Category Archives: Review

In the Classroom: Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write

Some may have read or heard this story before, but for those who haven’t here it is again. It is what made me passionate that no young writer I taught ever had the same experience.

So my story. I loved writing as a child — until something happened. This was my high school A.P. English teacher telling my parents I shouldn’t take a role in the school play (my passion at the time) so I could “work on my writing.” He never told me what was the matter, never met with me to show me what I needed to do, and I never asked (as I was shy and he was a strong personality we admired very much). So I messed around and messed around with my school essays, clueless as to what was wrong. My mother remembered me up late at night and feeling so sorry she couldn’t help. I went to college worried and this impact my writing to the point where I was sent to a tutorial for help. I figured out that my problem lay in revision so handed in first drafts full of typos (this was the day of the typewriter) as they were still better than if I tried to revise them. The professor overseeing the tutorial told me it was all in my head and there was nothing she could do. So what I did was avoid all English classes for my undergraduate and graduate studies. (And, boy, did I yearn to attend them. Some sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Instead I read voraciously on my own — classics, everything.)

In the early 1980s I became deeply involved with the burgeoning personal computer movement in schools, finally matriculating as one of the first classes for a program in computers and education at Teachers College Columbia University. I was surprised to find out that I was good at programming — doing it and teaching it (having been a miserable math student). And then, as one of my final courses, I took Lucy Calkins’ summer institute in writing. It was the second one and it was a revelation for me in many ways. The idea of the workshop — of a process — has informed my work as a teacher ever since.

A few years later I broke through my own writing phobia by writing an essay that got me a competitive fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton. At the same time I was becoming more and more active online in children’s literature and educational communities. All of this made me finally believe I could write. And I did — books for teachers, articles, blog posts, etc. And a book for children that was lauded for its writing. I’m currently working on a new project and was elated when recently the editor I’m working with celebrated my ability to write fiction.

All of this informs my beliefs when it comes to teaching writing to 4th graders. These include:

  • Creating situations where students feel invested in their writing
  • That they have audiences
  • That they find joy in the work
  • That they understand that there are many different ways and reasons to write — some being completely private, some to figure out a problem, and more.

Of late my impression is that writing instruction in schools is highly driven by testing, common core curriculum, packaged programs, and consultants. Often these are highly scripted and allow little opportunity for children to write for themselves. As I work in a private school, I have far more freedom than many of my public school colleagues, but this overall approach affects us too as it is now presented in language arts communities and organizations as best practices.

What has struck me is that the focus in now on kids learning structures, on expository writing above all, and no consideration of audience or, worse, joy. And so I was eager to read Ralph Fletcher’s Writing Joy: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. It happens Ralph was my writing instructor when I took the TC institute those many years ago and we have run into each other over the years. (His wife, it happens, was my instructor then too.)

Ralph is blunt about the reduction of joy in today’s writing programs. In the book he does a clear presentation of the history, of the current situation, and then makes some very smart suggestions. That is, find places for kids to write for fun, in ways that they truly care about, that aren’t graded, that can be full of spelling errors, etc He suggests “Greenbelt Writing” a sliver of a place in children’s daily school lives where they can play textually, away from the regular writing curriculum. This would be on the side, a sort of recess time (as I understand it), an enjoyable and relaxing place with the goal of kids having fun writing, of finding joy in it.

Last year I started a weekly BoB session to replace reading logs (see this post for details). The kids love, love, love this. They read, they update their BoBs (Book of Books), and chat with me. Sometimes we talk as a group about what we are reading. Mostly it is a quiet and serene time. (I bought a bunch of soft lights that we put on their desks so we can avoid the bright overhead.)

Reading Ralph’s book made me decide I want to do something similar with writing. It will be tricky taking over another period for it, but I’m determined to do so. I’d love a cool acronym for it that goes well with BoB. Any thoughts? I see it as a greenbelt time where kids will write whatever they want, to share or not.

This isn’t a regular review, but a personal response to Ralph’s book. It is a short book, to the point, clear, and may be uncomfortable for some, but also it is kind and offers some fabulous suggestions I hope others consider. As I already wrote, I sure am.

Thanks, Ralph, for writing what really really needs to be said today.

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Shannon Hale’s Real Friends

Shannon Hale’s Real Friends was a Reading Without Walls challenge for me. That is, as a child and still today, I’m not much of a group person, most likely related to my introversion. From childhood on I can recall being part of groups of people I liked, but they almost always wanted to spend way more time together than I did. Shyness is probably also a factor as we moved a lot and so I was never in a school more than three years. This made me happy to find just a single friend. Now Shannon wanted this too, but in her case the single good friend always seems to be tied to bigger group politics which was not my experience. So I wasn’t gravitating to read this one, but did because this is so much the reality of many children and especially my students.

That is, I’ve been a classroom teacher for decades and have observed and helped kids navigate friendships throughout that time. Sometimes it is one person snubbing another, sometimes it a group thing (with the popping up of clubs always a sign that someone is probably being excluded), sometimes it is sweet and lovely, and sometimes it is mean and vile and intractable. And so while I didn’t read Real Friends for nostalgic or personal reasons, I did read it because it was so real and raw in terms of many children’s reality.

Shannon’s description of the ups and downs of friendship and, especially, the complicated dynamics of groups and popularity are vividly and honestly done. For kids for whom this resonates this book will be a life-saver, something that will speak to them, that they will see themselves in. Or perhaps they are yearning to be part of a group — this may help them understand it isn’t necessarily nirvana. I appreciated that Shannon isn’t represented as perfect when part of a group by any means  — she doesn’t do the usual forgiving of one culprit, she doesn’t significantly help another bullied child (authentically being too self-absorbed in her own woes to do more than recognize her and talk to her when they are thrown together). Kudos to Shannon for being so authentic and real and honest. As an adult, I found the family dynamics most potent, especially her relationship with her big sister. Shannon doesn’t hold back and, boy, is some of it rough. Fortunately, there seems to be the start of a better understanding at the end and more in the afterward that is reassuring for any who worried about Wendy.

A piercingly honest view into the complicated social life of one young girl that is certain to resonate for all who have observed, participated, or otherwise experienced the difficult dynamics of school friendships.

 

 

 

 

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Indie Press Spotlight #2

Ossiri and the Bala Mengro from Child’s Play Books is a delightful yarn of the Travelers (as Romani are called in the UK). Penned by Romani Richard O’Neill and Katharine Quarmby with charming illustrations by Hannah Tolson this is both an entertaining tale and a book that gives a good sense of the Traveler life.

In A Horse Named Steve from Kids Can Press, Kelly Collier takes on confidence, bravado, hubris, and what it means or not to be exceptional in a wry way, both in her text and in her illustrations. Steve certainly thinks he is more than exceptional– whether young readers agree would make a great conversation. When I’m back in school next fall I definitely plan on giving this one a try.

Eric Veillé’s My Pictures After the Storm from Gecko Press has the physicality of a board book, but the content will entertain children far beyond the toddler stage. On one side are the “before” images and on the other the “after” ones. Starting with a storm we go on to every thing from lunch to a cannonball. Wacky and nutty in the very best way.

From Phaidon‘s First Concepts with Fine Artists comes Birds & Other Animals with Pablo Picasso. Each page of this board book features a simple, but perfect drawing of an animal by Picasso along with minimal text such as “Wasps like to fly, but grasshoppers prefer to hop!” that I believe is also Picasso’s, but am not sure. There’s a page at the end explaining who the artist was and a final spread with the sketchbook pages from which these animals came.

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Indie Press Spotlight #1

Recently I wrote a post celebrating independent publishers, something I’d long wanted to do. Now I want to take the next step — start a regular feature highlighting books from these publishers. So today is post #1.

John Cage, a remarkable avant-garde composer (perhaps best known for the work 4’33” which is performed as total silence), collaborated with textile artist Lois Long in the 1980s to create Mud Book: How to Make Pies and Cakes. Happily for us Princeton Architectural Press has brought back this delightful and charming little book. (It will be out this coming Tuesday.) As they describe it, this delightful object is: “Part artist’s book, part cookbook, and part children’s book, Mud Book is a spirited, if not satirical, take on almost every child’s first attempt at cooking and making. Through the humble mud pie add dirt and water!”  It is adorable and perfect for little ones who want to explore the world of making food (real or play).

A goat on the roof a New York city apartment building? That is indeed the case in Anne Fleming’s The Goat from Groundwood Press. The lives of a diverse group of apartment dwellers become entwined in this short, but rich story. Using a third person omniscient narration, Fleming moves readers from one character to the next — goat included. It may sound fantastical, but is done so convincingly that I’m ready to go look and see if there is a goat on my building’s roof!

I have Debbie Reese to thank for drawing my attention to David A. Robertson and Julie Flett’s When We Were Alone published by Portage and Main Press. Done simply, but with devastating clearness this is the story of a woman telling her granddaughter of her time in one of the boarding schools to which Canadian First Nation children were taken. She tells of the brutal methods used to strip them of their own cultures and how they managed to quietly, but firmly resist this. The lovely illustrations further the powerful emotional clout of this important book.

This last book is a bit of a tease as it won’t be available to October, but I wanted to put it on your radar nonetheless. It is Rosalie K. Fry’s Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry,  a reissue coming from the New York Review Children’s Collection. It is the spare and lovely story of Fiona McConville, a feisty ten-year-old who is sent to live with her Scottish grandparents on a wild and remote coastal area. The natural world, folklore, and family all come together in this gentle yet wondrous story that was the inspiration for the 1994 movie The Secret of Roan Inish (which I’m thrilled to see is available to stream as it is a wonderful family movie).

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Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe

There is a certain kind of book that can be tricky for me, a quiet, but emotionally powerful book. I see such books as teetering on tightropes — balancing just right the heartstrings-tugging, the poignancy, the tenderness, the provoking-of-tears. Too much and I feel manipulated, too little and I just don’t care. It is for this reason I was wary when beginning Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, but I needn’t have been. It is to my mind an exemplar of this sort of book —- quiet, introspective, moving, witty, and emotional in all the right ways. I liked it so much, in fact, that I’ve added it to my goodread’s Newbery list.  Yes indeed, I think it is that good.

The novel takes place in a single day featuring four middle schoolers. In the center is Virgil Salinas, a highly introverted member of a large extrovert family who call him Turtle “Because he wouldn’t ‘come out of his shell.’ Every time they said it, a piece of him broke.” The exception is his Filipina grandmother Lola who calls him Virgilio, gets him completely, and tells him folk tales to bolster him through life’s challenges. Virgil has a crush on deaf and confident Valencia Somerset, but is too shy to let her know. And so he has become a client of the young psychic Kaori Tanaka who, with her younger sister Gen, intends to help him. Last of all there is Chet Bullens who has bullied Virgil unceasingly.

An encounter in the woods with Chet leaves Virgil in a life-threatening situation. Readers are firmly with him as he reacts to this, tries to figure out what to do, and considers some of Lola’s tales as a way to build strength in a dire moment. Here is where my admiration for Kelly’s writing really takes hold as she masterfully balances the emotionality of Virgil’s circumstances on that tightrope without a misstep. The threads of the other characters move in and out of Virgil’s difficulty. We get in Chet’s head and, while we learn more about what may have turned him so mean, we don’t forgive him for it. Kaori’s adult-like serene style is delightfully balanced with her little sister Gen’s humorously typical second-grader behavior. Interestingly, while these character storylines are all in third person, Valencia’s is in first person; from her tolerance of her father calling her an endearment she could do without (but loves because it is from him) to her forthright response to Chet, we easily see how crush-worthy she is.

There is suspense as we hold our breath wondering how Virgil will be saved, there is humor (especially from little Gen), there is the slow evolution of different personalities, and of what will be, we can be certain, a warm friendship between Virgil, Valencia, and Kaori beyond the book’s ending. It may be this is a book for introverts? I can’t say, but it provided all that I want in a book for children — an intriguing plot, beautifully articulated characters, tight and elegant sentences, wit, and opportunity for thought. Hello, Universe is one quiet, emotional book that I recommend highly.

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Gilles Bachelet’s MRS. WHITE RABBIT

In case you don’t know me, I’m a Carrollian; that means, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are beloved books of mine. This blog is named after this obsession and the shrinking Alices in the banner are ones I drew long ago in my days as an aspiring illustrator. (More can be seen here.) I speak, write, do, and seek out all things Alice all the time. My current WiP is centered around the real story behind the fictional ones. And because of this obsession I’m always eager to see new interpretations of Carroll’s characters, setting, and words. Sadly, too many miss hugely (Tim Burton’s Alice films are the latest travesties), but some really capture Carroll’s wit in unique and original ways. Such a one is French book creator Gilles Bachelet in his delightful oversized picture book, Mrs. White Rabbit.  I picked up a copy of this several years ago in Germany and was over-the-top excited when publisher Anita Eerdmans told me that Eerdmans was bringing it out in the US.

The text is Mrs. White Rabbit’s tired, frustrated, teeth-clenched, and hilariously dry diary entries. These are wittily brought to life in illustrations large and small. There’s her oldest Beatrix who, after considering a wide variety of occupations, has decided she wants to be a supermodel and is spending all her time on the scale. A double page spread shows the worried mother’s 100 different recipes for carrots with the sad note: “nothing will do.” Alice makes an appearance (we see the poor woman vacuuming around her huge foot) and Mr. White Rabbit suggests hiring her as a babysitter. “Another one of his brilliant ideas? Who wants their children looked after by someone who doesn’t know how to stay a reasonable size?”

Poor, poor Mrs. White Rabbit whose husband is far too busy at the palace to help. She sadly writes : “My life is quite different from what I once dreamed about.  I would have loved to be a writer. To invent stories full of marvelous places and extraordinary characters. But how could I find inspiration in my dull everyday life?”  Of course, the illustrations show both the mundane and the marvelous.

This book is wonderful to look at — the illustrations are full of references to the original book as well as full of other wry tweaks playing off the text. There are great easter eggs through out; for example, I’m guessing the twins Gibert and George are a reference to the real-life artist pair. While those who know the original story will delight in this clever take, those who don’t will also enjoy the detail art and understandably grumpy view of this fairy tale rabbit spouse.

At the end, while Mr. White Rabbit rushes to fix things with his wife — the final image does not suggest he is successful. Perhaps in the sequel — Mrs. White Rabbit Runs Away?— we could see her having some of those fun adventures she dreamed of!

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Coming Soon: Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief

Elizabeth Wein’s books offer so much. The worlds she creates are remarkable in their textures; whether they are set in actual historical pasts or fantasy historical pasts, they are rich with touches large and small that bring the worlds alive for readers. She does something similar with characters, making them complex, flawed, and vivid whether they are the ones we care deeply about, those that terrify us, or simply those a bit more on the fringe of the story. All of them feel fully rounded, ones we readers inhabit fully as we read. Then there is plot — Wein is a master at creating complex, driving, tangled, twisty, and unpredictable plots.  Lastly, there is emotion, and not just for the characters — these are books that set readers’ hearts pounding, produce gasps of astonishment, smiles at the wit, and tears of joy and sadness.

Among Wein’s works are two novels set during Word War II: the jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing Code Name Verity and the equally dramatic and heartrending Rose Under Fire. Now we have The Pearl Thief, a prequel to Code Name Verity, featuring a much younger Julie. I admit I was a bit wary starting the novel, wondering if Wein was pushing too far with the same characters , but I needed have worried. This work is marvelous, as fully realized in all its facets as all the others. While the book isn’t out for a while yet, I wanted to get my thoughts down now (in a spoiler free way of course) so as not to have them drift away and to, hopefully, excite those of you waiting for it.

It is 1938 as the story begins and we meet fifteen-year-old Julie heading home to her family’s Scottish estate from her Swiss boarding school for the summer. The death of her grandfather and the need to pay off his extensive debt has meant that the estate has been sold and is being turned into a school. And so Julie’s return is bittersweet, her family occupying a few rooms of the place temporarily until they move out for good. Shortly after her arrival she lands in the hospital, having been hit on the head by an unknown assailant and then saved by local Travelers. Things and people go missing, mysteries pile up and Julie, her brother Jamie, and the Traveler siblings Euan and Ellen try to get to the bottom of it all.

While it has some of the delicious attributes of a cosy mystery, this is far more rich, a highly complex narrative featuring Julie’s coming-of-age (emotionally, sexually, and intellectually), the unpacking of family histories (Julie’s and the Travelers), direct presentations of period prejudices, all within a riveting plot full of Wein’s trademark twists and turns. As in her previous books, Wein creates a rich past world, fascinating characters, dramatic scenes, and great emotional depth. While it is not necessary to have any familiarity with Code Name Verity, those who have it will enjoy the younger Julie, observing her developing into the young woman that she is later on. Finally, in addition to everything else, Wein is just a wonderful wordsmith. I love her sentences, her dry wit. Say this brief bit on page 47.

Mother got up again, with an air of determination.

“Perhaps I’m a witness!” I said relishing the idea.

No one else relished it.

The Pearl Thief is a complete delight. Highly recommended.

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