Category Archives: Other

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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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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SLJ’s Day of Dialog

My goodness, does SLJ put on a fabulous one-day conference. Congrats to all, but especially Luann Toth who leads the planning and organization of this wonderful event. You can see the full schedule here.  I was sitting next to uber-blogger Betsy Bird who was doing a sort of live blogging thing — that is, she was writing her blog post live as the different panels and speakers were occurring. Count me as very impressed. I did tweet a bit, but not that much. A few brief reactions:

The first speaker was keynoter Brian Selznick who was his usual awesome self. He directed his remarks to librarians and both amused and moved us with his description of receiving, after the publication of The Houdini Box (I first got to know Brian when he came to our school for that book) an envelope full of child-made award stickers. In following up, he discovered he’d won a Lemmie Award (I believe that is the spelling), an award concocted by a librarian in Iowa. So his very first award. He followed up that first win with three more. He then touched upon his forthcoming The Marvels*, mentioning that it was inspired by Dennis Severs’ House, a place I too find one of the most magical in the world. (See my blog post about it here.)

Next came a panel on nature featuring Paul Fleischman, Wendell Minor, Louis Sachar, April Pulley Sayre, and Anita Silvey (in her iconic hat). It was ably moderated by Julie Roach. Some tweets from me:

Louis Sachar wanted to write scary B Movie a la The Blob. Having read Fuzzy Mud, I’d say he succeeded.

“Humans are just like 7th grade boys.” Paul Fleischman

Fuzzy Mud wasn’t written in sense of optimism yet Louis Sachar wanted to keep that feeling in there somehow.

“Child needs to know history is not old.” Wendell Minor.

“It’s a parable, people!” says Paul Fleischman re Matchbook Diary & others

Mudlarking and Fuzzy Mud….hmmm have Brian Selznick & Louis Sachar been talking?

Next was the Panel “Middle School Confidential: The Tough and Tender Trials of Today’s Young Teens” moderated beautifully by Stacy Dillon. The authors were Tim Federle, Lisa, Graff, Luke Reynolds, Rebecca Stead, and Rita Williams-Garcia.  Only a couple of tweets from me (I started losing steam, I’m afraid), but great things were said. It was moving, thought-provoking, and funny at times. My sad two tweets:

Luke Reynolds paraphrases Toni Morrison re wanting to make children’s eyes light up.

Yay, moderating Middle School Confidential

After a publisher pitch panel there was lunch and then an amazing speech by A. S. King. I was far too riveted to tweet, but it was on feminism and was outstanding. Maybe SLJ will publish it or provide a video of it at some point. Incredible.

The afternoon gave us a terrific panel, “Magical Thinking in the Real World” well moderated by Angela Carstensen. The authors were Moïra Fowley-Doyle, A.S. King, Patrick Ness, Daniel José Older, and Allan Stratton. It was also excellent.

A brief side note: I’ve been a longtime fan of Patrick Ness (first for his writing and now for his tweeting too)  and was invited to blurb his forthcoming The Rest of Us Just Live Here — yes, I liked it very much. Now I can’t recall just what I said to him, thought it was something about liking the books of his that I’ve read (as I’ve not read them all), and so the clever guy signed my book thus. (Patrick — I promise to try to read them all eventually!)

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After another round of publisher pitches there was the final panel ” Nonfiction Goes Graphic” with Don Brown, Claudia Dávila, Nathan, Hale, Maggie Thrash, and Maris Wicks moderated by the enthusiastic Jesse Karp. It was fascinating and I was also glad that at other points of the day I had a chance to speak with Don Brown and Nathan Hale as I’ve long been a big fan of their work. During the panel, I especially appreciated Don Brown’s strongly voiced opinions on the subjectivity of all history — that even a photo that may appear to be without opinion does have it just in the way it is present. Excellent. And Nathan, who also focuses on history (my great love too) had some fabulous things to say as well. The others were great too, just am not yet familiar with their work — which will change soon I hope!

The day concluded with the announcement of the Boston Glob Horn Book awards. I was especially pleased with the fiction winner, Katherine Rundell’s Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, a book I’d really liked and was a bit overlooked until now.

*I went that evening to a mesmerizing presentation of The Marvels. It was held in a gorgeous old theater and was spectacular. We all went home with ARCs of the book and a very cool additional thing in a velvet case. I’ve already read most of it and it is terrific. Thank you, Scholastic, for an awesome evening.

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My Mini BEA

While I won’t be at the Javits itself, I will be at a couple of BEA-related events today. First is SLJ’s always-awesome Day of Dialog. I mean, look at this schedule for the day!

And then there is a very exciting-looking event to celebrate Brian Selznick’s forthcoming The Marvels, at the Hudson Theater no less. Those who have been fortunate enough to see one of Brian’s presentations know how exciting they are.

Photo on 5-27-15 at 5.25 AM

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So a very good day in the works. Thanks in advance to all who are making it so.

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In the Classroom: Letters to Alice and Others

In my recent Horn Book Magazine article, “Alice, the Transformer” I described my approach to reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to contemporary 4th graders. After finishing the book we always have a tea party and the children do some sort of response to the book. This year I invited the children to write to Lewis Carroll or one of their favorite characters in the book. The results were terrific. You can read a selection of the letters in their entirety here, but to give you a taste here are a few excerpts (frequently done in a font based on Lewis Carroll’s own handwriting and sometimes in purple, an ink color he often used):

My name is N and I am a big fan of yours [the Mad Hatter]. I love to drink tea, my favorite tea is chamomile, and jasmine. My sister and I have tea together almost every day.

Oh Bill [the Lizard], I have read Alice in Wonderland and I liked it a lot. You were my favorite character because I felt so bad for you for all the things the other characters did to you.

I am writing you [Alice] because I was outraged by the way you behaved in Wonderland. One of the ways you behaved badly was by making rude remarks…. You were also physically mean. LIKE WHEN YOU KICKED POOR BILL THE LIZARD UP A CHIMNEY LIKE HE WAS A WORTHLESS ROCK!!!!!!!!! ”

It is an interesting book, and it has a great plot. Except, it is completely unfair to you [the Queen of Hearts]! This is why I am writing. Alice is always being rude to you. She says, “How should I know?” Then, “It’s no business of MINE.” The nerve. Your juries are also lazy and not well educated. In fact, they are stupid. Plus, your executioner never obeys your orders! He refused to execute the Cheshire Cat. Most importantly, the book portrays you as a crazy, evil ruler! You have my sympathies.

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