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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Art Forger

Despite no formal coursework in the area, I love art history. When a book review discusses an art topic, I usually add it to my adult reading list. Last week, that book was THE ART FORGER by B.A. Shapiro. Its main character, Claire Roth, has been wronged in some way (which is slowly revealed to the reader), and she seeks a way to gain recognition in the Boston art world. Until that time, she paints reproductions of famous works for an online company. Thus, the offer from a gallery owner to copy a Degas painting in exchange for her own show seems to be an opportunity she cannot refuse. Add to that the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist of 1990 and some incredibly detailed detective work in sketchbooks and process, and the book became one that completely engaged me.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Consistent Narrator

It amazes me how I will learn about or read one thing, and then it appears in other things soon afterward. It happened with counterfeiting this time. Having reading about the counterfeiting operations in Lincoln's Grave Robbers, I got a second exposure in Amy Timberlake's new novel One Came Home.

Twelve-year-old Georgie Burkhardt is the observant and determined narrator, telling the story of her sister Agatha's disappearance from their small Wisconsin town. Though a funeral was held for the auburn-haired young woman, Georgie is certain her sister is alive somewhere, and she sets out (after making a deal for a horse with her sister's former beau, Billy McCabe) to find the truth. Unbeknownst to her, Grandfather Burke has also made a deal with the same young man - only his plan involves having someone watch over his meddlesome granddaughter.

Intermingled with their quest are the stories about the wild pigeons and the pigeoners who follow them, the incredible accuracy of Georgie's shooting ability, the amazing library of Agatha's other suitor, and the family they encounter just when they think they are close to finding the truth about Agatha. Georgie is an unbelievably insightful young woman, often surprising me with her comments. I think these things now, but I do not believe I was so articulate at Georgie's age.

Two favorites:

"I do think there is a limit to how much a person can feel and think on one particular day." p. 155

"Living with uncertainty is like having a rock in your shoe. If you can't remove the rock, you have to figure out how to walk despite it." p. 226

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Betty Bunny #3

When a character - whatever her age - expresses a love of chocolate cake, I would most likely love that character. When she proclaims, "I want to marry chocolate cake!", I recognize a rival in my love of chocolate cake. That would be Michael Kaplan's character Betty Bunny, introduced in 2011. Though I did not follow her thinking in her second book, Betty Bunny Wants Everything, I did find it humorous. Thus, I was anxious to read Betty Bunny Didn't Do It (released a month ago) to the school children.

They love that the book begins the same as the previous books: "Betty Bunny was a handful." They all laugh, knowing her definition of "a handful" is quite the opposite of theirs. That laughter continues, sometimes erupting into uncontrollable giggles and guffaws, as the young rabbit denies breaking a lamp (claiming the Tooth Fairy did it), denies lying to her mom about breaking the lamp (saying she is telling an "honest lie"), and proceeds to get herself into more trouble as the story progresses.

The time spent reading aloud is my favorite part of the day. I love children's delight in stories, their insights, their ways of relating to characters, and their laughter. I carry those giggles with me in the rest of my work.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Minnesota Bug Hunt

As much as I want to have a clean house, I admit to neglecting the chore of dusting. That said, I am always dismayed to find an insect indoors, especially things I think are centipedes. Spiders are less annoying (think about Charlotte as an explanation for my tolerance of them). Just outside the house, earwigs (with their creepy pincers) often reside in my mailbox.

Bruce Giebink's new book Minnesota Bug Hunt has been helpful in identifying some of the other insects I encounter outdoors. Organized by habitat (backyards, grassland prairies, forests, ponds, and oak trees), the book is crawling with facts about commonly seen bugs in my state. Bold type indicates insect names and defined words, making it an excellent way for readers to learn key vocabulary in context. The photographs by Bill Johnson are incredibly detailed, showing the stick-like appearance of geometrid moths (inchworms), for example, or the airy froth bubbles created by meadow spittlebugs. The author provides fabulous descriptions of the many insects and includes hints for hunting for bugs outdoors, making this a perfect addition to summer reading lists for young readers.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Books

The wonderfully talented writer of Sketchbook Wandering and I have been exchanging book ideas since "meeting" each other via our blogs. Recently, she sought titles for showing how positive habits are established, specifically reading and visiting the library. Many of the titles I considered were already on her list...and then others would float into my mind as I walked in the sunshine this week.

One of my favorites is BOOK! BOOK! BOOK! by Deborah Bruss. When the farm children return to school in the fall, all the animals search for something to occupy their time. They trek to town, following a sign to the library. Each volunteers in turn to enter and ask the librarian for help, but none are successful - until the hen goes indoors. Imagine a hen's sound, and you will understand how she was finally the one to communicate with the librarian effectively. The animals return to the farm with books for everyone. Only the frog is disappointed because he already "read-it".

I baked animal cookies yesterday ( using some farm cookies cutters retrieved from my great aunt's house 19 years ago. Not only are they delicious, but they will make the perfect snack for my young neighbor friends when we read BOOK! BOOK! BOOK! together tomorrow.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Discovering New Information

I love reading about things previously unknown to me. Never had I been aware that villainous men plotted to steal President Lincoln's body from his memorial in Springfield, Illinois in 1865! Author Steve Sheinkin kept me totally engaged as I read Lincoln's Grave Robbers today. It begins with equally incredible background information about other wrongdoings. Counterfeiters flooded the country with fake bills. A man like Ben Boyd, known as a coney, would painstakingly carve plates and use "pushers" to get those bills into circulation. The Secret Service was actually in charge of disrupting these operations, not in protecting the President.

When Sheinkin gets to plot thickener, these words are riveting:

"In flush times the gang (Logan County Gang) liked to brag that, thanks to them, there was more bogus than real money floating around Logan County. But business was slow now. The men were just eager for any kind of work. And it just so happened that Big Jim (Kennally) had a job for them. He wanted them to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln." p. 37

Sheinkin's writing flows easily for me. The book reads like a fictional story and is a perfect example of how the events of a situation can be shared as anecdote in a manner engaging to readers. I would love to read this one aloud to my intermediate students.

Note: the photo is of a quilt hanging at Grant's March, a quilt shop specializing in fabric designs and colors from the Civil War era.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lucky or Fortunate

I have a talent for finding four-leaf-clovers. Sometimes I leave them in their patch, but most times I carefully bring them home, press them in waxed paper, and store them in large books. Sometimes I share them with others. But I do not think they really bring luck. A wise mentor in my life refrained from wishing others luck, believing that we make our own circumstances what they are. Still, there are times when I wonder.

Take Josie Moraine, the main character in OUT OF THE EASY, the latest book by Ruta Sepetys. The daughter of a prostitute, she grows up in New Orleans, cared for by Willie, the madame who runs her mother's brothel. She lives in a small room above a bookstore in the Quarter in exchange for working at the shop. In addition, she spends every morning cleaning at the house for Willie. Despite her circumstances, Josie has maintained excellent grades in high school and hopes to attend college. The girl has not been lucky. I cannot imagine her even using the word.

Yet she is loved deeply by Charlie, the bookstore owner, and his son Patrick, by Sadie, the mute cook at the house, by Cokie, the driver of Willie's enormous Cadillac named Mariah, by Jesse, a young man who watches out for her on the streets, and especially by Willie herself. Most of what occurs in her life is out of Josie's control. Still, she plans and works and negotiates, hoping to change the course of her life. She appreciates all the ways she has been fortunate.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Engaging Sequel

Waiting for a sequel (or the next book in a series), always feels so long, despite all the books in my to-read pile. Thus, I was so glad to hold Jennifer Nielsen's The Runaway King in my hands. It took me only a day to read it, and now my sons are engaged with the continued saga of Jaron of False Prince fame. Even the first line captured my attention:

"I had arrived early for my own assassination."

Though the new king is in mourning after the death/murder of his family, he does not appear at the funeral. Instead, he is surprised in the garden by intruders. Thus begins the account of Jaron's decision to run away from Drylliad to a seaside location in the neighboring country of Avenia. The author kept me engaged adding twists and surprises to make me anxious for the third book in this trilogy.

One of the best memories I have of reading this book is sitting in the quiet school library with my library colleagues, my principal, and 27 second graders in the middle of the afternoon on Wednesday. As a reward, the children were given 30 minutes of free reading, and it was wonderful. As a reading specialist, I, of course, believe they should get 30 minutes of free reading time every day. But that is another story.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Book's Evolution

Lauren Stringer is a theatrical designer, a sculptor, an artist, an author, and an excellent presenter. Last night she enchanted the audience at her McKnight Fellowship Lecture. With eight framed original pieces of artwork from the book behind her, Lauren told of the evolution of her latest book WHEN STRAVINSKY MET NIJINSKY. Beginning with a photograph of Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky in their younger years, found in a Minnesota Orchestra program many years ago, she began wondering about the musician and dancer. Though she began the story and revisited it many times, the manuscript spent a lot of time in her hanging files. After it was accepted by a publisher in late 2011, Lauren had only a few months to paint the artwork to accompany the text. With her ever-present sense of incorporating images and backgrounds of other relevant artwork, the book includes the influences of Matisse, Picasso, and Kandinsky. Now in picture book form, it celebrates the 100th anniversary of "The Rite of Spring," the ballet that caused a riot in Paris in 1913. Take time with this book to enjoy the images and the history Lauren provides in the back matter. It is an artistic treasure.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Signing

For several hours last night, I sat next David LaRochelle, giving sticky notes to children who patiently waited in line to have their books signed by him. Many of them were third graders with whom David has worked over the past two months on a writing project. He has worked with third graders at our school for close to 20 years, coming three times each winter to teach the writing process through the creation of an animal story. He even collects all the stories and writes comments on each one! After I introduced each child, David would ask,

"Which animal did you become in your story?"

He then would recall the details and talk about it with the child. Many of the book inscriptions read "from one author to another" and featured a drawing of the child's story animal. Parents' mouths were agape. The children's faces radiated affirmation and joy.

The schedule one-hour book signing went on for more than double that time, probably because eager readers snatched up the copies of HOW MARTHA SAVED HER PARENTS FROM GREEN BEANS (all 44 we received early from the publisher just for this event).

Sunday, March 10, 2013



When I was young, I did not want to practice piano. Being a good sight reader, I would often get by at my lessons, something about which I feel badly now. I practice many things daily: patience, reading, knitting, and usually baking/cooking. Yesterday I practiced piano, too. The best practice of the day, though, resulted in a delicious cake from VINTAGE CAKES by Julie Richardson. Definitely one to repeat. The pound of mixed berries, marinated with sugar and brandy, covers an unusually mixed batter and is topped with a crumb mixture containing candied ginger. Mmm.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Digging Soil

Our friend Jay Bell is an agronomist at the University of Minnesota. On Thursday night during a gallery conversation at the Bell Museum of Natural History, he reinforced something the fifth graders and I discussed in depth (and plan to contemplate further on Monday): each person we meet has a passion for something and knows that topic in detail. When we take time to consider and learn about those topics, we find they are all around us, echoing the original information we acquired. The students offered examples of words that appear in various contexts.

With Dr. Bell at the Dig It! The Secrets of Soil exhibit, I learned about so many things:

  • the horizons of soil hidden beneath the surface (O = organic material, A = mineral layer, E = loss layer  - where water draws organic materials lower, B = gain layer from materials washed up, C = another mineral layer, also called the parent layer)
  • the oldest soils on earth are in the southern part of Africa and the western part of Australia where the conditions have been the least disrupted over time
  • soil formation occurs from climate changes, alteration by organisms, relief (or topography), parent materials, and time (or CLORPT - see
  • dirt is the stuff underneath my fingernails, not to be confused with soil
The monoliths of carefully gathered state soil samples show the variations of soils from state to state and provide a history of those places. Minnesota's state soil was officially proclaimed in November of 2012 and is called Lester. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Finally...Red Hat!

When I set out each morning for a walk or run in winter, I usually don one of my red hats. The characters in Lita Judge's new book RED HAT enjoy an adventure with a red hat. The best box of books I opened for the spring book festival contained that book. Since seeing it last summer in its folded and gathered (F and G) state, I looked forward to sharing it with kids.

When the human child hangs the red hat on the clothesline and retreats to the cabin (both familiar to those who have red Lita's RED SLED, the animals find it useful for more than covering and warming a head! As they chase and run, the hat begins to unravel, creating some fun adventures. With only onomatopoeic words to accompany Lita's energetic artwork, the story unfolds (unravels?) across the pages, ending in wonder for at least one person.

I look forward to opening another box this week, this one containing the signed copies I have ordered and will give to the readers I love.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Exclamation Mark

I love witticism. I am never quite fast enough to speak anything witty. Sometimes I do not even understand someone else's witticism until far after I have heard the words. Still, I value it in sound, word, and image.
Amy Krouse Rosenthal's newest book (along with illustrator Tom Lichtenheld) is Exclamation Mark, and it is so witty. The basic - but expressive - illustrations are done on that blue-lined writing paper I used in kindergarten, adding to the creativity. Exclamation Mark tried to fit in all sorts of places, but it just never worked. Period. Eventually, he meets an interesting figure who speaks incessantly:
Do you like frogs?
When's your birthday?
Know any good jokes?
Do you wanna race to the corner?
Is there an echo in here?
Is there an echo in here?
What's your favorite movie?
Do you know what makes gravity?
Why do you look so surprised?
Am I boring you?
Question Mark, of course, has much to say. Exclamation Mark just wants to discover how best to use his talents! Share this book with young readers for a boost of punctuation enthusiasm.

Monday, March 4, 2013

PTA Night

Though I hesitated to go out on this snowy night, the parents at our PTA meeting were so glad to listen to my teaching partner and me talk about books we love. Tomorrow begins the Spring Book Festival, and all the titles we mentioned will be featured. Kids are looking forward to their own copies of THE CANDY SMASH. Fans of Betty Bunny are anxious to read of her latest adventure in BETTY BUNNY DIDN'T DO IT. One parent told us she was upset...she now has too many other things she wants to read, thanks to our list. That is a great problem to have, I believe.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Aesthetic Reading for Me

My favorite fourth graders have been considering aesthetic and efferent reading and which things they read that fall into each category. Their insights have been fascinating, stretching even to things like directions and signs. What we need to remember as teachers and fellow readers is that what one person perceives as aesthetic might be efferent for another person.

I have been reading a pattern aesthetically these past months, hoping to finish the "blouse" before the weather gets to warm to wear the cardigan sweater on my knitting needles. I love imaging how the knits, pulls, cast-offs, picked-up stitches, and sewn seams will become that sweater. Thanks to my grandma, who saved all her patterns, this 1944 booklet guides my hands and mind.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reading Rut

When I do not post an entry, it is for one of three reasons. Either I am tired, so busy, or cannot find a good book about which to write. The latter has been this week's reason. I am in the midst of a reading rut. Nothing I check out from the library especially impresses me lately, and I decided early in my reviewing work never to write about a book I did not like. Most of the reviews I read in national publications do not mention the noteworthy negative aspects of books. I would often buy titles that appeared to be wonderful in reviews, only to be disappointed by weak story lines, lack of strong editing, and inappropriate content for the recommended age level. I decided most review publications must either be averse to stating truth about books or have different standards than mine.

This week I started many books. With several, I was hopeful at first, thinking the author/story/book/content would be worthy of my standards. After a few chapters, I ended up confessing to my teaching partner that I could not appreciate each and suggesting she try them. She has felt the same.

Thus, I promote books I believe are the best. Ones in which the engaging content or story keep me connected. Ones with which I know readers will identify. Ones with excellent artwork or images that stimulate visual literacy. And ones with that special emotional delivery that make me laugh, cry, and ponder.