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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Unique Holidays

From January 2nd's Happy Mew Year for Cats Day to December 16th's Chocolate-Covered Anything Day, the poems in J. Patrick Lewis's new book entitled World Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You've Never Heard Of celebrate holidays. Holidays like Bulldogs are Beautiful Day (April 24th) and Yell "Fudge!" at the Cobras in North America Day (June 2nd) and International Cephalopod Awareness Day (October 8th).
The only thing missing for inquiring minds is a glossary of facts about each day. My own curiosity led me to the internet where I confirmed the existence of each holiday, but I am certainly not the only reader who would want to discover more. Now I keep thinking of holidays I might want to be celebrated. Is there an iris day? Any of these past few days would qualify in Minnesota.
The title poem, by the way, is quite clever:
The Rat Is
World Rat Day is April 4th: 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Naming Things

I brought my camera with me this morning as I walked the 6.5 miles around the lake, all the while wishing I knew the names of the plants and blooming trees. So many colors. So many varieties. So many names unknown to me.

In Cynthia DeFelice's new book, Nelly May Has Her Say, the main character is befuddled by the many names for things she must learn. The English folktale "Master of All Masters" is the basis for this humorous story. Nelly May is the oldest daughter in a family of 13 children. Because her family needs assistance, the girl sets off for the hill-top home of Lord Ignasius Pinkwinkle to ask for employment as a servant girl. Once there, she is in awe of the home and furnishing but even more awed by the terminology the lord demands she use. "I have special names for things, and I expect you to use them whenever you speak to me," he tells her. 

Nelly expects to make the lord's bed every day but is instructed to call it the "resftul slumberific". Trousers are "long-legged limberjohns." Boots are "stompinwhackers." Fire is "flaming pop-and-sizzle." The dog is a "fur-faced fluffenbarker," and the dog's tail is a "wigger-wagger." The list goes on and on...and the girl gets more and more frustrated. When she must use the strange terminology in an emergency, she realizes her Most Excellent of All Masters needs to employ someone other than the "fuzzy-dust-and-fooder" he got in her. It will make a most excellent read-aloud selection in the fall.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Appropriately Themed Book

With May comes the blooming of my favorite flower - the lily of the valley. I love looking inside the bell-shaped blossoms! May also brings invitations to celebrate graduations. For those, I love making cards and choosing gifts for each person. 

This year, several graduates will receive Barbara Kerley's new book The World is Waiting for You. Published by National Geographic, it is a book filled with captivating photographs, each accompanied by words that encourage - and even challenge - exploration, discovery, questioning, and observation. The carefully selected images complement the text. "Dig deeper" rests on the page of an archaeologist uncovering bones. "Poke around for a while" sits below a beam of selenite in the Cave of Crystals in Naica, Chihuahua, Mexico. Best of all, the origins of the photographs are described in a photo glossary at the end. It is an excellent book for celebrating the paths we follow and the risks we take...and simply beautiful to view.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Too Many?

There were so many reserved books waiting for me at the library yesterday! I was glad I took at least one bag with me to carry them. I even left a few there to pick up this weekend - and to give myself some time to finish a few already at home.

Today I read a few of the thin volumes and paged through Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison (which I will write about more later). But I have been consumed with reading The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh. Set in 1877 in London and in South Africa, it is the story of Frances Irvine, a young woman whose father has died, leaving her to contemplate her future. She decides to accept the proposal of a distant cousin and travels by steamer to the Southern Hemisphere. En route, she experiences an unexpected relationship with a man who is also going there, but the two are of quite different social classes. Once there, she discovers her husband and the life he provides for her are filled with contradictions and moral choices. Add to this the diamond mining by powerful Englishmen, the severe mistreatment of the native people, and the denial (and cover-up) of the smallpox epidemic. 

In her author's note, she talks about reading journals and diaries written by those who lived through that horrific time...all housed at the British Library.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thanks to the Fan Club!

It seems like an annual event (timed to be near my birthday) now...receiving a mystery package from the Extended Shelf Life Fan Club. What arrived in today's mail was most carefully packaged in two bubble mailers and wrapped in smooth, silvery paper. It felt like a book! It was a book! A most extraordinary book which combines my love of baking, art, and stories!

I gasped when I saw the cover of Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art by Caitlin Freeman! A Mondrian cake is the cover feature. Like a true librarians, I quickly flipped to the table of contents where thumbnails of the desserts accompany the recipe names and page numbers. Whom would I most imagine to be featured in a book of this title? Wayne Thiebaud, of course. And there are four cakes modeled after his art! 

Oh, will I ever love reading the stories and recipes...and then attempting to make some of the art-inspired desserts myself. I am a grateful writer today for this surprise gift. Thank you.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Killer Librarian

My yoga class meets at 5:20 on Thursdays, and most of the women in the class are educators. There is a sense of peaceful relief at 6:20 when class ends, but prior to 5:20, the discussion usually centers on books and learning. Last week, one person commented that it would be nice just to talk with each other for an hour! I did take one book recommendation from that class, and I am almost done with Mary Lou Kirwin's Killer Librarian.

Karen Nash is a Minnesota librarian who goes on a journey to London despite having been dumped by her boyfriend of four years the night prior to departure. At the airport, her recent ex and his new, much younger, much thinner, blond girlfriend are also there! Alas, she is saved by being in first class and can only ruminate over her anger. Once there, she stays at the B & B she booked and is befriended by Caldwell, the owner. While having a few pints at a local pub (something Karen has never done in her life), she confesses her secret desire to murder Dave, that awful ex. Little does she know, that guy named Guy has connections with the seedier crowd.

There is just something about this playful murder mystery that has kept me reading the past two days...perhaps it is all the literary connections or perhaps the thickening plot and incriminating evidence are teasing my deducitve mind.

I did note that the author is also known as Mary Logue, writer of the lovely Caldecott Honor Book Sleep Like a Tiger!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Licking Stamps

I love stamps. Each time I visit the post office, I inevitably buy more, just because a new design is so clever or lovely. My mom and I maintain a strong handwritten correspondence (since I left home for college almost 28 years ago), and I have saved every letter. Partly because the letters contain our history and partly because I love the stamps. Despite the opinions of naysayers, I think sending a letter is a good thing. I do not know a single person who does not like to receive a real letter in the mail (as opposed to junk mail or bills).

Eben McAllister, the main character in Betty Birney's book The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, is on a quest for seven wonders in his small town. Having been transfixed with the images and descriptions of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, he was challenged by his father to find seven in Sassafras Springs, Missouri. If Eben can do it, his father will buy a train ticket for him to visit cousins in Silver Peak, Colorado. The year is 1923, and Eben believes if there were wonders to be found, he would have known about them by now. Still, he cannot resist the possibility of travel.

When he reaches the leaning-to-the-right shack of a man named Cully Pone (whose trousers are held up by a piece of rope and still hang dangerously low), Cully immediately claims to have a wonder...."the doggone doggonedest" of wonders, in fact. Eben listens to the fascinating story of a rainmaker who came to a Missouri county after years of drought, when the creek was so dry there was not enough there to wet a postage stamp. That is when the fourth grade listeners look at me with curiosity. They have licked envelopes, but stamps simply come from that sheet, like stickers. I explain that we used to have to lick stamps...and not that long ago either (or at least it seems that way to me).

With only 12 school days remaining, I regret that we will only join Eben for his discovery of three wonders. The readers will need to check out the book from the library this summer to finish the story.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Nothing New

The second graders have just finished listening to chapter five of Robert McCloskey's Homer Price. Because the book was published in 1943, I have to stop often to explain terms or concepts foreign to them. Uncle Ulysses' Lunch Room is not like the lunch room but more like a diner. Men often congregated at the barber shop. At the filling station, the attendant came out to pump gas and usually cleaned the car windows and checked the oil. Calling on someone meant stopping by to visit (and usually was motivated by love in the case of the sheriff or Uncle Telamachus). Those kinds of things.

This story - "Nothing New Under the Sun (Hardly)" - required short summaries of two well-known other stories: Rip Van Winkle and The Pied Piper of Hamelin. When a mysterious stranger arrives in Centerburg, the townspeople are suspicious of his appearance and curious about the contraption hidden under a canvas on the back of the man's truck. His long beard gets wrapped around his steering wheel and dipped in his gravy. He whistles a strange tune and seems to attract the children. The sheriff and the librarian deduce that he is like Rip. Only when he is hired by the mayor to trap the town's mice with his musical mousetrap and is followed to the city limits by the children does the children's librarian think she has associated him with the wrong story. Would the children of Centerburg be lured away by the odd man? They are not. They devise a clever plan to save themselves. But the intertwined stories and the wonderfully detailed drawings make this yet another favorite story in the collection.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Versions of the Pig Story

Author/illustrator Mark Teague joined us at school this afternoon for a reading of his latest book and a drawing demonstration. The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf offers a slightly different version of the traditional tale, and he says it evolved through numerous retellings as his daughters prepared for bed in their younger years. Mark and the second graders (and later the first graders) talked about things they knew for certain in various versions of the story (three houses), things that made them uncomfortable (like the wolf ending up in the stew pot), and things they noticed in his story. They also discussed improbabilities, like a wolf being able to blow down a house - straw, stick, or brick.

As he drew the third pig for the audience, our school nurse leaned over and said, "It is just a few lines. Why can't I do that?" Practice, of course. Mark encouraged the children to draw again and again, just like he did to create consistent characters for the story. Thanks to the Red Balloon for facilitating this visit!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Movie Premiere

On Thursday, the fourth graders (with whom Debra Frasier has been working since February) presented their premiere of "Dog Diaries." It was an incredible production featuring their cut-paper dog puppets acting in a makeshift theater frame, accompanied by several lines from the students' narratives and read in their expressive dog voices. Technical difficulties occurred multiple times during the filming as dogs streaked across the screen in pursuit of squirrels or as dogs congregated in a barking chorus on stage. The two classes in attendance loved the film, and the movie-makers beamed in pride.

The guest classes were especially interested in the process of creating these dog stories. The students began working with Debra several months ago. They first randomly selected a dog biography (retrieved for them from and then used a mini-book called Spike's Friends (designed by Debra) to consider personality traits and determine the voices of their dogs. After numerous revisions and an experience with writer's craft groups to assist in those revisions, they began working with Debra again on the dog puppets (no writing utensils allowed!). The cut-paper dogs amazingly resemble their real dog photographs! All the puppets and stories are currently on display in the library and are a huge attraction to library visitors.

Each dog puppet, by the way, is mounted on a strong piece of electrical wire and attached with a small bungee cord to a can of dog food during its off-stage time. Debra's book, Spike: Ugliest Dog in the Universe, is scheduled for release on October 15, 2013.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wonder Books

My parents sent the most incredible gift to my school earlier this year: money to purchase a class set of R. J. Palacio's book Wonder. After reading the book and discussing it with each other via online and in-person conversations, the fifth graders created small books about the ideas of Wonder.

They shared their wonder books with each other and parents today. Each book was supposed to contain three things in response to the story:

a precept that shapes life (composed by the student or borrowed from another source)
a wonder question that could not be answered with facts
a word that guides (illustrated in some way)

The book covers needed to convey an important scene from the story, and their varied responses foretell the  thoughtfulness of their responses. The precepts (like those shared by the teacher in Wonder) covered topics of great importance, and the choices showed the students' careful inclusion of ideas they believe are essential to living. They wondered about why people treat others unfairly because of personality traits or appearance, why life on earth is temporary, what can be done for the world to be at peace. Words like joy, others, family, love, wisdom, and peace filled the last pages of their books. All of these things were excellent examples of what the students learned from the book - and far more powerful than answers to comprehension questions!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Halving and Doubling

The buds and blossoms are on doubling each day on my neighbor's magnolia bush, slowly dominating the branches and tips.

In the library, we are reading Matthew McElligott's book THE LION'S SHARE. It subtitle is excellent: A TALE OF HALVING CAKE AND EATING IT, TOO. When Ant is invited to a dinner party hosted by Lion, she can hardly believe it. But when she observes the atrocious manner displayed by the other guest (like Beetle, Tortoise, Warthog, Hippo, and Elephant), she wonders about their behavior. Lion quietly watches, too. Then it is time for dessert. Elephant slices the cake in half and passes it on to others; each animal halves it, leaving only crumbs for Ant. Unable to share those with Lion, Ant offers to bake a strawberry sponge cake for the king. Not to be outdone, each of the others offers to double the offer, resulting in 256 cakes peanut butter pound cakes promised by Elephant.

I love how this book incorporates fractions and multiplication in a captivating story about getting along well with others. The children's reactions to the other animals' arrogant ways was strong. Like me, they loved the mr. McElligott's watercolor artwork.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Research Options

With some warmer weather has come buds and even a few blossoms. I marvel at how differently the buds manifest themselves, depending on the tree species and type. Most of the maples in our yard simply get reddish buds on the branch tips, but our neighbors' maple has the added fluffy hairdo, making the tree appear to be ablaze. Soon, all these maples will display similar leaves.

My former English teachers each seemed to teach a different way of conducting research, all hoping to guide students to an organized final product. Some methods were more cumbersome than others for me, but I dreaded the outlines most. I have taught students how to use outlines, notecards, t-charts, and various inquiry methods, but in the end, each will have a preferred method for conducting research.

I have been conducting research of my own lately, and I am refining what I prefer, what works best for how my brain works and how my questions flow. Though I have a general idea of what I want to know, I have loved how one topic leads to another and how a source can direct me to several others. I am reminded again to provide students with choices so they, too, can discover what fits best for their style.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Whereas for some people, cooking or baking in the kitchen is unpleasant, for me it is a pleasure, a way to relieve stress, to create things that will fill others with satisfaction. There are tools for many of the things I need to do while preparing food, and like most people, I have favorites. I like that coated whisk for chocolate pudding, the dough hook for certain kinds of bread dough, the tiny whisk for just a few eggs.

When my mom recommended Erica Bauermeister's book THE LOST ART OF MIXING, I figured it would be a story about cooking. It is. But it is so much more than that. Each chapter focuses on one of the eight people whose lives come together in the book: Lillian, Chloe, Tom, Finnegan, Isabelle, Louise, Al, and Abby. One owns a restaurant. One longs to be a chef and works at that restaurant. One has experienced tremendous loss and learns to love again. One loves people's stories and making life gentler for others. One is losing her memory but can read people so well. One is angry and reads people so poorly. One wants so much to be loved and appreciated. One sees only a single way to live. Sometimes the mixing of their lives seems effortless. At other times, it is strained, reminding me that we all need to consider the experiences of those we encounter instead is making assumptions.

I loved how the author wove together their stories, how tidbits would appear once and reappear later in surprise, how sometimes one person would be the expert at mixing. I especially loved the importance placed upon rituals. As Al explains, "Rituals are like making time into family...Normally, time just flows along, and you might not pay any more attention to it than you would strangers on the street. A ritual makes you stop and notice. It says, look, you're growing up, or older, or into something. It turns that moment into something you carry with you forever, when otherwise it could have just drifted away." p. 36

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fish Stories

Despite more snow in Minnesota and Wisconsin, fishing enthusiasts hope to find open water for the fishing openers in the coming two weekends. At school, listeners have been eager to share their own fishing stories after hearing David Shannon's latest book JANGLES: A BIG FISH STORY. Hands separate by expanding inches as children tell about the crappie/bluegill/northern pike/walleye they caught.

Jangles is a supposedly uncatchable trout, nabbed by the narrator's father. The fish got its name from the many lures and hooks embedded in its mouth over the years, tingling and jangling to signal the fish's arrival. When finally caught, the famous fish transports the fisherboy to its underwater cave and tells amazing stories (which the boy incredulously understands). In the end, though the boy snags the fish, they strike a deal. The boys agrees to let the fish go, and the fish requests the removal of all those lures and hooks. The last page displays an open tackle box.

It is the perfect story to read aloud as the fishing season draws close.

Note: the snow missed us by about 12 miles today. This photo was taken last week.