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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books Appreciated

My nieces and nephew called yesterday. I love to hear their young, enthusiastic voices on the other end, telling me what they are doing and what they love. They had just unwrapped the books we got for their Christmas gifts. They know before opening the packages that books are contained inside the paper, but they still appreciate the surprise of the new titles. The oldest was thrilled to get The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Darth Paper Strikes Back and noticed right away how Tom Angleberger drew Origami Yoda and Darth Paper on the title pages with his personalized signature. The ever-sincere middle child loved all her books, but she especially adored Tiny Treasures (out-of-print, unfortunately, but I snagged a good used copy), a terrific American Girl publication that features itty-bitty craft projects made from common objects. And the littlest liked everything: Can't Sleep Without Sheep, My Heart is Like a Zoo, and two more. I love imaging them reading.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Necessary E

Imagine a world without E. It would b difficult to spll in usual ways. Common things would b missing thr parts. In Tom Lichtenheld's new book E-mergency (created with Ezra Fields-Meyer), E gets a bit too much speed coming down the stairs and is out of commission for a while. The other letters in the alphabet house try to work without the essential letter and decide that noble O will take E's place.

A tells the other letters: "That's right. Starting right NOW, it's O instead of E. That's it, poriod."

Things go awry after that. Though the other letters try to be helpful - speaking on talk shows, spreading the word about E in their travels - E does not seem to get well. The narrator is eventually told by the other letters to stop using their "bod-riddon buddy" in the book's text, and suddenly, E is "out of bod and roady to go back to work. Just in timo for...ThE End."

Lichtenheld's ever-comical side speeches and speech bubbles, along with the detailed illustrations, add humor and connections for readers (like the Targot bag!).

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reading Day

Though I had many things to do today, reading seemed the best option. I've been savoring Kevin Kling's autobiographical pieces in The Dog Says How and alternately laugh and cry as I ponder his insights into humanity. I have loved best two things:
* From "Perception" - Perception, deception, refraction, distraction. We see it when we believe it. We are all so worried about being deceived. Take a day off. Stand in front of a mirror and have your loved one tell you how great you look. Believe me, you look hot.
* From "Racing Toward Solace" - I believe each of us is drawn to a geography whether it's mountains, the desert, or an ocean. There lives in a particular nature that which provides us solace but also awakens our muse.
What brings you solace? For me, it is home or the mountains.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Word Play

The wooden NOEL blocks on our mantel sometimes read LONE or LEON. The WELCOME blocks near the front door are currently missing LCO, and the M is inverted to spell WE WE. My husband loves playing with the words...and seeing how long it takes me to notice his latest movements (he also plays Words With Friends for an hour each day). 
In  Max's Castle by Kate Banks, Max pulls alphabet blocks from under his bed, trying to create excitement from his older brothers. They are the ones, should you have read Max's Words and Max's Dragon, who are never very willing to share, yet they always find Max's word discoveries interesting. In this latest installment, Max builds a castle with rooms for each brother (featuring the things each loves) and continues to tell a story using his blocks to spell out the characters, places, and activities. When things get tenuous or just need to be changed up a bit, Max moves around the blocks. The PIRATES become RAT PIES, for example. It is ingeniously organized and boldly illustrated by Boris Kulikov.  A perfect gift for one who loves word play or those who need inspiration in that area.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Full Mailbox

The boys beat me home each day, and I miss out on one of my favorite sights: a mailbox filled with holiday greetings. Yes, they courteously put them on the kitchen counter for me to open, but the thrill of  retrieving them myself is gone - for a few years anyway. Still, the delight I take in reading cards and letters, seeing familiar faces just a bit older and changed, and  imagining the people I love is extreme. It is a great pleasure of life to keep close the people we hold dear through our correspondence. And then there are the weekly letters from my mom that feature some funny story from her past or recent experiences. I do love a full mailbox.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Paddling, Rowing, Reading

As I get older, I read things that never would have appealed to me at a younger age. Nonfiction, most surprising to me, has become a frequent choice.

My friend Jan, an avid paddler, recommended Jill Fredston's book Rowing to Latitude, and even she is a bit surprised I have enjoyed it so much. Jill describes the thousands of miles she has rowed with her husband Doug along coasts and rivers of the world. Though not an experienced paddler, I have explored the sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a bit of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and an even smaller bit of Kabetogama Lake in Voyageurs National Park. I have never rowed in the sliding seat boats Jill describes and uses. None of that made reading her book any less intriguing. In fact, I was mesmerized, not only by the technical things she describes, but also by her observations of scenery and people they encountered on these long journeys.

Though our lives have entirely different paths and surroundings, what she wrote about the lessons she learned from the Yukon River resonate with me. I keep relearning these things in my life:

"Keep moving but find places to slow down. Don't go straight at the expense of meandering. Nurture others; accommodate both change and tradition. Savor the element of surprise. Be gracious, accepting, resilient."

As a read-walker, I loved how she accomplishes her two favorite things at once:

"I became so desperate to amuse my parboiled brain that I bungee-corded Wallace Stegner's Angles of Repose to my feet and read while I rowed, not an easy task."

Jill's incorporation of history, geology (she is an avalanche expert), anthropology, culture, and nature in her travels and her thoughtful voice make it a pleasure to row along with her.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Have You Read? #20

Sometimes I read a book that brings me so deeply into a character's mind and circumstance that it takes me a long time to resurface. Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin's Nose has done that to me this week. Knowing from reviews how vividly young Sasha's life experience would be portrayed, I began the book hesitantly. Instantly, I was hooked.

"My dad is a hero and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him. I can never be like Comrade Stalin, of course. He's our great Leader and Teacher."

Sasha proceeds to write Comrade Stalin a letter, detailing his commitment to joining the Young Soviet Pioneers and training his vigilant character. Within hours, the young boy's life is in upheaval, yet he maintains the belief that with Comrade Stalin's help, all will be made right, never wavering in his faithfulness to the Communist ideals. The depth of brainwashing and use of propaganda to reinforce twisted ideas and supposed facts is incredible. Without giving away too much of the plot, just know that the plaster bust of Stalin in the elementary school hallway plays into a fateful accident that shapes Sasha's destiny.

In the end he is waiting in a long line in Lubyanka Square, suddenly befriended by an older woman who shares a warm scarf, hopeful and looking toward his future.

Yelchin's stark monochromatic illustrations provide intensity, action, and insight amidst the tension of the text. The stunning dust jacket shows St. Basil's and the Kremlin in the distance with the young boy marching across the icy streets through thick snow. Yelchin's Author's Note ends with these words:

"I set this story in the past, but the main issue in it transcends time and place. To this day, there are places in the world where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Connection

Last week's chapter in Little House in the Big Woods was entitled "Christmas". The second graders loved thinking about the molasses candy Laura and Mary got to pour in squiggles in clean pans of snow, the pictures they made falling flat in the snow, and the stories they listened to their parents tell when the children were supposed to be sleeping. This morning one sweet girl brought her personal copy of the picture book entitled Christmas in the Big Woods to show me how many of the things from the chapter were illustrated there! She was so proud of the connection to her personal book collection. I looked at each page and let her point out the similarities. She will be an excellent book club member soon!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Be a Book Character

A second grade teacher left her class with me for specialist time saying, "What a bunch of characters!" This teacher faithfully reads aloud to her class and favors the books Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky wrote and illustrated about Stingray, Lumphy (the buffalo), and Plastic, and The Doll People series by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin. One usually quiet boy followed up on the word character, telling the class, "If I could be a book character, I'd be Sleeping Billy from The Meanest Doll in the World." This boy's reason? "That is just the coolest name."

That started a conversation in my head about book characters and who I might like to be...Caddie Woodlawn, perhaps. How about you?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lighthouse Perspective

Imagine celebrating Christmas with an almost-empty larder (what a great vocabulary word to promote word consciousness and the use of context clues!) on a rocky island in Penobscot Bay. Add to that the memories of holidays spent on the mainland with family members who played piano and made delicious food.

In Toni Buzzeo's latest book, Lighthouse Christmas, two young siblings, whose father is the lighthouse keeper, spend their first Christmas as a lighthouse family in just that manner. Their hopes were high about going ashore in a dory sent by their aunt. Peter even plans their celebrations in drawings, enticing his big sister Frances to dream about what things could be like. An overturned fishing boat changes their plans, and the lighthouse family spends the holiday with their rescued guest.

The readers in my library loved the ending of this book when the Ledge Light family gets a surprise visit from Santa who drops a package from his plane! They especially liked the author's information about the Flying Santa organization (

Sunday, December 11, 2011

O Christmas Tree

We set off this morning for our favorite tree farm to find that perfect tree for our holiday celebration. This tree farm has been our destination for 19 Christmases now! I love to hang back and watch the boys as they weave in and out among the trees, looking for straight trunks and well-rounded branches. They love walking to the garage/barn with me to greet our friend Bruce who kindly tells them each how they've grown and remembers what they told him last year. They find our family photograph amidst the hundreds of other family photographs on the boards around the woodstove.

As they hung their cherished ornaments on its lit branches tonight, I marveled at the how they each appreciate these traditions. Tomorrow night I will start reading some of our favorite tree and holiday stories during and after dinner:

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston
Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry
The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen
and, their all-time favorite
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

How do you find just the right tree for you?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Book Angels

Each year the Red Balloon Bookshop offers the community the opportunity to purchase books for children in local shelters - and they match the dollars spent. Our sons like choosing their favorites, hoping another reader will love the books as much as they do. They always pick The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (in hardcover, just like we have it), The Wednesday Wars (one of our all-time favorite books), and Each Peach Pear Plum (which all of us memorized when they were little).

This year my husband's colleagues joined in the experience, and we purchased a whole table of books for kids to read and cherish. We chose books we love to give (The Best Pet of All, Mercy Watson to the Rescue, Because of Winn-Dixie), funny books (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Rrralph, Monkey With a Tool Belt), classic stories (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel), and so many others we love, all the while imagining them being held in another's hands and read again and again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Snowy Day Influence

After we read The Snowy Day, we tell the children about the other books Ezra Jack Keats wrote and illustrated that feature Peter. The normally full KEA shelf in the picture book section is down to just a few titles. I love how much impact a read-aloud selection can have on readers' independent book choices.

Our library office door features two snow angels, like those made by Peter, and numerous snowflakes. Some of the flakes were cut by me with a scissors, and some were created by the two of us using the very cool Make-a-Flake website (

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Awake All Night?

At the beginning of each month, several teachers request booktalks for their classes. Based on genre, the books are read in conjunction with a project the students will do independently. I love to watch the children as I do a brief commercial for each of the 40 or so titles I select. They watch and listen intently. Slowly, they inch closer to the book cart and me, obviously hoping they can just snatch their desired title before anyone else chooses it.

After talking about historical fiction book choices to a group of third graders this afternoon, the teacher commented that they were lucky to hear about so many good books in such a short time. One student asked, "Were you awake all night reading?"

Monday, December 5, 2011

Snowy Day Doors

The Snowy Day marks its 50th anniversary in 2012, and we are reading it aloud to students this week. They tell us how much they love this book, oblivious to the controversy originally surrounding the book in 1962. It was the first book to feature a non-white main character. They love the collage artwork, the snowy endpapers, and the expression in Peter's one eye when snow plops on his head.

Around the building, snowy doors are being created. Some are very much like scenes from the book. Some display similar elements but unique interpretations. The one in this photograph seems to have more snowflakes each day, cut by the kindergarten students who learn inside the door.

For more information about the book's anniversary, here is a good blog entry:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Poring Over Recipes

In Boston 2 1/2 years ago, I realized a dream I have had for 16+ years: going to Rosie's Bakery. While pregnant with each child, my body slipped into the gestational diabetes mode, and I ate and exercised so carefully to avoid insulin injections and complications. My survival skill was to read recipes of the luscious things I wished I could have been eating. Judy Rosenberg's two cookbooks topped the list. Her humorous introductions (and recipe names) kept me smiling while I wished for the actual treats.

This weekend I have been poring over Rosie's Bakery Chocolate-Packed, Jam-Filled, Butter-Rich, No-Holds-Barred Cookie Book in anticipation of baking numerous things for an upcoming holiday event. Chocolate Babycakes top the list, and I am going to try them this afternoon, just to be certain they will be delightful later this month. I wonder as I others take as much pleasure as me in reading recipes?

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Christmas Memory

James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway, lived on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, and the Hill House is now a Minnesota Historical Society site. Our family has enjoyed many Hill House experiences, but tonight might just be my favorite. Two fabulous readers and a musician brought guests back in time to rural Alabama where Sook and Buddy, two friends of like interests, find ways to make money all year (hiding the money in a bead purse under the chamber pot under the floor boards under Sook's bed) in order to make fruitcakes in November.

I love this story. Their interpretation was perfect. Really. Sook's vocal expressions and fitting looks and glances (especially when Mr. Ha Ha Jones comes to the door to sell them whiskey) made me feel like I was standing next to the buggy with her. When she cries after allowing Buddy to drink the remaining whiskey - and getting caught by the adults - I cried, too. My sweet husband found a tissue for me. But when Buddy is taken from her love and friendship and placed in military school, my heart ached for them both. I'm still sniffling.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chocolate Cake

A confession: I have eaten chocolate cake for breakfast. I always have something more nutritious with it, of course. But after I bake a chocolate cake, something about it calls to me after my morning walk or run.

Betty Bunny, the main character in our read-aloud this week, loves chocolate cake so much she decides to marry it. Her siblings point out the impossibility of this idea, but Betty Bunny's strong feelings for her cake prevail. When her mom tells her at bedtime that she loves her, Betty Bunny responds with, "I love chocolate cake." She goes to great lengths to extend that love throughout the day, even putting a piece in her pocket before going to school. Imagine that mess at dinnertime.

Betty Bunny's perceptions are a bit skewed beyond chocolate cake. Her mom has told her she is a handful. The children have many good definitions for what it means to be a handful: causing trouble for other people, not behaving well. Betty Bunny, however, think it must be very good to be a handful because she knows her parents love her. She tells her mother affectionately one night, "Mommy, you are a handful."

I giggle inside the whole time I read this book. The kids giggle and groan (especially at the end, which is too funny to write here). Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake was written by Michael Kaplan.