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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Defining Success

My high school economics teacher once gave me an article about thinking. The premise was that people do not spend time thinking as much as they should. A well-known worrier, I have, over the last five or so years, tried hard to think more, fret less, and ponder possibilities. While reading Paul Tough's book HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED: GRIT, CURIOSITY, AND THE HIDDEN POWER OF CHARACTER, I have found myself thinking about the qualities the author identified in countless studies focused on success. With the hundreds of children I see each day, those qualities are visible, as well as the adversity necessary to teach them to persevere.

The author visited numerous schools across the country, especially ones with populations that reflect some of the most challenged students in regard to poverty, family support, and academic performance. Repeatedly, he found well-meaning adults whose work with challenged students resulted in degrees of success. Mostly, he used the stories, examples, and research to define what it was in certain students that led them to be successful. Words like grit, conscientiousness, self-control, and character (that hard-to-define term) surfaced.

In raising our sons, we followed much of the same course as the author did with his son. Our children had access to books, role models who read and investigated things, experiences with learning beyond school, and the assurance that there were people who loved them deeply. But they also faced adversity in various forms. The author says it was important to remember that his son "also needed discipline, rules, limits; someone to say no." p. 183

As I continue to think about success, I am hopeful there will be others with whom I can discuss this important book.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A House in the Woods

Two pigs, a moose, and a bear find themselves "in a pickle" in Inga Moore's picture book A HOUSE IN THE WOODS. Though all are friendly and considerate creatures, their homes have inadvertently been destroyed, leaving them no option but to call the Beaver Builders for help in constructing a new one. Those crafty beavers request to be paid in peanut butter sandwiches, and the whole crew gets to work. The home they build is lovely, and the beavers return to their lodge on the lake (which is really two lodges on the lake - a traditional beaver lodge underneath a resort-like lodge). Back at home, the inhabitants of the new house fall asleep to quiet night-time sounds.

The children in the primary grades loved this book and its premise so much that they wanted other books about building houses (Jonathan Bean's BUILDING OUR HOUSE is the perfect answer) and structures.

I retrieved a perfect little bird nest from the street last week and positioned it in a maple tree, hoping it will entice a bird family to inhabit it. Still no residents.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gone Fishing

Twice this week I read Gone Fishing: A Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger...once in the bookshop and once from the library. I was lured to the book by its cover. An eager boy (Sam) walks ahead of his whistling dad and his trying-to-catch-up sister (Lucy). Above their fishing pole tips, the subtitle swirls. Most poems are from Sam, who is eager to go fishing with his dad. Alone. The two hunt for nightcrawlers (something my brother and I did on many summer nights) and "tiptoe near and grab them quick." When Lucy invades his tackle box, Sam (complete with a nasty facial expression) delivers a curse poem entitled "A Fishy Spell" to warn her not to take his gear ever again. Eventually, the three go out in the boat together, and they come home changed from the experience.

The 41 poems (of 32 different forms) that comprise the story caught my attention in a variety of ways. Some made me want to try that form. Some just made me laugh! Some took me back to how it feels when I wanted to be the only one. Some had to be reread so I could ponder the feelings and images. Matthew Cordell's illustrations so perfectly complement the poems.
The very helpful Poet's Tackle Box gives information about each literary device and poem form used in the book. Lucy's "Heeere, fishy, fishy, fish. Tasty worms for lunch today" song just might be the tip for luring fish to the hook...and readers to this book.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I am not good at reading sad stories. I cry every time I read Because of Winn-Dixie (by Kate DiCamillo) and A Single Shard (by Linda Sue Park) and Where the Red Fern Grows  (by Wilson Rawls) and Charlotte's Web (by E.B. White) and many others. So, choosing to read a book I know will be sad is a huge decision. I checked out Lynne Kelly's novel Chained anyway. The cover illustration alone should have stopped me (a young boy leading a young elephant whose legs are bound in chains). But I am glad I read this tender book.

The story on a ten-year-old boy named Hastin who chooses to leave his desert home in India to serve as an elephant keeper in exchange for the payment of a debt. His sister needed hospitalization, and Hastin's commitment to Timir, the supposed circus owner, seemed to be the only way to fund the cost. The boy is soon befriended by the camp cook, Ne Min, who is also incredibly knowledgeable about elephants. Each chapter, in fact, begins with a fact about elephants that Ne Min teaches Hastin.

"An elephant separated from its herd will try to find its way back." p. 138

Though the boy does not want an elephant to be caught for the circus show, the inevitable occurs, and he names the young elephant Nandita, meaning Joyful. The two form a bond of trust and reliance, and despite the horrible things done to Nandita by the trainer, she remains faithful to Hastin. He does whatever a young boy could do to comfort her, even carving a Ganesh statue that the young elephant holds in her trunk during sleep. The way the author lets their story unfold and end is almost magical.

I love this passage, spoken by Hastin:

"My father used to tell me that sometimes we get help clearing obstacles from our path, and sometimes they are placed in our way. Later, when we are wiser and strong, we may look back and feel thankful for what we had to overcome. Will I ever be thankful for anything that has happened to me?" p. 185

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bad Beans

I love listening to authors and illustrators talk about their books. Rarely do I get the opportunity to hear both the author and illustrator of a picture book speak in the same place! Sunday afternoon's large crowd at the Red Balloon was thrilled to hear from David LaRochelle and Mark Fearing (who had just met each other in person) about their collaboration on How Martha Saved Her Parents From Green Beans. Guests were encouraged to wear mustaches (like the bad beans in the story), guess the number of green beans in the bad bean jar, add the name of their least favorite foods to a poster, and eat green jelly beans. David read the entire book aloud, and Mark drew bad green beans at the easel as he talked about how he loved creating the artwork.

Note: My friend Lucy and I eventually had to discard our mustaches...too fuzzy, too hard to talk correctly. We both love our personalized copies, complete with a bad bean drawn on the end pages by Mark.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dung Beetles

Dung beetles are fascinating creatures, drawing groans and snickers at even the thought of their name and what they enjoy harvesting. Fourth graders eagerly anticipated hearing my favorite chapter of Ted Lewin's book Tooth and Claw: Animal Adventures in the Wild. Entitled "Downwind of a Dung Beetle," it is the author's account of hours spent on his belly in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. As he crawled behind an intrepid dung beetle (who was pushing its beloved dung ball), he could hear the scraping of its legs and imagined how the tall grasses looked like a forest. In his author's note, Mr. Lewin provides the incredible facts about dung beetles, all of which made the fourth graders gasp...and understand why I like that piece so much. For example, on an acre of land, they clear 1,000 pounds of dung a year!

At the Red Balloon yesterday afternoon, noted Travel Channel host and chef Andrew Zimmern and his assistant and co-author Molly Mogren also read and talked about dung beetles, much to the delight of the many children in attendance. Their focus, however, was on eating the creatures, not observing them. A good water buffalo dung specimen, for example, could have up to ten dung beetles in it. Once caught, they are immersed in a bucket of water. Not because the consumer wants them clean...because their wings get saturated, prohibiting them from departing the scene. The audience members were then allowed to ask questions of the famous chef, and all had to do with his eating experiences! Andrew and Molly collaborated on the book Andrew Zimmern's Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, and Wonderful Foods.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Just Like My Papa

The bookshop was a busy place today. Mike Wohnoutka commented that he always expects to see just his family in front of him at a publication party, but the place was packed with children, parents, librarians, and fellow authors and illustrators. Everyone came to celebrate the release of his latest book, Just Like My Papa, written by Toni Buzzeo (and a companion to their collaboration Stay Close to Mama). The story centers on Kito (whose name means gem in Swahili), a lion cub who wants so badly to be like his papa, the king of the savanna. That patient but powerful lion king the young cub, teaching him skills and lessons that will prepare him for life.

Mike's illustrations add such emotion and playfulness to the text! He confessed to the crowd that when a new manuscript arrives for consideration, he usually feels like he cannot create the art for another book. Yet somehow, as he draws and contemplates, a certain image will inspire him and instill that same confidence that has guided him through 17 books. In this case, it was the drawing of Kito asleep in his father's paw and the sketches he made of Kito playing. The audience was fortunate to view those things, as well as the sequence of sketches to drawings to final painting of the last double-spread of the book. It is a perfect book to share with little ones who want to follow in their father's footsteps.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


My favorite fourth graders have been begging for another literature circle/novel study. To their delight, it began today with David Adler's picture book biography AMERICA'S CHAMPION SWIMMER: GERTRUDE EDERLE (illustrated by Terry Widener). Engrossed in the story of her 1926 swim across the English Channel, they listed many traits exemplified by her throughout her life: courageous, stubborn, determined, not concerned with whether others thought she could not do something, and numerous others. When I read the definition of RESILIENCE, they understood how their list meshed with the word and especially how Miss Ederle was resilient.

Next, each person got a picture book biography about some other historical figure who demonstrated resiliency in whatever he or she accomplished. The room was silent as they read, looked at author's notes for more facts, and wrote in their journals about how their people were resilient. Tomorrow we will hear about each person. And on Monday, they choose their next novels!

p.s. The variegated dogwoods in front of our house have to be resilient. They are encased in snow and ice all winter. Just when things start to get warm, they get covered again.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Dangerous Book (for me)

A strange thing happens at the public library this year. I reserved KNITTER'S STASH by Barbara Albright and waited a considerably long time for its availability. Finally, I checked the status, noted that six other patrons were also waiting for it, and discovered it had been marked LOST. I soon found a used copy and am now the owner of a potentially dangerous least for a knitter who has just finished a cardigan and who pages through the WEBS ( sale flyer each day!

I love this book! It is a just what the author intended it to be: "a book that would be like comfort food for a knitter's soul." Filled with patterns, tips, gorgeous images of finished projects and people who have created them, and stories about yarn and knitting, the book focuses on yarn shops around the country. The knitters who run them contributed their favorite patterns. Along with each pattern, readers learn a bit about the yarn shop from which the pattern came. One of the best things about this book is the warmth I feel, imagining the author as she gathered stories and patterns. Her cookbooks have long been favorites in my kitchen.

And here is what I might have to make first...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Preposterous Plot

Working with children everyday affords frequent glimpses into thought processes that cause me to wonder. Where did some of the ideas originate? However did the children imagine them? Perhaps some have come from book characters and plots. The latest title by Mordicai Gerstein could certainly be an influence in that area. Just consider the title: HOW TO BICYCLE TO THE MOON TO PLANT SUNFLOWERS: A SIMPLE BUT BRILLIANT PLAN IN 24 EASY STEPS.

The young narrator begins by telling his parents how the full moon appeared to have a sad face, probably because it is lonely. By traveling to the moon to plant sunflowers, the boy is certain he can provide some cheer. And thus begins THE PLAN. Numbered clearly and succinctly explained, each step includes one of the artist's cheery and detailed illustrations that make that plan clear...and almost believable. Each time I had a procedural question (probably because of my grown-up mindset), that clever boy had a plausible answer. What if, for instance, one starts to cry, wondering why the plan was ever enacted? "If you do, your tears will float around in your helmet like transparent marble. DON'T TURN BACK, You're almost there, KEEP PEDALING,"

Of course, most of this plot is preposterous. But that boy sure makes a good case for THE PLAN. Kids will love this book.

p.s. It seems preposterous to some people that I enjoy snow! I was quite pleased to have big flakes falling yesterday.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Taking a Picture

"People talked about the truth as being something you had to steal when the subject was unaware. The phrase was, after all, 'taking a picture''" notes photographer Vera Dare in the novel MARY COIN by Marisa Silver. The novel's cover photograph (altered as it may be) is undoubtedly one of the most famous in American history, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 as part of her work with the Farm Security Administration, has always intrigued me. I wonder about Florence Owens Thompson (called Mary Coin in the novel) and the children surrounding her. The author has thoughtfully imagined Mary's story and Vera's story using many of the factual details of the lives of the two women, noting her gratitude for the legacies of Florence Owens Thompson and Dorothea Lange in the author's notes. Interwoven with their stories is the fictitious life of Walker Dodge, a history professor whose passion is seeking the stories behind photographs and the ephemera of life. I love what Ms. Silver has created with the intersection of their lives.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ideal Bookshelf

Since reading about MY IDEAL BOOKSHELF on a friend's blog (Sketchbook Wandering), I have considered the books that would be on mine. As Thessaly La Force and Jane Mount, the collaborators behind the book, note, "You could build an ideal bookshelf every year of your life, and it would be completely different." They go on to say, "So much depends on where you, the reader, are - physically and metaphorically - when you decide to pick up a book and give it a chance,"

So, after contemplating as I walked paths or knitted part of a sweater or quietly drank tea, I had a few titles in mind. Browsing my bookshelves helped me choose a few others. But after I lined up my ideal bookshelf and took the picture, I thought of others I love or that have shaped me in certain important ways. The shelf could be different tomorrow, too.

The actual book is filled with paintings (which make me want to paint my book spines) of the ideal bookshelves of many famous folks from various occupations and their explanations of why they love particular titles and how those have affected them. Of course, I love what librarian Nancy Pearl had to say about libraries:

"I believe in libraries. Everyone who enters the library is equal. You have a right to be there. You don't have to pay. You don't have to be of a certain ethnicity. You don't have to belong to a certain religion. It's a place where information and the love of reading are both valued." p. 144

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

By Heart

As the Person of Poetry for several classes, I seek poems each week that I believe will make the listeners think, laugh, ponder, and wonder. One of my favorites is Caroline Kennedy's A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poems for Children. Last month, her second book of collected poems was released: Poems to Learn By Heart. 

In the introduction, she says so many important things about why poetry and memorizing poems are important: 

"In today's world, where it is so easy to look things up, we discount the value of memorization."
"Poets distill life's lessons into the fewest possible words. But those tiny packages of thought countain worlds of images and experiences and feeling."
"If we learn a poem by heart, it is ours forever - and better still, we can share it with others, yet not have to give it away."
The rest of the book is divided by themes. Each section begins with insights into the theme and reasons why some of the poems were selected. I have already read several aloud to my classes!
  • Here I Am (self poems)
  • I Dreamed I Had to Pick A Mother Out (family poems)
  • I'm Expecting You! (friendship and love poems)
  • I Met a Little Elf-Man, Once (fantastical creatures in poems)
  • Where Can a Man Buy a Cap for His Knee? (poems of nonsense)
  • It Is the Duty of the Student (school poems)
  • We Dance Round in a Ring and Suppose (sport and game poems)
  • Four Score and Seven Years Ago (war poems)
  • The World is So Full of a Number of Things (nature poems)
  • Extra Credit (quite long poems)
Jon J. Muth's illustrations are extraordinary and both complement and add surprise to the poems! A young clarinetist on a high wire accompanies "I Am Cherry Alive". A girl with a butterfly net chases her annoying brother in "Brother". A history-cloaked character slogs through the snow next to "The Lesson" by Billy Collins. 

There are so many wonderful things about this book. Now I need to try memorizing some of the poems I love.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mighty Jackie

Despite the winter storm warning that goes into effect shortly, we are reading about baseball this week during library time. Mighty Jackie: The Strike-Out Queen by Marissa Moss has the listeners entranced. Not one student has heard about Jackie Mitchell, the young woman who consecutively struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig during a 1931 baseball game between the New York Yankees and her own Chattanooga Lookouts. The drama of her story unfolds with a few pages of early history (including a bit about how Dazzy Vance of the Brooklyn Dodgers helped teach Jackie to pitch). Then the intensity of that game is described with the perfect amount of dialogue interspersed. C. F. Payne's illustrations convey the dismay and disgust of Babe Ruth, as well as Jackie Mitchell's pride.

We read the author's note (of course!) after Jackie's triumphant game ends, and the children express their anger at the baseball commissioner's decision to void her contract, claiming he was protecting her because the sport was "too strenuous." The kids have many ideas about why he really did that. It has been an excellent book to share aloud, as well as a motivator for readers to check out more picture book biographies.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Say What?

Tomorrow will be my last day of reading Margaret Peterson Haddix's book Say What? to the second graders during information literacy time. Though reading the same chapters six times in a row can get boring for the reader, I must say their reactions to this story keep me as engaged as my listeners! I wish I had read it when my children were younger. The technique used by the parents to keep the kids in shape is ingenious.

Here is the premise: Kids are not listening to parents, so the parents respond to every misdeed with a comment that would be better uttered for a different misbehavior. For example, if a child reclines on the couch while still wearing muddy sneakers, the mother does not rant about getting off the couch. She might say, "No dessert until you clean your plate" or "Eat your vegetables." When the children in the story find the magazine article and get wise about "parentspeak", they make a list of all the things they say that annoy their parents. For one mixed-up evening, the family utters wrong statements back and forth, ultimately resulting in laughter. All of these must be universal because my second grade students nod, giggle, and say, "I've heard that one" or "I've said that" in response to the reading. 

Just the other day, I had the opportunity to respond to one student's misbehavior with a wrong statement, and just like that, the behavior and attitude changed. Say What? is really an excellent idea!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Three Triceratops Tough

Attending yesterday's puppet show meant missing the publication party for Steve Shashkan's new book. I arrived at the bookshop just as he was signing the copies for three young readers in my world...2 1/2 hours after the event began! From the photographs I have seen, the place was packed for his reading, singing, and signing time.

When the Tuff brothers (68 millions years ago) went looking for grub, they discovered a lush green valley, perfect for their dinner time delights. They didn't count on the fierce Tyrannosaurus Rex, who declares to Stanley Tuff, "Dinner is served..and you're it!" Stanley tells the carnivore to wait for his older and bigger brother. Rufus Tuff then persuades the T. rex to delay his dinner until their older and bigger brother, Bob. Though you know the ending of the goat version, this one concludes with a bit of a twist.

Readers will love listening and chanting along to the "Clip! Clomp!" of the dinosaurs' feet (which I love for their boxiness)! For an excellent, fun triceratops headband accompaniment to the story, visit Steve's website :

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mother Goose - The Musical


The Loki Puppet Players presented an incredible version of Mother Goose to an audience of over 200 this morning at the St. Paul Central Library (, and I had an SRO view of the show. It began with an introduction from Mother Goose herself, with help from Bo Beep's sheep, Bob (or Baaaaaaahhhb), Belinda, and Bono. The sheep wanted to plan a birthday celebration as a surprise to Bo Beep and needed help finding a cake, candles, a game, a present, a dish, and a spoon. Though Bo Beep returned often in search of the sheep, the sheep interacted with the Bakers (who performed a dancing version of "Pat-a-Cake"), Jack Be Nimble, the piƱata seller, Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, and the cat, dish, and spoon (of "Hey, Diddle Diddle" fame).  Puppeteer, librarian and master storyteller Kimberly Faurot (also my good friend) was literally behind the whole show. I laughed. I clapped. I sang the songs. I watched the children. And after the show, I witnessed the looks of wonder on the children's faces as they came to shake Bo Beep's hand.

p.s. The ingredients' mouths opened and closed! The moon's eyes blinked!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Paper Artistry

Several of my artistic friends create their artwork or work in their journals with cut paper. One, Lauren Stringer, has become quite adept at folding paper (after working on the artwork for Fold Me a Poem). My interest in their work and my basic attempts at trying both led to my eagerness to see the Paper Artistry exhibit at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum when I was "home" last weekend. 

I was astonished by the things humans created with single sheets of paper...the human brain (enlarge to see the humorous title of this piece), life-like coral, fairies, fish, incredible insects. Humans have also been investigating the folds necessary to create various things and using the technology to create medical devices and other mechanical items. The moose was folded from a single sheet, and the colorful diagram on the wall behind it is actually the folding pattern of it!

Should this exhibit come your way, take the time to view and appreciate it!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Authors' Notes

I love getting to the end of a book and reading the author's notes. Discovering tidbits about the writing process, those who helped shape the story, the facts and the fiction, and the things the author really wanted to share through the writing make books even more interesting for me. Such was the case this week with Kirby Larson's notes about HATTIE EVER AFTER. Set in 1919, it follows Hattie from Great Falls (where she has gone after failing to save her uncle's claim) to San Francisco (with the Venturing Varietals).

"When I left Hattie at the end of Hattie Big Sky, I had no intention of writing another book about her." p.225

Most author friends seems to feel that way about their books and characters, but I was glad to read about how she thought Hattie should do one thing and how the character had other ideas.

"A chance encounter with an article about love tokens fashioned from old coins (learn more at paved the way for Ruby Danvers and a delicious dilemma for Hattie." p. 226

I loved the way she wove that into the story regarding Uncle Chester, the man from whom Hattie inherited the Montana farm.

"One of the reasons I am drawn to writing historical fiction is that it can help us understand ourselves in the here and now. To be fair, I should say it helps me understand myself in the here and now." p. 229

In those lines she summed up my love for historical fiction. I sometimes wish I could experience time travel.

"Yes, I did a copious amount of research for this book. But my efforts were fueled by the desire to get this story - the story of seventeen-year-old orphan Hattie Inez Brooks trying to find her place in the world - absolutely right." p. 230

I think this story was told in absolutely the right way.