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Monday, February 24, 2014

Sharing Bake Sale

A third grade reader was eager to read Sara Varon's graphic novel ROBOT DREAMS last week. It is a rather sad story about two friends, a dog and robot, and the latter rusts after a visit to the beach, making it unable to be the companion to the dog. I suggested the reader might enjoy Sara Varon's book BAKE SALE, and I put it on reserve for him. It is a comical but thoughtful story about Cupcake and his friend Eggplant. Cupcake wants so badly to learn from the master chef Turkish Delight (whose name makes me laugh simply because I do not have an appreciation for it). The next day, the young reader rushed in to tell me how much he liked it.

"Did you make any of the recipes in the back?" he asked. 

I confessed I had not tried them.

"I really wanted to make the brownies, but my parents said we didn't have time."

We looked at the recipes together and agreed that several looked like they would make delicious treats. The next day I was in his classroom for a reading workshop mini-lesson about character. 

"If I bake brownies this weekend, would you like me to bring one for you?"

"That would be kind of you,"  I told him. I certainly did not expect him to show up at my office door this morning, eager to give me a large, wrapped brownie! But there he was, unzipping his backpack and telling me that they were much better when they came right out of the oven. And they should be good because they did have a whole bag of chocolate chips in them! Oh, and before he returned the book, he was copying the recipe for himself so they could make it again at home.

I thanked him, my mind considering once again the connections between readers and books and the people who share them with each other. Along with his thank-you note, I am sending my favorite brownie recipe!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

This is Just to Say

A lovely gift arrived in my mailbox today: the new paperback version of Joyce Sidman's This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. Only the covers are different, and I like each one for different reasons. The hardcover version's raised line of stitching draws my fingers to up and down the edge, and I often find myself contemplating the apologies I should give and forgiveness I need to grant. The art on the paperback cover is from the CIP page of the book, and it - along with that blue sky and sea - brings to mind the contentment of having asked for forgiveness or of having been given that gift from another person.

For those unfamiliar with the book, I should explain the format. The poems in the first half are poems of apology for the wrongdoings of sixth graders, expressed in their voices and directed at a person or thing. The second half of the book features poems that express forgiveness (or possibly just understanding or acknowledgment) from the recipients of the apology poems. Some make me laugh. Some bring a cringe of remembrance of something I did at the same age. Some cause me to wonder that children worry about such things as they express. Reading the collection is akin to getting to know the writers in that imaginary classroom...and imagining what the writers I know might write. All the poems are excellent examples of voice.

My favorites tonight were composed by a daughter and mother. Maria apologizes to her mother for creeping into the kitchen and cutting a "warm, thick brick" from the center of the brownie pan. Even the gaping, accusatory eye in the middle of the pan could not erase Maria's heavenly thoughts about the brownies. Her mom apologizes for creeping into Maria's messy room and accidentally reading a note from Bobby (which is another part of the class story and involves two other poems), and straightening just a bit. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Art Detective

When I was a child, I detested going to visit the doctor. There was a scary painting of a clown in the waiting area. The place smelled strangely. I was afraid of the doctor himself (though I adored his sweet nurse). Only two positive things stick with me about my clinic visits: getting to look at HIGLIGHTS magazine and find the Hidden Pictures and walking out with a Safe-T-Pop sucker. 

Perhaps the former is one reason I like the book Art Detective: Spot the Difference by Doris Kutschbach. Nineteen paintings and their forged counterparts are featured in this intriguing book. Charlie the Sleuth, a detective dog, guides readers and careful observers through the paintings, half of which Charlie knows to be forgeries. To convict the forger, readers must help Charlie discover the differences in each forged painting. Sometimes there are 15 or 20 and sometimes only seven mistakes. Some are subtle, and some are quite obvious. I absolutely had to find the mistakes in each painting! The bow around the dog's neck is missing in the forgery of Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." An apple moves position and changes color in "The Moneychanger and His Wife" by Quinten Massys. An eggplant is missing from "Still Life with Ginger Jar and Eggplants" by Paul Cezanne. Each painting and its artist is described in greater detail at the back of the book, sharing information about style, artists' choices, and interesting tidbits. It will encourage a visit to the local art museum.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Stingy Baker

My friend David LaRochelle inscribed my copy of The Stingy Baker (written by Janet Greerson) like this:

"To Julie who is NEVER a stingy baker!"

It is the story of a baker named Jan Van Amsterdam and his unwillingness to properly share his baked goods. He refused to give his son young son more than broken cookies. He sold dozen upon dozen of little-boy cookies with raisin eyes and angel-shaped cookies. When he refuses to add an angel cookie to the twelve requested by a mysterious woman, strange things begin to happen. Jan Van's cookies disappear. His bread floated away up the chimney. Only when he gives the woman a real baker's dozen does his luck change!

David created the artwork for the book (published in 1990) by making linoleum block prints and adding watercolor for accents. It was his first of many books, and he bestowed the original Stingy Baker upon us as a gift. 

Today when we picked up a piece of framed artwork, I brought an extra-large chocolate chip cookie to my favorite and trusted framer, Tim. The Stingy Baker now hangs in the kitchen.

Friday, February 14, 2014

514 Children

This week I finished reading E. B. White's classic book Charlotte's Web to the second graders. They are amazed when Charlotte tells Wilbur there are 514 eggs in her magnum opus, her egg sac. Silence settles on the group when I read the line "No one was with her when she died" (with tears welling up in my eyes). And they sigh with smiles when they hear me read my favorite lines:
"It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a great write. Charlotte was both."

Last night after parent conferences, one boy was leaving the building with his mom at the same time I departed. "Please," he begged. "Can you read Charlotte's Web again?"

No matter how many times I have read this book, my throat tightens when Charlotte dies, giggles spill from me when Wilbur tries to spin a web with a piece of string attached to his tail, and my excitement rises with Wilbur's when three of Charlotte's 514 baby spiders ("That means 511 drifted away as aeronauts," one listener told me today) stay in the barn cellar. When teachers tell me their students have already read a book - insinuating I should not read it to them again - or when they demand that another grade level not use a book because they plan to do so, I remind them of how adult readers really do reread books...and with great pleasure. Many of these children will reread Charlotte's Web someday, and I hope the experience takes them back to the story steps when they were in second grade. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

A friend bought Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn for her mother (whose reading preferences and mine often align well) and passed on the recommendation. I finished it in two days, even with working a full week (no severe weather days this week). Set in the present day, the book follows Queen Elizabeth over the course of two days as she practices her yoga poses (recommended to her by Prince Edward), experiments with Twitter (or Miss Twitter, as she prefers to call it), feeds her favorite horse in the Royal Mews, unexpectedly leaves the grounds on her own in the rain, and takes the train to Edinburgh on a nostalgic journey. Though some of it may sound unlikely, Kuhn makes it believable drawing in the Queen's butler, her equerry, her lady-in-waiting, her long-time attendant, a young woman who works in the Royal Mews, and a young man who works in a nearby cheese shop. Their stories intermingle as they all serve the Queen in their own charming ways. Mix in some Henry V, and it becomes an entirely engaging story!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Analyzing Actions

Another group of third graders began mini-lessons about character this week. They started by listing everything they learned about Grandpa in Song and Dance Man by Karen Ackerman. Yesterday they separated physical traits from character traits in Dandelion by Don Freeman. Today, they listed to Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles (a 1972 Newbery Honor Book) and relayed the things they learned about Annie and her grandmother through their actions. It was one of the most powerful discussions I have experienced with young readers. They talked about Annie's kindness, her determination, her fierce love for her grandmother, her tendency to think before acting. Then, one boy said, "I know she is kind, but in a way, she is also selfish." Many of the readers gasped. He went on to explain that though Annie wanted her grandmother to live (and found many ways she thought would delay her return to Mother Earth), perhaps it was selfish of her to try keeping her grandmother on this earth when perhaps the Old One was ready to die, ready to be free of the trials of this world. Sigh. Their teacher and I had tears in our eyes, in awe of a child with such a profound observation.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

One Grain of Rice

The children are mesmerized by this week's read-aloud selection: Demi's One Grain of Rice. This "mathematical folktale" features a rather greedy raja (who prefers to think of himself as wise) who demands the majority of the rice harvest from the populace of rice farmers in his kingdom. Famine and poor conditions bring about hunger for the majority, but the raja refuses to part with what he has collected. An observant and clever young girl named Rani notices rice spilling from baskets en route to the palace from the royal storehouses and devises an ingenious plan. Rani gathers the rice in her skirt, offers it to the raja, and declines his offer of a reward. He insists until she tells him she will accept one grain of rice. The listeners in the library - and the raja - are astounded that she would ask for something so small. Rani then clarifies. She wants one grain of rice the first day, double that amount the second day, double that day's amount the third day, and so on until the span of 30 days has been reached. When the grains of rice reaches into the thousands, hundred thousands, and millions, the raja - and the children - realize Rani has been quite clever in her request.

Demi cleverly added a five by six table on the last page to show how the number of grains doubles each of the 30 days. The children in all grades loved thinking math, doubling the grains in their minds. Most made it to Day 15 without having to hesitate long (sometimes amazing their teacher and me). I am certain there will be several of those tables made at home tonight to show parents just how quickly the doubling works.