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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Character Development

The fourth graders have been considering all the ways authors create believable characters, the kinds who make such a deep impression on the reader that they feel like people we know. Do authors start with lists like the one created by the children? Noticeably absent are any physical characteristics!

I am thinking about the well-developed characters in The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I learned so much about them while immersed in the book that I wouldn't be surprised to meet one by chance. Fictional characters sometimes live on the edge of those people I really do know.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Person of Poetry

My teaching partner and I traded duties at the semester break, so I no longer teach first graders at the end of the day. Instead, I work with 3rd and 2nd graders in the library and visit a 5th grade class to share a poem. The latter had me a bit worried. Would I be able to engage them as my colleague had done during first semester?

My job is to bring a single poem to the class, tell about bit about the poet, and read the poem aloud. I type it for them to keep in a Daily Poetry binder in case they want to reread any of the poems. Yesterday afternoon was the test. I first asked them to help compose a title for me (she was the "poet laureate") that was somehow alliterative. Poetry Performer. Poet Person. And then Person of Poetry. That is what I will be for those 10-15 minutes each day until June 6th.

Yesterday's choice was "Icicles" by Barbara Juster Esbensen, taken from Cold Stars and Fireflies. They listened carefully and noted the images she created with her well-chosen words. We all envisioned how "the sun plays them like a glass xylophone  a crystal harp." Their reactions were wonderful.

Today's choice came from Karla Kuskin's collection Moon, Have You Met My Mother? and was about snow play. They noted her witty word play and wondered what it is called when a poet puts rhyming words in the middle of subsequent lines. I do not know. They also taught me about enjambment, and we agreed she successfully did that.

What a wonderful way to end the school day!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Love Notes

Being a lifetime fan of the Peanuts gang, I purchased a mailbox many years ago, thinking it would be a good way to get the boys writing notes to each other and us when they were practicing those skills. Somehow, that never happened. Now there are only three of us in the house, and we are all skilled writers. Still, when I found the mailbox tucked in with some other items, I set it on the table and suggested that we put the flag up when we write a note to another person. My husband and teenager smirked.

Well, last night the flag was up, even before I put in the notes I had written to each of them. Inside was a recycled Valentine (originally to one of the boys and now to me) from my husband. On the front was a strange alien-like creature with buggy eyes. On the back in his handwriting it read, "You have me under your spell." Maybe the mailbox wasn't such a silly idea.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Lover's Day

While sitting through a three-hour long meeting today, I did something I probably should not have done. But I could not help myself. From 10:00 a.m. onward, I clicked the power button on my iPad every few minutes and checked the ALSC (Association of Library Service to Children) updates on Facebook to see which books were the award winners. Someone else commented that it was like Academy Awards Night for book lovers. I agree. Silent cheers emerged from my thoughts for the authors and illustrators. Almost a year ago, I wrote about today's Newbery Medal Winner, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate ( I have been wanting to write about the Caldecott Medal Winner, This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, but it is continually checked out of the library! Do check it out to view the illustrations.

Tonight I read the newest book in the Lemonade War series by Jacqueline Davies. It is called The Candy Smash. Though I enjoyed the first three books (and so do readers), I think this is the most clever of the series. Each chapter begins with the definition of a literary or journalistic term, and then the characters and the author cleverly practice that term (and continue to do so in subsequent chapters). They all taught me about slant rhymes. I will be looking more for them as I read.

The story is about the mysterious things that occur in Mrs. Overton's fourth grade class just before Valentine's Day. Candy hearts appear in each student's desk, and the messages on them seem perfect for each person! Jessie, the youngest and most determined student, decides to track down the candy-giver while also getting a front-page story for her class newspaper. Mingled with her clues are the daily poems Mrs. O. shares with the class and which prompt Jessie's older brother Evan (who is also in the class) to write poems of his own. Jessie's resulting conclusions and publication cause quite a stir. The poetry terms and several poems are reproduced at the end of the book.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

First Sample

My mom always finds gifts that delight me, gifts I would not get for myself. She splurges on the Primal Elements soaps I love. She locates books I enjoy. At Christmas, she got Julie Richardson's VINTAGE CAKES for me, and I open it often, just to look at the delicious photographs of what are certain to be scrumptious cakes. Yesterday, I finally baked Malted Milk Chocolate Cupcakes, and they are lovely to view and excellent to eat, especially with a glass of milk.

The author runs a Portland, Oregon bakery, and the prefaces to each recipe provide a bit of history and a few tips for success. Did you know malted milk powder became available in 1897 and was considered a health product? Or that cassata cake made its way to the U.S. at the start of the twentieth century? From hasty cakes and everyday cakes to flips, rolls, and party cakes, this cookbook has a wonderful selection of familiar recipes and unique ideas to keep me trying new things - and repeating some - in the coming months.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ways of Sleeping

After finishing Dreamland last week, I have been sleeping better...or maybe just appreciating the sleep I do get and incorporating a few of the recommendations from the book. No screen glare after 8:00 p.m. A reasonable calming routine that sometimes involves milk and a cookie. A bit of reading by a low light. Clearing my mind. Accepting my dreams.

I could also follow the advice given to the young, not-tired girl by her parents in Mary Logue's Sleep Like a Tiger. Despite her insistence that she is not sleepy, they insist she put on pajamas, wash her face, brush her teeth, and climb into bed. Then they tell her how all the creatures she loves go to sleep. The dog curls up in a ball on a lovely blue couch. The cat stretches out on a rug in front of the fireplace. Bats tuck in their wings. Whales circle the ocean. Snails "curl up like a cinnamon roll inside their shell." Grizzly bears make cozy dens. And tigers find shade before sleeping to stay strong.

I love how her non-sleepiness is resolved. But I especially love Pamela Zagarenski's lovely artwork. The everchanging backgrounds and patterns captivate me, and the unique additions of banners and crowns (and a traded Raggedy Ann and stuffed tiger) keep my eyes searching.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The important people in my life have passed on sayings to me. My grandma always said, "Isn't that the raspberries?" when she heard or saw something funny. In regard to people different from ourselves, my great aunt advised us to "use them up the way they are." 

In Clare Vanderpool's novel Navigating Early, narrator John Baker III includes so many wonderful sayings that were taught to him by his parents.  He explains these sayings at the start of the story. "My father is in the armed services too. Captain John Baker, Jr. He's in the navy. You know what they say. There's two kinds of fellas: navy men and those who wish they were. My father heard that from his father, Rear Admiral John Baker, Sr. I'm the third John Baker in a row. Believe me, I'd rather be a whole of something than just a third. But you get what you get and you are what you are. That saying comes from my mom's side of the family. The civilians. They're the fun side." (pp. 1-2)

His mom told him to "get out of the rain before it washes all the dry off." She also believed this: "There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload." All these sayings make me love the book, but I also love it because of Jack's genuinely honest voice, the ways he learns to deal with his classmates, the story his classmate Early Auden tells about the digits of pi, Early's uncanny ways of knowing what Jack needs, and the way the boys lives become inextricably connected. I also like that he uses the adverb librarianly to describe Miss B.'s manners. 

In the event of revealing too much, I will stop with my reasons for praising it. All of my Maine friends will particularly enjoy the setting!

p.s. These are concrete canoes on display in the engineering building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but they were as close as I could get to those rowed by John in the story.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In My Mind

Many creative friends surround me in the various places of life. Their ability to express themselves through art and words often makes me think I have the ability to do the same. Sure, I can follow a pattern to create a quilt or some knitted piece or a recipe, but I always envision drawings and paintings in my head that just do not appear the same when the images travel through my brain to my hand to the paper.

Kate DiCamillo summed up how I feel in her latest Facebook post. Years ago when she was talking her young friend Max through a pumpkin-carving disappointment, she told him this:

"You do the only thing you can do. You keep trying to make a jack-o-lantern. It never lines up exactly with what is in your head. But the more jack-o-lanterns you make, the closer you get."

As I age, I am less afraid of having my visions turn out differently than I expected. Sometimes, what comes out on paper actually surprises me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Ideas

Most people do not enjoy going to the dentist, but it is a place of beauty and book exchange for me! Our dentist's wife (who also manages the office) maintains orchids like no one else I know, and we love to talk about the books we have read since last seeing each other.

I love getting book ideas from others in so many different ways. A colleague told me how captivated she was with Chad Harbach's THE ART OF FIELDING, and I am now equally interested in it. My neighbor read Cheryl Strayed's WILD for her book group, and now I am reading her copy. My blogging friends share their favorites in connection with things I mention. My mom passes on suggestions of from her friends and librarians. And, of course, my teaching partner gives me ideas (and lets me borrow books she has checked out from other libraries, like Clare Vanderpool's NAVIGATING EARLY).

Who are your trusted book talkers?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Snow and Shadows

Despite the frigid temperature and wind chill, the sun and moon have made wonderful shadows on the snow. Reading in the library this afternoon, I remembered how much I love the shadows in the illustrations Kevin Hawked created for Kathryn Lasky's book MARVEN OF THE GREAT NORTH WOODS. The cover and several interior spreads feature young Marven and lumberjacks cross country skiing in Minnesota's north woods. Those lumberjacks look enormous! The shadows against the wall of Marven's Duluth home loom large as well as the boy overhears his parents' conversation concerning his well-being. They have decided to send him out of the city due to the influenza epidemic; he will be a ten-year-old boy in a logging camp! The shadows on the board and log walls of the camp convey his anxiety, his bravery, and the lumberjacks' spirited lives. The best part of the book, however, is the relationship that grows between Marven and lumberjack Jean Louis.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Snow Removal Machines

Incredibly creative and detailed snow removal machines hang on the snow mountains on the library wall, courtesy of the second graders' imaginations and TuxPaint art skills. People stop to admire and wonder about the machines and their powers. I have invited several passersby to enter the computer lab during the "construction" process because the children are usually narrating to themselves as they draw. The inner-workings of their machines are sometimes far-fetched, but some of the processes make a lot of sense! Thanks again to my sweet second grade teacher, Mrs. Otto, for sharing this idea with me.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Nine Kinds of Pie

We are missing what promises to be an excellent HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON party at our friends' house tonight. They actually have one purple bedroom with magnetic paint on the walls for large Magnetic Poetry words! It features purple line drawings that mimic Harold's/Crockett Johnson's drawings in the book. With themed food and games planned by two thoughtful people, our other friends are sure to still be enchanted when the draw up their covers this evening, drop their purple crayons, and drop off to sleep.

I have reread this classic books several times today with all of them in mind, knowing that I would have been baking pies today to share with them. Probably not nine kinds, as Harold created, but I always like to give choices. Apple, of course, because everyone seems to like that. And a chocolate cream because I have been craving it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Rereading Newbery Books

Sometimes, when a reader is stuck about what to read next, I suggest he or she go to the shelf of Newbery Medal books. And sometimes, I hesitate to make that suggestion. Not every medal winner has been delightful for me, and I worry that the readers may feel the same. So, I have begun rereading some titles I read many years ago in children's literature courses. On the top of the pile this weekend is the 1964 winner.

What have been some of your favorites through the years?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Inspiring Author Visit

I marvel at how things happen sometimes. A month ago I wrote about the historical research some of my fourth graders were conducting as they began to read historical fiction novels in small groups. One of those novels was Black Radishes. The book's author discovered my post and commented that she would be willing to visit with the readers. And so, this morning many of my favorite fourth graders visited with author Susan Lynn Meyer this morning - via Skype.

Despite the technological challenges (inability to access Skype on the classroom PC, borrowing the principal's laptop, inability to get sound via the LCD projector and SMART Board, losing power on the laptop, accessing Skype via my iPad and holding it aloft for the last 10 minutes), they absolutely loved talking with Susan! She shared vignettes and anecdotes (two things we have been discussing in writing workshop) about her father's family. She told them about the secrets behind the chosen names for the main character. She answered their carefully composed questions with humor and patience. She even got on a chair to hold up the 9 pages of editorial suggestions she received from her editor! All the while, they were riveted to the tiny laptop screen and iPad screen, taking in her responses with nods and verbal affirmations. If not for data privacy, I would show the image of them staring at Susan on the screen.

My favorite things were when she commented that "historical fiction is the closest you can get to time travel", when she told the children she wanted to be a writer because she has always loved to read, and when she suggested considering three possible plot events (and choosing one to write) when one is "stuck" as a writer. It was an inspiring visit for so many reasons.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Family Reading Night Stories

Lauren Stringer joined us for the fourth Family Reading Night of the school year last evening. After introducing her family, cats, and work space to the audience, she showed how she created the artwork for Tell Me About Your Day Today (written by Mem Fox). Everyone was astounded at the number of drawings and paintings she did as she tried to figure out "the who, the what, the why, and the way the whole wild thing turned out okay."

Then something amazing happened. She - along with a talented first grader - taught the audience to fold fortune tellers that were pre-printed with the character names from the book, weather events, objects, and a possible wild ending. They folded carefully and began trying out their story-gami tellers and telling stories. Next they wrote down and illustrated those stories. Sometimes, the whole room was buzzing with a silent concentration! Readers and listeners shared those clever stories - and took home the storytellers to begin again. What a clever and engaging activity for young and old readers and writers!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Sniffles for Bear

First and second graders are listening to Bonny Becker's fourth tale about the sometimes stern Bear and the always eager Mouse. We have enjoyed talking about the spicy words she uses, transforming the text from expected to extra special. Words like bellowed, bustled, and decency warranted excellent conversation tidbits. Their favorite part, however, is when tiny Mouse assists enormous Bear in climbing the stairs to bed. The story is a wonderful model of voice, and the set of books demonstrates how characters evolve over incidents and experiences. Given how many children have been sick over the past weeks, they can all relate to how Bear and Mouse are feeling, too.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hidden Poetry

My gifted colleague and friend inspired her 4th grade writers to imagine where poetry might hide. I could especially relate to these two (and wish I had written them myself):

Poetry hides in anyone who comes to visit.

Poetry hides in the sweet chocolate smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.

Today, she honored me with a poem entitled "Poetry Hides in a Thank You Note". For those unfamiliar with the term, "just right book" are those perfect for a reader in terms of vocabulary and difficulty.

"Just right friends are like just right books
Whether old or new, they fit

like that pair of well-worn shoes in my closet
like the smell of baking bread on a Sunday afternoon
like a favorite chair and a sweet-smelling cup of tea.

Just right friends are like just right books


I am inspired to write my own hidden poetry.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Place to Read

Last Friday at school, Debra Frasier commented on how our library has an exceptionally comforting feel to it. Readers are welcome to take time finding a book to suit them. Listeners actively engage as the librarians read aloud, watching, gasping, relaxing their bodies. Comments yesterday about the reading chairs we love at home got me wondering. Where do other people love to read? What spaces make a reader more or less engaged?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rare Reading and Rest

My husband and I have been sitting in our comfortable library chairs, mugs of Blueberry Fields tea in our hands, books on our laps. Ahh. The semi-quiet house (wind still whooshes outside and the furnace blasts warm air every so often) lends itself to our chosen positions and activities.

But despite a good night's sleep, I might switch to the window seat, my favorite place for an afternoon nap. For a while, I hope to continue the fascinating book DREAMLAND by David Randall. I feel like this guy has interviewed me about sleep, and he is doing a great job of helping me understand the science of sleep. Perhaps just reading it will guide my mind and body to better ways of sleeping.

Friday, January 11, 2013

World Premiere

I was honored this morning to be part of the world premiere of Debra Frasier's 2013 book SPIKE: UGLIEST DOG IN THE UNIVERSE. The F&G copy was bright in color and felt bold in my hands as I read it aloud to a 4th and a 3rd grade class. Debra listened to her story read aloud by someone else for the first time and observed how the young listeners reacted to the story.

We talked a lot about voice, listing things about Spike's voice gleaned just from the first page of the story. He is direct. He has a heart. He is hopeful despite his circumstances. The children imagined how a dog's bark would sound if it were joking or tired. They considered Spike's intrepid character and how he persevered in the face of uncertainty to save a friend.

And then, Debra told them the most amazing thing. "I brought a dog for each of you!" Those dogs were in folders, their biographies and photographs taken from They proceeded to make miniature books, filling them with drawings of their dogs and words to describe how those dogs were unique. On Monday, we will all learn more about each other's adopted dogs and begin to write stories about them.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Can vs. May

"Can I have another piece of pie?" Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown asks his mother in the first chapter of ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN, BOY DETECTIVE. Considering her career as an English teacher, she tells him he may have another piece.

The second graders are listening to me read this book aloud, and I stopped here to ask if anyone knew why his mom changes the word from can to may. Most of the hand-raisers had theories, but only one young girl was in-the-know on this one. She explained it well.

"Can means you are able to do it. May means you are allowed to do it." Nodding heads indicated their understanding.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Growing Time

My neighbor friend left for a month in Mexico, and in addition to caring for the household, I get the privilege of watching the bulb garden grow, promising to send pictures her way of the growth.

Having immersed myself in Barbara Kingsolver's FLIGHT BEHAVIOR all week, I feel as if I, too, have witnessed growth. The monarchs roosting in the mountainside trees above the main character's home have experienced many phases of the growth cycle. Through Dellarobia and Dr. Ovid Byron, I have become more versed in their habits and history. The visual images in my mind swirl orange and black.

With only 20 pages remaining, I need to finish before bedtime. Please read this important book!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Knightly Behavior

This week's read-aloud selection - KING ARTHUR'S VERY GREAT GRANDSON - has drawn laughter, gasps, and nods of approval. The great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of King Arthur, Henry Alfred Grummorson, wakes up on his sixth birthday, determined to display his bravery and ferocity. He seeks out a dragon but is disappointed when it only breathes smoke rings. From there, he is referred to the Cyclops (at which point several of the boys on the story steps close one eye and peer at me with the other one) and then a griffin and finally a leviathan. Each surprises the boy with kindness instead of aggression, and he received the unexpected from all four: friendship. Excellent ink and watercolor illustrations add to the well-told story.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Snow Creatures

Many years ago a special friend gave THE MOUSE THAT JACK BUILT by Cyndy Szekeres to the boys. It is a slight book in size, perfect for small hands, and it follows the pattern of the Jack story and has a few plot variation that make it less repetitious. And it is better because of the snow creatures! As Jack, a rabbit, builds a snow mouse, two mice simultaneously build a snow rabbit! The ending is a an excellent surprise.

Miraculously, Cyndy has become a friend, and this summer she signed a copy of the book for the grandson of the person who gave it to us. He loves it, too.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Rest of the Story

After taking pictures of our young readers yesterday, they insisted on seeing themselves - and then the other 400 pictures stored on my iPad. With one child curled on each side of me, we looked at photographs of family vacations, things in nature, food, projects I have completed, things at school, and the images taken in the studios of my author and illustrator friends. In particular, they were intrigued with Eileen Christelow's dog, Emma, and the drafts of her new book hanging on the wall of her studio. "Can you read it?" they asked. By magnifying the image, we could read the text - but only the three double-page spreads I had captured in the image. "Where is the rest of the story?" they asked. I explained how she works on a book and how the completed book would be published later this year. Already, though, they were predicting what would happen to the five little monkeys who had obviously tried to trick their mama and babysitter.

For more information about FIVE LITTLE MONKEYS TRICK OR TREAT, visit this link:

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My Heart is Like a Zoo

I love the idea of setting limits for oneself in the creation of something. A color palette when quilting. A font design when writing. A set of words within a poem or story. Michael Hall set a goal to create the animals in his first book using heart shapes, and the result is heartfelt and thoughtful. We got our young reader friends got a signed copy for Christmas, and they wanted to read it right away. Our next project will be making our own heart-shaped critters, after they see Michael's catchy video at

Friday, January 4, 2013

Where Do You Get Those?

The second graders (all in their pajamas, due to a school-wide pajama day) listened to the cassette recording of THE SNOW PARTY by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers today. Most had never seen a cassette tape, and a discussion ensued about how it worked. Then, one person asked, as if he was going to buy one, "Where do you get those?"

It was honestly difficult for me to listen and turn the pages instead of speaking the words! The children loved the narrator's voices and the sound effects. Eventually, they associated certain tones and the words "But listen!" with yet another group of stranded travelers arrives at the Dakota farmhouse. To the delight of the woman - and the astonishment of my listeners - at the door, "eighty-four grown-ups, seventeen children, seven babies, six dogs, a cat, a parakeet, a canary, and a little pet skunk" end up with her during the storm. The best part for the characters and the listeners was when the K-M Bakery man knocked at the door! Knock-knock. Knock-knock-knock. Small hands tapped the same rhythm on the wood around them. Suddenly, the snow part had delicious food! As we moved to the computer lab to begin creating amazing snow removal equipment, they buzzed with the same excitement of the farmer's wife!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Choices, Choices

At school today, many of us laughed about how we all - teachers and students - wished for "just one more day" or winter break. Alas, I was back with children, reading about the Godolphin Arabian, the mountain gorillas met by the Lewins, and the penguins trained to perform by the Popper family. Now, it is time to settle in stillness (my word for the day) and savor a book...or two. I keep reading some of each of these two because both have been on my reserve list for a while. Choices like these are welcome after a day of work.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Place to Explore

I appreciate many things about my state and like to share places and favorites with natives and visitors. This week I discovered HAWK RIDGE near Duluth through a book of the same title by Laura Erickson. Despite many visits to Duluth and the North Shore, Hawk Ridge has never been mentioned by anyone I know! Yet it is a hill that overlooks Lake Superior over which twenty species of raptors fly each year in a migratory pattern. Bird watchers estimate their numbers in the thousands! I learned that hawks gather in a thermal, a rising spiral of hot air, and travel together in that pattern to save energy. That group is called a kettle. The author and illustrator (the fabulous Betsy Bowen, who painted in acrylics and drew in ink) cover each raptor in detail, creating a completely engaging book...and planting a seed of interest for a future trip to Hawk Ridge.