Monthly Archives: October 2017

Bank Street College’s Book Fest 2017

BookFest Logo

I had a great time Saturday at Bank Street’s Book Fest, a day-long conference. My small part was to lead a discussion on the following inventive informational books:

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann
The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott and illustrated by Kenard Pak
How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture by Tonya Bolden
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet
Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth by Don Tate

All the presentations and panels were terrific, but I have to say Carmen Agra Deedy, with her closing keynote, knocked it out of the park.

Happily KidLitTV livestreamed the whole day and it is archived here.

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Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young.  And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.

I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.

All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.

I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to  misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.

Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively),  solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.

In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon.  At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.

The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.

I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.

Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.

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Philip Pullman Answers Some Smart Questions Smartly

If you could lead a revolution in someone else’s world, which world would it be?
Frances Hardinge, children’s and YA author
Ha! What an interesting question. I think I’d lead a revolution in the Narnia story, and I’d put Susan at the head, because she was the one who was turned away at the end because she was growing up and she was interested in boys. Yes, let Susan lead the revolution of the rejected in Narnia.

If you could give to one public figure the gift of being able to see their daemon from this day forwards, who would it be and why? And what would their daemon be?
Jack Thorne, playwright and screenwriter
Donald Trump. Any visceral awareness that man could have would be an improvement. I don’t know what his daemon would be – something utterly repulsive. If he had to go everywhere accompanied by a loathsome toad or something similar, it would help us all a bit.

Those are my favorite questions and answers from this fabulous Guardian article.

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In Philip Pullman’s World Again

In my previous post I wondered how best to read The Book of Dust: Vol I.  Should I savor it or rush through it? Well, I’d say I went with the former when I decided to listen and read it by using both the fabulous audio book read by Michael Sheen and the Kindle edition with whispersyncing (so I can go back and forth). Have to say I’m loving listening to it and remembering that my comfort listen is the full-cast audio book of  His Dark Materials.  But having the Kindle edition is fabulous too as I can highlight favorite passages (and there are many favorites:). I listened to it walking to school this morning and am still glowing from the experience. Can’t wait to listen to more when walking home and then going to the Kindle to reread and highlight.

One more thing — Philip is the master of creating distinctive, brave, smart, and unique young heroes.

 

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How to Read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage

Yes, I too have been waiting seventeen years for this one. But now that I have it, how to read it? Gulp it down? Savor it? Decisions, decisions!

 

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In the Classroom: Good White Teaching

Many of us good white teachers have been in the profession for a long, long time. We’ve stayed in it because we love teaching and feel we are good at it. Our identities are wrapped tightly up in this. And now we are having to rethink who we are professionally as we navigate difficult and necessary conversations and situations in our classrooms involving race. While we veteran white teachers may have successfully resolved conflicts, dealt with festering situations of non-race-based social aggression, and led sound social emotional learning activities with our classes, these experiences may very well not be models for us as we engage in work with our classes on race.

While I have been teaching about Sierra Leone, about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, about Civil Rights, and more for a very long time I have not done nearly enough of direct and frank work with my 4th graders and race. But I have to and I will even though it feels challenging and –hardest of all — one that I’m not going to do well. Something I will probably fail at and have to try to do better the next time. And that last is probably the toughest of all for me, a teacher in her fourth decade as a classroom teacher. To fail in this sort of thing is difficult and disturbing. And I say this because I suspect that is the case for many of my older white teacher colleagues. We are so proud of our work as teachers, our reputations as smart and caring, and we are doing the work to be better when considering race. But in our own classrooms? Changing what we do there is probably way harder.

We tell our students that taking risks is good. That they need to be ready to fail and try again. But are we veteran good white teachers doing that when it comes to race conversations? We need to be prepared for that. We are not experienced in this at all, at all. We are no better and probably worse than those just entering the profession. We need to do all the learning we can, we need to take advantage of POCs around us who are interested in helping us, do a whole lot of listening, read, go to workshops and the like, and we need to try, understand where things went poorly, and try again.

We veteran white teachers still dominate our country’s classrooms even though the children in them are more and more POCs. Considering how to acknowledge this and have necessary conversations from kindergarten to twelfth grade is something we must do. But we also have to be aware of ourselves and that we need to not assume we know how to do this as well as we do so much else.

Avoidance is not an option. Failing and picking yourself up, thinking about what went wrong, doing more listening and learning, and trying again is.

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The Book of Dust “…will be devoured.”

In it, Lyra is 6 months old and being hunted by henchmen of the Magisterium. The action unfolds in Oxford, but an Oxford unrecognizable from its spire-crowded postcard form — the city is a damp and threatening place of inns and drunks and amiable nuns. For half the book they are all submerged in a catastrophic flood. Malcolm navigates the waters in his canoe and becomes Lyra’s chief protector. After a gentle start, the novel accelerates into an action thriller, with cameos from fairies and river gods. There are boat chases, hints at romance. It will be devoured.

From Sophie Elmhirst’s lovely profile of Philip Pullman in the New York Times.

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Rick Riordan’s The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3)

Just finished this last night and the more I think about it the more impressed I am.  A few months back I wrote a post celebrating Rick Riordan and all the things I noted there are in his latest, The Ship of the Dead. Here’s what I just wrote on Goodreads:

Highly enjoyable. Interesting how Riordan reuses a plot trope (deadly deadline) so freshly and imaginatively in different titles including this one. I think this is because he develops each character so distinctively, brings in the mythology smoothly (so not didactic), and has a crisp and witty writing style. And also, regarding those characters — he is brilliant at weaving in so many different life experiences. The gender fluid Alex and the devout Muslim Samirah stand out here most of all. And in this case, he takes on religious belief — really terrific. Then there’s Magnus’s (the main character) love life. How often do we see this in the main character of a highly popular work of genre literature for middle grade readers? (Right now, as I’m hoping that this will change in the next few years.) Hmm…. started by giving it four stars because the plot seemed a tad standard, but as I write this I am in such admiration for what this writer has done here that I’m bumping it up to five. Yay to Rick Riordan!

 

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Museums and Their Presentation of Uncomfortable Truths

I have been really struck by the contrast between the Dr. Seuss Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it comes to the difficulty realities of the people they are highlighting.

When visiting the latter in July I was so impressed with their handling of Bill Crosby. They included him in several places, but didn’t shy away from anything about him.

 

Contrast this with the lack of commentary by the Seuss Museum on their creator’s racism which has been criticized by many since it opened earlier this year. Repeatedly they had argued that it wasn’t their responsibility to inform their visitors. Their response to Mike Curato, Lisa Yee, and  Mo Willems’s  public letter explaining their withdrawal from a festival at the museum because of racist imagery in a mural was initially no different. In their letter the three describe a ““jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat and slanted slit eyes.” You can see it for yourself in the lower left of this photo of the mural I found in this article:

The museum’s initial response? From the Washington Post’s article:

In a letter sent to the authors, Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums and Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, wrote that the museum “contains unedited material by Dr. Seuss during his lifetime” and that “we do not alter or edit an artist’s work.”

“Dr. Seuss’s books taught life lessons, from being a faithful friend, to not discriminating based upon appearances, to keeping your promises,” Simpson wrote. “Dr. Seuss was a product of his era and his attitudes evolved over time.

“It is our hope that parents and teachers can use the evolution of Dr. Seuss, including the mural of Mulberry Street in Springfield from Dr. Seuss’s first book published in 1937, as a teachable moment for children in their charge.”

The museum has finally in the eleventh hour said they will remove the mural, but clearly they are only doing it after enormous pressure and not because they think they have any responsibility to teach their visitors. This, I find, horribly wrong, wrong, wrong. Staying silent is, to my mind, a complete dereliction of duty. Not an option in this day and age. Kudos to the many institutions (such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture) for doing the work.

 

 

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In the Classroom: Close Reading of Charlotte’s Web

Yesterday I modeled a close reading/annotating of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, something I’ve been doing with my 4th graders yearly for decades. It was, as always, an amazing experience because the book is such a remarkable piece of writing. Every year my students discover new aspects to note. You’d think there wouldn’t be anything new after so many years, but the book is so gorgeous and elegant and my students so captivated by the process that — yes — there is always something new. (That is, after some of them got over the idea of writing in the book — this shocked them!) After doing the first chapter together each child chose one to do independently. They will then present their chapters at a series of seminar sessions — can’t wait!

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