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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reading Connections

This week I have been reading a variety of books. In my past reading life, I never read more than one book at the same time; focusing on a single topic was necessary for focus and engagement. Lately though, I have appreciated the opportunity to read a few chapters of a Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery, switch to an intermediate-grade novel (like Lisa Graff's Absolutely Almost), and spend some contemplative time with a more serious non-fiction book.

Today I finished Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath: Underdogd, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants and then opened to my bookmark in Jenny Lee's Elvis and the Underdogs: Secrets, Secret Service, and Room Service. The latter is a sequel and features a Newfoundland who acted as a service dog to the main character, Benji Barnsworth, but is now the First Dog. Amazingly, Elvis can talk and communicate, and he has sent a Morse Code message to Benji on a YouTube video, begging for help. So, Benji is in Washington, D.C., and Elvis calls Benji "a feisty little David" and explains how the expression is "used to describe the little guy going up against big odds."

The former is a fascinating look at a variety of case studies in which the powerful do not triumph in expected ways because the underdogs - or seemingly less powerful people - behave in unexpected ways that bring about incredible results. French people in Le Chambon during World War II embraced the opportunity to take in Jews, hiding them and guiding them to safety, and the government knew about it. The Catholics in Northern Ireland did not behave as the British army expected, and the attacks on the people resulted in devastation and violence that went beyond what was necessary. Students who choose the larger, more prestigious university programs often find being a little fish in a big pond is not desirable. The examples from education, law enforcement, civil rights, war, and medicine speak to the power of underdogs.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Like Carrot Juice

Knowing books to recommend for readers is a necessity in the library world. Readers trust their librarians, knowing she or he would not suggest a book for them unless it was really good. As I continue reading this summer, I am gathering titles to share with readers in a few months, books I know will capture their attention and bring them back for another recommendation. This morning, the book was Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake.

Julie Sternberg began a charming series in 2011 about a girl named Eleanor with the book Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie. Eleanor must cope with the move of her favorite babysitter Bibi to another state. In  Like Bug Juice on a Burger, Eleanor goes to summer camp, courtesy of her grandmother, and she copes with the challenges of living away from home and of doing things she does not do well (like swimming). In the latest book, Eleanor copes with having her best friend Pearl spend more time with a sparkly new student than with her. Each book is illustrated by Matthew Cordell, and each can stand alone from the series (though I like learning more about Eleanor in each book). Told in verse, they are perfect for readers who want something a little less daunting than a long chapter book.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Three Bird Summer

Sara St. Antoine's book Three Bird Summer was the perfect book to read on this idyllic summer day. Adam and his new friend Alice spend their days on Three Bird Lake in northern Minnesota paddling, swimming, creating games, reading, and trying to solve a mystery. Having spent time at places like Adam's grandma's cabin, it was almost like being on familiar trails and waterways with them. What I especially liked about this quiet novel for middle grade readers was the surprising and realistic friendship between Adam and Alice and the connections they built with the natural world. The mystery that allows Adam to better understand his grandma added an excellent intergenerational element to the story. I wish I had read the book prior to creating summer reading lists!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tuscan Sun

Earlier in the month while visiting the North Shore, we came across a Little Free Library in a most unusual (but convenient) place: inside the lakeside "fish house" of the lodge. The mix of choices offered something for all ages of guests, and because the book I had selected for the trip was not as stellar as I expected, I chose Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, a book I always intended to read but never quite did. Today, in my favorite reading chair and on my padded windowseat, I finished her account of restoring Bramasole, the estate on the Tuscan hillside.

I am struck by the amount of work required to finish the many projects and can only imagine the sums of money needed to fund the work. But I loved meeting the people in and around Cortona who offered advice, became friends, and thought enough of the place to work carefully. I loved the descriptions of food and flowers and stones. Mostly, I loved imagining the light at various times of day and night, shining through trees and gates, reflected on water, illuminating the people. It was an excellent book to finish on this steamy summer afternoon. And now I want a cooler day so I can bake her lemon cake!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Prairie Seeds

Phyllis Root's latest book - Plant a Pocket of Prairie - opens with words of reminiscence: "Once prairie stretched for thousands of ocean of flowers and grasses, a sea of sky..." The book's lyrical text encourages readers to imagine who and what might come if even a pocket of prairie was planted. Plant things like foxglove beardtongue, butterfly weed, rough blazing star, asters, purple coneflowers, goldenrod, cup plants, big bluestem and Indian grasses, and numerous others. Birds like the ruby-throated hummingbird, chickadee, and dickcissel might come to nest. Monarchs, swallowtails, great spangled fritillaries, and checkerspot butterflies might flit amongst the blooms and grasses. One plant or being attracts others, widening the prairie's reach. Betsy Bowen's block prints and watercolors complement the words with lovely colors, often extending the story beyond the text.

Those prairies (which covered about 40% of the United States) have been transformed into farms and towns and citified, reducing their coverage to a mere one percent of the land. The author's note offers ideas for planting pockets of prairies wherever there is soil...a windowbox, a backyard plot. All the flora and fauna mentioned in the text are explained in greater detail at the end of the book. I plan to scatter my own seeds!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Parallel Worlds

When Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary was released in 2007, I delighted in the friendship between a young girl named Mary and a mouse living in Mary's house. The title hints at what readers find inside the book: a parallel world of humans and mice, living quite amiably together. Or at least those two members of each species do. Beverly Donofrio's story is charming, and Barbara McClintock's detailed illustrations add tidbits of information and intrigue to the story. Mary and Mouse grow up together, and their children encounter each other, too.

That relationship continues in Where's Mommy? Reminiscent of Mary Norton's The Borrowers in how big characters co-exist with little characters, it is the story of Maria and Mouse Mouse. McClintock's illustrations run horizontally across the pages, showing each character's lives and actions. What Maria does in her world, Mouse Mouse does in miniature. While Maria sits on a stool, Mouse Mouse sits on a tiny jam jar. The combined work of the author and illustrator mesh so beautifully, creating another delightful picture book. Reading aloud both to primary readers in the fall is in my plan.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not Working = Reading

Teachers have the summers off. A common misconception. We are not at school every day. We are not grading or managing classrooms. We can meet a friend for tea or attend a conference without finding a substitute. But we really do work in the summers. We work to prepare for what we will teach and learn with another group of students.

For me, much of the summer work involves reading...and reading and reading. No complaining voice accompanies those repetitions. Not working in the summers in the formal sense means I have time to read for my work with students, families, and staff members during the school year. And that is how I have occupied many hours of the past week (the first away from school).

Numerous titles await their return to the public library (including the hilarious This is a Moose by Richard T, Morris and The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc). Mostly, I have been savoring Revolution by Deborah Wiles. The second book in her 60s trilogy, it is designed like Countdown, filled with photographs, speeches, advertisements, and articles from the time period. This historical evidence is intermingled with the historical fiction, transporting me to Mississippi in 1964 to experience Freedom Summer through the eyes of Sunny Fairchild, her stepbrother Gillette, and Raymond Bullis, a black about their age. So thoroughly immersed am I in their world that I have even been dreaming of them! I love the voices of those three young people and how the author seamlessly moves from one voice to another to show all sides of an encounter or issue. My emotions rage as I read in disbelief of the actions and statements of Americans against their fellow Americans. Through it all, I am carried by the tide of hope and the gratitude for those brave people who worked to bring freedom to all.

Early on, Sunny proclaims, "Sometimes you just need a book near you and you can't explain why." I can explain why I need a book closeby, but I could not help but admire this character who learns that lessons at a young age.

Another Note: The author's fabulous picture book (Freedom Summer) has long been a favorite for introducing civil rights to upper elementary students.