Monthly Archives: February 2015

Not-What-You-Think-You -Know German Fairy Tales

She immediately owned up to her evil intentions, and the prince rewarded her by running her through with a sword.

A few years ago there was excitement about a “new” trove of Germany fairy tales collected by one Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. They’ve now been organized and edited, translated, and illustrated in a new edition, The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales.  A handful of them are already available online to read including “King Goldenlocks,” “The Wolves,” and “In the Jaws of the Merman.”    Emphatic, direct, harsh, and most entertaining in a particular way!



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Africa is My Home: How One 5th Grade Teacher Taught It

This past fall I received an email from a teacher who was using Africa is My Home (as of today in paperback!) with her 5th graders. She wrote:

My name is Keren Lilu; I am a 5th grade teacher at the Blue School in lower Manhattan.  Our big study for the year is the Harlem Renaissance/Civil Rights movement, with the essential questions centered around power: how does power emerge- is it inevitable?  Who decides who has power?  How do we empower ourselves in the face of injustice?  We actually began the year looking at slavery as a historical context to ground the rest of our study in, and we began by reading your book, Africa is My Home.  Wow- how this book has captured my students!  They absolutely love it and are completely engrossed and immersed in it.  It has taken so long to read it- we can barely get through a page or two a day- because each page just sparks so much discussion among the children; they can talk and talk about it!  I can’t tell you how much this book has touched them, and how it has really made them think about deep issues of the world.  They really have so much to say, and have fallen so in love with Sarah (Magulu).  And learning about Sierra Leone and the slave trade and the circumstances of the Amistad is really important to them, especially with our study this year.

I recently visited them and was absolutely blown away by their work. So much so that a colleague and I are currently using Keren’s approach with our own 4th graders. Because it is going so well I asked Keren if I could share it here.

I  did it as a read aloud with the kids following along. I think it honors it [the story] more that way and really created a reading community around it.  We often could only get through a few pages at a time because of all of the discussion it generated.  I actually, at the beginning, used it to teach discussion skills as well, because I found the kids were becoming so passionate with the book they all would start talking at the same time!

At points along the way:

 I had the children choose ten words or phrases from the text to capture that part of the story. We did it after the part where Margru is pawned, after the section of her trial and freedom, and after returning home.  These kind of turned into “found” poems too and were incredible, and the children actually wound up really loving this!

At the end she had them create Point of View poems.

The poems we did after we finished reading the book, as a writing piece and response.  They wrote one, and then we did a revision for these following points:
-what is the larger story you are trying to tell across the whole poem?  Think through the different “I am’s.”
-make sure each line is unique (replace ideas that repeat and say in a different way)
-expand each line with more vivid and emotional details

I knew I wanted them to really connect with the emotions and the journey of Margru, and I remembered this format of poetry that Pat [Lynch, her administrator] introduced to me a long time ago when I was teaching the travelers of the Silk Road.  I remembered those Silk Road traveler poems were so emotional and thoughtful, so I tried it with this book, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.  I was debating having the children choose any character’s perspective (father, Cinque, etc.), but I decided at the end to focus just on Margru, since it was really her journey we were following.

Additionally, Keren teamed with the art teacher who had the children study Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and then create their own series of paintings of Margru’s journey. These were absolutely extraordinary.

Reflecting on the unit, Keren wrote:

What I would have loved to do that I didn’t think of until after was have the kids keep a journal from Margru’s perspective during the story and her journey, and have them write entries as reading responses during the unit.  I wish I did this.  I guess next time!

My visit with Keren’s students reinforced what she had written. The children were so involved in the story — their questions and comments were thoughtful, informative, and passionate. It was absolutely thrilling to see a master teacher use my book this way. I can’t thank the Blue School, Pat Lynch, and Keren Lilu enough for this.


Pat Lynch, myself (holding a signed collection of the poetry and a palm tree a couple of the children made for me), and Keren Lilu standing in front of a display of the children’s poetry (with illustrations).


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Celebrating The Bank Street Book Store

There are two major independent children’s bookstores in New York City’s borough of Manhattan, the downtown Books of Wonder and the uptown Bank Street Book Store. Both are important and wonderful to visit, each offering distinctive sensibilities. Today I want to celebrate The Bank Street Book Store, an important part of the venerable Bank Street College of Education, an institution that started  downtown on Bank Street (thus the name), but long ago moved uptown to 112th Street where it still is. As for the bookstore, it began in a tiny lobby space in the college building, then spent many years on the corner of of 112th and Broadway, and has now moved a few blocks south to 107th and Broadway.

Living nearby, for years I’ve walked by the bookstore daily with my dog, sometimes dropping in to see what was new, to chat with the managers (firstly the great Beth Puffer and now the passionate Andy Laties) and employees, to buy something as a gift for a friend or for my class, to attend an author reading, or just to browse. The bookstore kindly invited me to celebrate the release of my book last year and I go often to their events — these feature all sorts of authors — everyone from the parodic Stephen Colbert to book experts like Betsy Bird.  There are also free puppet shows, story times, literature discussions, and more. And this coming Saturday they’ve got a grand opening festival going on all day with an exciting array of authors.

On Friday they had a party introducing their gorgeous and warm new space and it was a lovely event with many recognizing the important history of the college and the bookstore in terms of children and their books. Below is the bookstore’s tweeted photo of many of the authors who came to the party including Fran Manushkin, Robie Harris, Peter Lerangis, Chris Grabenstein, Carol Weston, Yvonne Wakim Dennis, Arlene Hirschfelder, Susan Milligan, Selene Castrovilla, and me with my dog Lucy*.


And so if you are in New York City and are checking out all our wonderful bookish places, be sure not to miss this excellent bookstore.

* I told the young bookstore employee tweeting the event that Lucy was a “retro dog” being a traditional miniature poodle. I’ve now learned from her subsequent tweet that retro=disco these days.

Author of AFRICA IS MY HOME shows off her disco poodle Lucy!

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Philip Pullman Said Yes

I love comics, and I have considered at least three proposals to turn HDM into a graphic novel. I haven’t said yes yet because I wasn’t happy with some aspect of what was being suggested – the length, or the writer, or the artist, or something else. If the right combination of writer (because I haven’t got time to do it myself) and artist comes along, backed by a publisher who will give the project enough space, then I’d be delighted to say yes. (In answer to a 2010 question about when and if there might be a graphic novel.)

Well, it seems Philip Pullman finally said yes. There’s a graphic novel coming, the first volume out in the US this September.  So, so excited and happy.



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Coming Soon: Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger

Rebecca Stead started out quietly in 2007 with her first book for children, First Light. Her second, When You Reach Me, started out quietly too, but the decibels went up when it won the 2010 Newbery award. These were followed by Liar & Spy,  also a solidly middle grade title that made a loud splash by winning the 2012 Guardian Children’s Book prize. With three fine books under her belt, the question is: what will the next one be like?  My answer (in a vague spoiler-safe way):  just as good as the previous ones.  Coming out this summer, Goodbye Stranger is everything you’d expect from this smart, profound, and thoughtful writer.

It is apt that I am writing this just before Valentine’s Day as it is love in its numerous manifestations that is central to this novel. There is the love of friendship, the main one here between three 7th grade girls who have been close and committed friends since very young, vowing never to fight. There is sibling love as shown between the main character Bridge and her older brother. There is the love between parent and child that comes wafting through in Bridge’s memories of her childhood near-death after a horrific accident. There is the love between grandparent and grandchild expressed through unsent letters by Sherm, a 7th grade classmates of the girls. And there is romantic love, something that the girls, Sherm, and their classmates are beginning to explore and consider. How do you know about this sort of love? the young people wonder. What does it mean to like someone? As a friend? As something else? How do you show your interest? Or not? What happens when feelings change? After a few months or after many years? Stead doesn’t so much provide answers as avenues to consider these. Her characters make good and bad choices. They go too far at times. Or not far enough.

Despite its slim appearance, this is a weighty novel. Challenging and complicated issues swirl in it. Some are timeless and some may seem more current, say the tricky way relatively innocent flirtations can, through cell phones with cameras, become something far more difficult. The way jealousy can cause people to do hard-to-understand mean things. That one pair may wait for their first kiss for years while the another might be exploring sexuality sooner. How certain friends and family members can stay the same while others change.

Elegantly crafted and written, this is a book to savor. Stead fans have quite a treat to look forward to this August.



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Heroes Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Rachel Kadish has some interesting observations on the nature of heroes in children’s books of the past versus today in “Childhood Heroes: Once Self-Made, Now to the Manner Born.”  She feels that heroes of the past were often suffering from PTSD (really!)

With a few notable exceptions, the formula is identical: Trauma is the mechanism through which superpower is acquired. It’s the very act of surviving hardship (often cataclysmic in scale) that shapes those gloriously intimidating figures into something they never were before.

Whereas she posits,

Today’s new heroes are to the manner born, and while they may spend a few scenes living in obscurity, they’re soon unveiled as members of the elect.

I think it is an interesting observation. What do you all think?  (BTW, there are some good points made in the comments, e.g. Katniss being self-made.)


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Thoughts on Newbery: The Day After (and El Deafo Redux)

Well, saying I’m pretty happy today is an understatement. First of all, congratulations to all honorees, committee members, contenders, creators, publishers, readers, writers, editors, marketers, publicists, librarians, and everyone else who had a stake in these awards. Secondly, EL DEAFO!!!!!!!!!!!

After telling my 4th graders that it was the day of the award announcements and about my hopes for winners, highlighting El Deafo as the one I hoped for the most while also telling them why it was unlikely, I went into the hallway to watch the announcements while someone else was teaching them. The period ended just before the final two awards were announced so I went back and a few of my students stayed to watch while some 6th graders started coming in for a class they have in my room. When El Deafo was announced I screamed and jumped about. Now I often scream and jump about when I’m at the announcements in person, but the practice isn’t something most people associate with me at school, especially my students. So the kids were rather amazed, not quite sure why I was behaving this way. After they headed off to art class, I tried to express my enthusiasm to some colleagues who smiled benevolently and went back to whatever they were doing. Thank goodness for twitter where there were others who understood and shared my enthusiasm.

I’m very happy with The Crossover getting the medal and Brown Girl Dreaming getting the other honor — both were on my short list — but my heart is with El Deafo.  I just hope that its honor does not cause ALSC to sit back and feel this proves that the criteria don’t need to be changed. They do. While El Deafo, as I proved, shines for its text, in many other fabulous graphic novels the text does not work as well without the art. On Sunday I ended up in a lively twitter conversation about this — I argued then, before, and now that the criteria need to be altered so that it is easier for graphic novels to be considered with their art and design being considered in a positive way, not if they make the book “less effective,” as in the current criteria.

As for the other awards, let’s talk Caldecott. I was especially thrilled with three personal favorites of mine,  The Right Word, Viva Frida, and Sam & Davegetting honors. And then, This One Summer, my oh my. I love it, but it never occurred to me to think of it for Caldecott. Kudos to the Committee for be more out-of-the-box thinkers than me. It is a beautiful book and highly deserving of the award. That said, its honor doesn’t get ALSC off the hook in terms of relooking at the Newbery criteria. Still needs doing. And then the Sibert Awards. Awesome to see The Right Word get the medal followed by a fabulous array of honors.





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Thoughts on Newbery: Today’s the Day!

In a few hours all will be known. The award winners will have been called and the announcements in snowy Chicago will have been made. My congratulations to all in advance — the honorees, those who were considered, and the hard working committee members. And as a public service for anyone dismayed for any reason, here are a couple of posts that may help.

  • If you think the committee missed an important book, must have not given the award because the author was too well-known, felt another committee would take care of the particular book, or have other unhappy thoughts about why the book you loved wasn’t honored, I wrote the following for you: Top Ten Things You May Not Know about the Newbery Award.
  • And for those creators whose books were getting a lot of buzz, but ended up without honors, this one is for you: Thoughts on Newbery: This Year (and be sure to read the comments).




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