they’re smitten with Finn and really enjoyed his relationship with Hayley. My favorite comments say that the book made them laugh and cry. I don’t think there is any greater praise than that.

Is there anything else you would like to say about this book, young people today, the issues surrounding them that you explore in this book and others, or something else?  

Having to parent your mother or father is a challenge that way too many teens have to deal with. Teens whose parents are dealing with substance abuse, financial hardship, job loss, mental illness and divorce deserve our love, support, and compassion. I wish America would stop judging and criticizing teens and instead, try to understand the battles they have to fight every day.

Thank you, Laurie!

Also at Huffington Post

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Samad’s Gourmet Deli and The Heights Bar and Grill

Early yesterday morning  a massive fire started across the street from me in a Citibank branch. All day almost 200 firefighters tried to put it out by blasting it with water and foam (my street was covered with the latter —  looked sort of like snow), but as of last night it was still smoldering. One firefighter told me that it was in the walls and, the space having become so unstable, they couldn’t get to it.  The good news is that since it started a little after 5 AM no one was inside and, other than a handful who were treated for the smoke, no one was hurt. (As far as I know those of us living nearest to the fire are otherwise all fine other than smelling greatly of the smoke which was pretty intense.)

What makes me terribly sad is that while it looked as if the building next to the bank was okay, now hours and hours later, the water and smoke has evidently caused significant damage.  My gloom is because the two businesses in that building are the sort more and more rare in this neighborhood. On the top is The Heights Bar and Grill, a simple burger and beer joint popular among the Columbia students and others in the neighborhood who preferred it to the more upscale places nearby. And on the ground floor is Samad’s Gourmet Deli, a  venerable establishment that has been there for decades. They’ve a huge cat Poncho II, that terrorizes my dog, wonderful Middle Eastern treats, and caring and lovely employees. My father loved buying his coffee from their open bins and chatting with the owners. They’ve a bench outside where anyone can sit (even those who haven’t bought anything) and I’ve often worried about their survival what with Starbucks and other fancier nearby places. So far they have, but now?  Will these two plain and important places be able to recover from this? I sure hope so.


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Laura Amy Schlitz, Kadir Nelson, and Bears

The author-artist remembers sitting at the Caldecott-Newbery banquet in 2008 in Anaheim when Laura Amy Schlitz delivered her speech. He remembers her description of a mythical bear, her companion bear-spirit. “She described encountering this bear in the forest and the moonlight ‘poured into the clearing like a giant bowl of milk.’ It was such a powerful image, so visceral that I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he says. He didn’t yet have the idea for Baby Bear, but he says, “that’s the image that inspired the scene of Baby Bear and the owl in the clearing.”

From Jennifer Brown’s piece at Kirkus featuring Kadir Nelson on his new book Baby Bear.

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In the Classroom: Close Reading

I’ve been curious about the attention now being paid to the skill of close reading, something I began doing with my 4th graders decades ago. Judiciously. By that, I mean I only do it enough for the children to see how much pleasure they can take in the experience, but not enough for it to become a chore. Frankly, some of the current suggestions I see for close reading concern me because they seem utilitarian in the extreme and leave out the joy that the experience can be.

Joy?  Yes indeed. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a summer studying children’s literature in a scholarly manner and one of my favorite aspects of it was doing some close readings of parts of the books we were exploring. I wanted to see if I could help my 4th graders have the same experience and so returned to my classroom that fall and gave it a try with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It turned out to be a fantastic experience, one I now do every fall. I’ve written about it in books and articles, talked about it in presentations, and have been thrilled that other teachers have taken the idea and run with it. Now with close reading being so on everyone’s radar I hope some do read about how I do it and perhaps use some of those methods in their own classrooms.

Here are some posts about my teaching of close reading with Charlotte’s Web:

I also do it with a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source of the Pilgrims and have written about that lesson as well in articles, books and in various posts including this one:


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