Monthly Archives: June 2015

Coming Soon: Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

This is an outstanding presentation of a very difficult time in US history. Sheinkin has managed to distill some very complex stuff into a compelling and, at times, compulsive read. Even for me who has a vivid recollection of much that is in the book*, seeing those bumbling Plumbers at work at the Watergate, reading Nixon’s comments, and being reminded of the horror of what we saw on the nightly news and newspapers as to what was going on in Southeast Asia made for a riveting reading experience. It fascinated me that Sheinkin is too young to have experienced any of this so for him it is pure history. And his decisions in what to include, how to tell it, and how to shape what he told to make a certain point were superb. And as he did in Bomb, he wrote sections here as a thriller or heist — making you turning the pages as fast as you can. He finds the perfect small fact to highlight — say one of the Plumbers’ peculiar method of creating a limp and why he does so. As for the ending featuring Snowden, spot-on.

*I lived and remember a great deal of what is covered in the book. Not only because I was a teen and young adult during much of the time period of this book, leading and participating in various anti-war actions, but also because of my father, a political scientist (and Holocaust survivor) he was highly liberal and anti-war (he took me to my very first demonstration against the war),and knew many of the figures that show up in this account. And so as I saw their names I also saw and heard my father — remembering his anger and outrage. He was especially proud of having led a fight at his institution — Columbia University — to keep Henry Kissinger from joining his department as he considered the man a war criminal for his part in the War, especially the escalation and the bombing of Cambodia. And I well remember the escalating Watergate scandal culminating in Nixon’s resignation the day I flew off to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer.


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The Championship Season

A few days ago Travis Jonker asked, Where Do You Fall On The Book Critic/Book Champion Continuum?  Travis suggested that at one end of the continuum were those who were purely critics and at the other those who were purely book champions. I commented:

I define myself as both as a critic and as a book champion. I love reviewing for Horn Book, the Times, and my blogs and rarely write negative reviews. Like you I prefer to focus on what I like rather than what I don’t. And when I really love something I advocate for it like crazy, on my blog, on other people’s blogs in the comments, in person, and on social media. And so I’ve no clue where I’d fit on this continuum. (But I suppose I’m not “pure” either way:)

Jonathan Hunt then pointed out a different way he is both:

I’m actually at both ends of the spectrum simultaneously, and the reason is that I serve different audiences. Most adults know me only in my critic role, but my students only ever see the book champion. :-)….So I can explain very clearly on Heavy Medal why WONDER shouldn’t win the Newbery Medal and turn around and tell all my students they simply *have* to read it.

I thought this a very good point and suspect it is true for many of us who both define ourselves as critics and work directly with readers. I too enthusiastically suggest books to my students that I liked, but didn’t necessarily love. Heck, I recommend books I don’t like if they’ve been recommended by those I respect. Sometimes that person might be a critic, sometimes a social media champion, and sometimes another student.

Today Betsy Bird has taken up the gauntlet with “We Are the Book Champions, My Friends.” Like Jonathan she is very upfront about her reviewing. Both have very clear ideas of what they are doing and so, while their negative reviews may make people understandably unhappy, they are honest and straight about it. I think as angry as you may get about something negative they say, you would never feel it is based on some sort of personal vendetta. The two have, to my mind (and they are good friends), great integrity.

But Betsy also brings up another charged issue.

But when we talk about books on our blogs we have to be careful about what we do.  For example, there are folks who are perfectly happy to only promote books from the big five (Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, & Little Brown).  They make no efforts to seek out and promote books from the smaller houses as well.  When you promote only the things that are sent to you for free in the mail, your content is compromised.

I have to admit that I have wondered about this. Like many others I am very lucky to receive books from the bigger publishers and some from smaller publishers as well. But there are many I don’t receive and so when I read about others that interest me I usually buy them. I further make a point of putting ones I admire on the radar (e.g. championing them) on my blog, goodreads, twitter, and facebook. And because I don’t see these books on social media as much as others, I do admit frustration. It is great that the big publishers are being responsive to the call for greater diversity, but smaller publishers are doing so too, some for decades. I think some of the lack is due to the important advocating for young people to select their own reading material. And so teachers and librarians on social media are trying to advocate for as many titles as possible. Not to mention those that speak to them personally.  I get that, but I also think we’ve got to move out of our comfort zones to look farther afield than what is more familiar for us and our communities.

Related to this is the following anecdote I put in a comment on Betsy’s post:

A few months ago I was told by a librarian active in social media that she would be unlikely to purchase a particular highly lauded diverse title (from a smaller publisher) that I was championing because it did not reflect her community. It disturbed me that she not seem to see the need to provide windows as well as mirrors for her patrons. Seems to me that she might look at this differently if those with massive social media followers were to advocate for this book as they do so many others from larger publishers.

This is a challenging and difficult conversation. I appreciate what the big publishers are doing and advocate for many of their books. But also appreciate tremendously what smaller publishers are doing and would like to see them out there being celebrated in social media as much as the big publishers are. And I’d especially like to see more attention to books from and about other countries. (My personal place being a continent — Africa — that tends to be forgotten most of the time. See my article about that here — which temporarily seems to have been written by Alice Hoffman — hopefully that will be fixed soon:). And, finally, I appreciate all who are advocating for books with passion and heart. Hopefully, this conversation will be seen as an opportunity to rethink rather than to retrench.


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Alice And The True Story Behind A Popular Fantasy

I highly recommend Tom Ashbrook’s On Point podcast, “Alice and the True Story behind a Popular Fantasy” featuring Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, and Carolyn Vega, curator of the opening-next-week Morgan Library exhibit, Alice: 150 years of Wonderland.

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The New Forthcoming Peanuts Movie

Somehow I missed that there was a new CGI Peanuts movie in the works. But now I’m up-to-date having just seen the below trailer. While I think the idea of Charlie Brown attempting to reinvent himself fits the character nicely, I’m having to get past my own aged preferences for the original (and by “original” I mean Schultz’s comics not the television shows) to recognize that this sort of CGI rendering will probably go over best for today’s kids. Also, while I knew and remembered the overwhelming whiteness of the Peanuts gang (the introduction of Franklin was huge in 1968), it felt a tad uncomfortable to me given our efforts today to better represent the current diversity in our world. Still, short of introducing a whole bunch of new characters, not sure how they could do better with this.


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Should I Take Up the Banjo? or The Question of Charisma

I’d already been thinking about the issue of teacher charisma when I saw Paula Willey’s terrific BEA write-up in which she, after seeing some especially entertaining authors, wondered:

What do you do if you’re not a natural speaker? Or if you freeze up on stage? In fact, I imagine that most authors are more the cave-dwelling cheeseater type than the camp counselor type. (Literally – a lot of authors honed their public speaking skills as camp counselors or teachers.) It’s not fair, and all I can suggest is – learn to play the banjo.

Sorry, lovely Paula, but I disagree. I realize I’m probably swimming upstream without a paddle, but I try to think deep within me that I can be a good teacher, good author, and good critic without the ability to entertain in public. For I very much will admit — it is not something I can do. Entertain in public, that is. (I think I do a pretty good job entertaining in print, say here. That is something quite different.) While I am very comfortable speaking in public when the focus is on what I’m speaking about rather than on ME, I dislike intensely the focus being on me. I am not the sort of teacher who happily will spend the day at school dressed as a cow (as one of my colleagues did this year for a fundraising thing), play the goofy ‘bad” kid in a skit with colleagues at an assembly, or otherwise do stuff that focuses attention on me. In other words, charismatic (in the magnetic dynamic personality sense) is not me.

I suspect there is something of that going on for book creators. When I first met Jon Scieszka he was still teaching at a school close to mine. And I bet he was the sort of teacher who loved dressing as a cow. Mr. Charisma. Don’t get me wrong — I think teachers and book creators who enjoy this sort of thing are great fun. Some of my dearest friends are wonderful at this. I adore Jon and Mac and love nothing more than watching them at play. But I don’t think they are the standard that we teachers and book creators need to aspire to. Rather, I think we need to recognize differences. Those like me who detest being in the spotlight should not contort themselves into trying to do so. Frankly, I can think of nothing worse than watching an unhappy book creator on stage playing the banjo (me, you really, really, really don’t want to see that — it would be squirm-inducing painful).

I think and hope that there is still room for those of us who teach/create and do the stuff and then stand back and let it do the work. The books and the assignments. Me, I adored Battle Bunny all by itself.  In fact, I have never experienced Jon and Mac doing their staged reading of it. Sure, I’d enjoy doing so, but I have had just as much fun reading the book aloud with my students taking an active role.

As a contrast to Jon and Mac, Let me offer one huge example — Suzanne Collins. Know who she is? None other than the creator of The Hunger Games.  I don’t see her on the conference circuit shooting arrows a la her protagonist or similarly entertaining the legions of Hunger Game fans. Note the difference. I didn’t write “Suzanne Collins’ fans.” Indeed, her books, her characters, her stories are doing just fine without her having to be up front and center. So can I just make a plea for us shyer types — don’t push us to do what we can’t do. Instead, appreciate us for what we can do. Charisma is a personality trait, something that isn’t required, I don’t think, for success.


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In the Classroom: The Pushcart War Project


I’m a big fan of whole class creative projects celebrating works of literature.  Some have come about due to my passion for a particular book, notably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while others are due to the kids’ excitement, say the murals we did for The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me.  The latest of these is a digital storytelling project of Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War.

It was upon learning of the death of its author, Jean Merrill, a couple of years ago that I was reminded of her fabulous book and the play I’d done of it with a class long ago. Having seen a colleague’s PuppetPals project, I thought it might be just right for digital storytelling of The Pushcart War.

I began by reading the book aloud while the kids followed along in books. Sometimes they participated in the reading, but often it was just me doing the reading. We talked about the book as we did so. And they loved it, eagerly look forward to the days when we continued the story.

This being the second year we’d done the project, we teachers realize the kids needed some experience with PuppetPals before diving in. And so we did a mini-practice-project first with a favor book of my class this year, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole.  They were put into groups of three and four and each assigned a few pages. We made the puppets (Sam, Dave, dog, cat, tree), the kids made the backgrounds, and then they made the little puppet shows. After that we all critiqued them together so they would see what worked for the bigger project.

We then brainstormed all the backgrounds needed for The Pushcart War and had the kids make them. My inspiration was Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny where the backgrounds were photos and the characters cartoons. For us, the backgrounds were collaged black and white photos. We had some that kids had taken and they searched for others in some copyright free data bases. Next came the characters. Again, we brainstormed all possible ones. Then the children made them, using brads for the limbs so they could be moved about. Lastly, the kids chose their favorite sections of the story from which I put them in small groups to create the actual movies. They came out so well!  You can see them all here.




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Of Hatters and Haikus

At my godchild’s wedding this weekend guests received highly original gifts, haikus. You went to one of the two haiku writers, told them something about yourself, they thought for a moment, and then typed one out.


Here’s mine:



Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland