Follow by Email

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Making Music

Beginning at age four, I took piano lessons, influenced by my great grandmother's playing. I remember each of my five teachers quite well and loved some more than others. One decision I made in high school was to keep music as a hobby and not pursue a musical major in college. Still, I love stories about musicians and their determination to develop their talents, despite outside pressures to abandon musical pursuits in favor of more prestigious or higher-paying careers. Take Leonard Bernstein, for example. Though his mother supported his dream to play piano well, his father told him he could only be a klezmer with such a career choice. Lenny persevered, and as we know, became one of the most respected musicians and directors of all time.

Susan Goldman Rubin's latest biography - Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein - taught me about his early life and his rise to recognition and fame. Accompanied by numerous photographs, the work he did with many other famous musicians and those who became close friends is described in detail. Her timeline, biographies of other musicians, list of recordings and resources (which motivated me to reserve the recommended recordings from the library), and an epilogue about his later life help complete the story. It is the perfect book to recommend to the 5th graders for their Wax Museum projects, especially since the high school students will be performing West Side Story in two months.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Family Reading Night Again

Hearts and squares flowed across the screen. Questions bubbled like a fountain from children's and parents' mouths. Michael Hall's bright images, carefully formed text, and thoughtfully constructed responses enchanted all of us in attendance at another intriguing Family Reading Night. As if we were viewing deleted scenes from a movie, he showed the rejected pages (he began with 80!) from My Heart is Like a Zoo. We all giggled at the antics of the beaver in a short film Michael assembled in an effort to create a book trailer for the book. The sneak-peak of his next book delighted the audience with its playful language. And then young and old gathered paper squares, scissors, glue sticks, and paper punches to transform their own squares as Michael did in Perfect Square. It was a perfect evening.

One insightful dad asked Michael what things he would want the children to take away from his presentation. He specifically mentioned how important it is to keep an open mind about what something becomes, instead of being so set on an outcome that the possibilities are missed. That advice went far as the boats, storms, ladybugs, and other creatures filled the pages.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Elements Revisited

It is no surprise, I am certain, that I love bookstores. Not the large, chain types. I love my favorite independent bookshop on Grand Avenue (where children's and young adult books outnumber adult books by probably 4 to 1). For more than a quarter century I have loved the University Bookstore. Though it changed locations years ago from the underground spot in Williamson Hall to a more central location in Coffman Memorial Union, I still feel good wandering through the aisles and spaces. 

On my annual pre-holiday shopping visit to the University Bookstore, the display of Theodore Gray's Elements products caught my eye. The boys got the puzzle for Christmas, and I relearned the periodic table as the pieces were assembled. For the book version, see For visual learners, this is a far better tool to help with memorizing the elements than the table I used 27 years ago.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Looking at Lincoln

The second graders surprised me with their intense interest over the past week. I read aloud from Honk and then started them on a mini-research project that lasted for the rest of the time. Inspired by Alexander Graham's portrait of Abraham Lincoln taken on February 5, 1865, they shared what they already know about him and then made observations about the photograph. While I explained some things, they attempted to sit for three whole minutes in the same pose as Lincoln (we stopped at 90 seconds). They noted things like the light and shadows, his blurry hands, the glasses and pen in his hands, his crooked bow tie, and his watch fob. I read aloud Maira Kalman's new book Looking at Lincoln (from the F & G as I just got the actual hardcover this week), and they listened intently. Then they went off in groups of 3 or 4 with other books about Lincoln and recorded facts they learned. All this time, every single person was completely focused! 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Have You Read? #21

Yesterday at lunch I read-walked for a bit with John Green's latest novel The Fault in Our Stars. Then I could hardly sit through my afternoon curriculum day meetings in anticipation of reading again when I got home.

This is not the sort of novel I thought I would enjoy reading. The narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is dying of cancer. She needs an oxygen tank with her at all times. Yet she looks at life, at death, and at those trying to accept death with an honest, matter-of-fact, sort of attitude. Out of respect for her parents, she attends a weekly support group for young people with cancer. It is there she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor and friend of another support group attendee. The two immediately sense a connection. They understand each other's quirky, biting humor, as well as the emotions they confront as they live with parents who love them deeply. They have the same reaction to a book by an eccentric, alcoholic Dutch author...and try to get answers from him in almost unbelievable ways.

The book's title comes from a line in Julius Caesar when Cassius tells Brutus: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves..." That Dutch author, Peter Van Houten, does not quite agree with the playwright's words.

I loved the humor amidst the bleak hope. I loved Hazel's willingness to reach out to Isaac, the friend who brought Augustus to support group with him. I loved how Augustus's parents respect their son's love for Hazel. And I loved how Hazel thought so much of her parents and what they might experience if she died.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Subnivean Zone

While drinking my tea and nibbling a chocolate chip cookie this afternoon, I paged my way through a pile of books next to my chair. Do you learn something new each time you read a book? I do. From Kate Messner's lovely picture book Over and Under the Snow, I now know where the subnivean zone is located and what goes on in that environment. This year in Minnesota the subnivean zone might be non-existent, given that it is the  airy place (more accurately, it is a connected network of small places) between the ground and the snow cover formed from the warmth of the ground melting the snow. There are few snow-covered spaces in my yard or in the nearby woods. Creatures like mice, moles, voles are safer from predators in the subnivean zone.

"Under the snow, a chipmunk wakes for a meal. Bedroom, kitchen, hallway - his house under my feet."

Kate's book, charmingly illustrated in mixed media by Christopher Silas Neal, is narrated by a young Nordic skier who moves over the snow with her dad. He tells her about the "secret kingdom" that exists under their skis, and the two encounter many "over the snow" creatures on their journey toward a supper bonfire in the moonlight. The illustrations are cross sections of the snow and woods, perfectly portraying the animals moving, dozing, and working. One last page shows the cross section of the narrator under her covers, dreaming of the creatures she encountered. The author's note gives information about each of the animals in the book and a great list of titles and websites for further investigation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Love in the Air

We're reading a romance this week, I tell the children. The boys groan. The girls smile. The teachers nod. It is by Sara Pennypacker, the same author who wrote Clementine, and it's called Pierre in Love. There are laughs when Pierre notes that even words that sound like his beloved Catherine's name delight him (like aspirin or bathroom) and that he is reminded of her by many things (sunrises, sunsets, and empty potato chip bags). Despite the mix-ups and missed opportunities, the ballet teacher and fisherman follow good advice: if you love someone, tell him or her!

I love so many people and shared love yesterday with chocolate raspberry linzer cookies :)

At the end on the story steps, all appear pleased when Catherine's and Pierre's hearts become one.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Always Looking

Children are asked to read biographies all through the year at our school, and though there are thousands of biographies in print and hundreds in our collection, we always search for even more unique people to bring to readers. Louise Borden's latest book - His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg - introduces readers to an incredible human being. Born in Sweden, he took a post in Budapest, Hungary during World War II to save Jewish people from Nazi marches and death camps. Using methods like collective passports, schutzpasses, and buildings designated as Swedish property, he saved thousands of lives. Determined to keep the Jews safe until the Russians liberated them, Wallenberg instead was taken to Lubyanka Prison in 1945 and never heard from again.

When a teenage photographer named Tom Veres was without a position (after Hungarian Admiral Horthy resigned), he became Raoul's photographer, capturing historical images that otherwise would have been unknown.

"At first he was afraid he would be caught, but Raoul's courage inspired the young Hungarian. Tom cut a narrow hole in his woolen scarf and then hid his Leica camera...pointing the lens through the slit so that the Nazis wouldn't notice when he took photos." - p. 100

Engaging from start to finish, the author's extensive research and image collection add to the biography's intrigue.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

One and Only

"Memories are precious," Stella adds. "They help tell us who we are." - p. 53
I love that thought. It sums up how I think about my past, the people I love and have loved, the events that have shaped my life, the scents that transport me to places and times, the places that mean so much. This photo reminds me of the laughter that occurred just before my middle son took the photograph. He had been pointing the camera toward himself, looking into the wrong spot, and closing the eye that was supposed to be looking. My sweet grandmother was laughing so hard - and my son caught that moment on film as well!

The words were spoken by a non-human. Stella is an elephant in Katherine Applegate's latest novel The One and Only Ivan, a book I have been longing to read since its release last month. Stella is also the best friend of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who narrates the book, lives next to her, and is an artist. Really. Along with a few other creatures, they are captives in a shopping mall circus display. Aside from their friendship with each other and Bob, a stray dog, their experiences with other animals are limited. 

Yet there is hope for them. When the circus/mall owner acquires a baby elephant named Ruby, Ivan knows something has to change. He needs to change Ruby's story. 

I cannot begin to share the plot because there are so many wonderful things to savor, that cause laughter and tears, and that make the reader contemplate humanity - and because I want others to read this book. It is an excellent story. 

"Because she remembers everything, Stella knows many stories. I like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings. But any story will do." - p. 63

Friday, February 10, 2012

May I Bring a Friend?

Unless librarians introduce children to certain books, some books might not reach children. The 1965 Caldecott Medal Winner is one such book. The bright pink spine is not especially appealing. The color palate is limited (and alternating with black and white pages). It is just not one that children choose on their own! Written by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and illustrated by Beni Montresor, the rhymes are fun to read aloud, and the illustrations bring a surprise with each page turn. We read it aloud this week to first and second graders, and they giggled and gasped. All our copies were gone in a day!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

CTC Evening

Have you ever made plans and then wished you had not? I felt that way last night. Things during the day did not go as anticipated, and family life after that was equally disappointing. The last thing I felt like doing was heading downtown to an evening event. But the tickets had been paid. Two friends were planning to go with me.

Our destination was the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, though we were not going to watch a play. Instead, author Gary Schmidt and CTC Artistic Director Peter Brosius would be conversing about the CTC's upcoming staging of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. From Peter's first question about Gary's writing studio (an out-building, heated by a woodstove) and his method of writing (1953 Royal typewriter; it slows him down), the evening was magical. Peter was an outstanding interviewer, and Gary told story after story about his work and his thoughts. It felt like we were witnessing a conversation, not an interview.

And then there was the thrill of seeing some of the cast members read a scene for us! The three of us made plans to attend the play (which runs March 13-April 8).

The CTC shares the building with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and we quietly opened the shared doors to view Dale Chihuly's sun before heading out to see the full moon, all of us glad we had come.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

China Books

I started reading Honk: The Moose by Phil Stong this afternoon to second graders. The book's copyright is 1936, and one child said, "If a book is that old, people could call it china." Why? I asked. "Because it is fragile," he told me, with a voice that indicated it should be obvious!

Incidentally, the children were instantly engrossed in the story of Ivar and Waino, two boys who discover a real moose in Ivar's father's livery stable. Timeless fears and surprises kept their interest and made them gasp and laugh. They all want to go to Biwabik, Minnesota to see the statue of Honk there.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

In Honor of Crescent

Crescent Dragonwagon's latest cookbook was released a few weeks ago. Bean by Bean features "more than 175 recipes for fresh beans, dried beans, cool beans, hot beans, savory beans, even sweet beans!" We enjoyed each other's company a few years ago at a potluck lunch in Vermont, and I brought brownies. So, one of those sweet bean recipes in the cookbook is for my favorite peanut butter cup brownies, first discovered almost twenty years ago (and then modified) in a tiny little cookbook called The 55 Best Brownies in the World. I baked them this afternoon in honor of Crescent. Her voice comes through in every recipe introduction and explanation! Later this week her pasta e fagioli is on the menu. Everything in her cookbook sounds delicious, and because they come from Crescent, they are sure to made with fresh, natural ingredients.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Favorite Words

This week Vicki at Children's Literature Network asked for submissions of favorite words. I have so many. I am embarrassed to say I submitted none because there are long lists in my journals. Not a good reason. My tablemate at this morning's Books for Breakfast event said his would be irritated. That would go on my least favorite words list, perhaps just because it sounds like what it means. Instead, my list would include things I like for their sounds as well as for their meanings:

clandestine   frosty   clarity   safe   chocolate   cardamom   maple   reflection   mom   mountain   ocean   cumulus   cirrus   chickadee   fjord   journey   porch   swing   nuthatch   perpetual   magenta

I'll stop there.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Moral Connection

At the end of "Harvest" in Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote these words:

"But she didn't understand why Pa had called him a little liar. She didn't understand how Charley could be a liar, when he had not said a word."

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Ingalls family had been to Uncle Henry and Aunt Polly's house so Pa could help Uncle Henry cut and shock the oats. Cousin Peter is told to help the men in the afternoon, but he fooled them three times by yelling as if something was terribly wrong. The fourth time he yelled, the men did not run to him. His yelling continued because he had actually jumped on a yellow jacket nest and was being stung repeatedly!

The second graders were quick to comment on Charley's status as a liar. Then one child said, "It is just like The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Others agreed. "And you know that moral, right?" the child asked. Not all kids could recite it. "You can't believe a liar, even when he is telling the truth," he told everyone. Nods all around.