Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Review: Sherman Alexie's Wonderful Story

In some ways, it's unfortunate that Sherman Alexie's latest novel called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian recently won the National Book Award. I don't mean to imply that it is not worthy of the award. It is and then some. But here's hoping that the sassy title will win over readers who wouldn't go near an award-winning book.

At its core, it's about a boy caught between his past and future. The story of Arnold Spirit or "Junior" is in many ways a coming-of-age-story where the protagonist is ready to grow beyond what his community can offer him. His future is different than his best friend Rowdy's, and they both know it. That doesn't keep them from hurtfully playing out the transition of their relationship, however. Rowdy must save face on the rez, so shunning and harassing Junior when he chooses to leave for another school, gives him a way to deal with his anger, sadness and jealousy. And his friend Junior understands.

One of the wonders of this story is how the author illuminates institutional racisim against the Indians. It's a core ingredient of the story, but it doesn't overwhelm the story. The events of life on the rez with the Spirit family are difficult and we cheer for Arnold Spirit as he breaks away to make a different life for himself. He is a young man who has a vision strong enough to manifest for himself. But he still feels the emotional pull to his family and life on the rez.

Junior's drawings are embedded throughout the story and are an integral part of how we come to know him. Through their graphic language, the drawings communicate the essence of the dilemmas that Junior deals with throughout the story. Pictures push the story forward and are as integral to a full understanding as the words.

The writing is masterfully simple and on target. Alexie's narrative puts us right "there" with Junior. We can feel the heat, we're at the basketball game, we know how long that walk is back to the rez. It's a story of triumph. A boy has a dream and overcomes adversity to achieve it. I highly recommend this book.

ISBN 978-0-314-01368-0

Monday, December 3, 2007

Where Did the Month Go?

I can't believe it's been a month since my last post. My son's wedding, Thanksgiving, and lots of travel for work and pleasure swallowed the month whole and we are now officially in the fastest month of the year.

With all the time spent on airplanes - both going somewhere and sitting on the runway's backlot waiting to go somewhere - I've had many hours to catch up on my reading.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about some of the books we've received in the Fiction Picture Books category of the Cybils and also Sherman Alexie's National Book Award Winner, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Stay tuned...

Friday, November 2, 2007

NCLB versus Whole Language

In today's Shelf Awareness, Jennifer Brown offers a thoughtful essay on the difference between the reader development of the Whole Language movement and today's emphasis on the narrow set of defined reading skills required by NCLB. The basic argument - whether phonics or language immersion is the better approach to teaching reading- has raged for a long time. For some years, phonics was omitted from teacher training programs while classroom teachers built large libraries and created a print-rich environment for their students. Students read from "authentic" sources - meaning actual children's literature as opposed to selections in a text book. The students selected the books themselves and were introduced to story within the context of a wide variety of situations and characters that reflected their worlds - their actual world and the world of their imaginiations. As a teaching methodology, whole language has waned under the onslaught of test requirements. One of the unfortunate casualties of NCLB is that while the whole language method empowered teachers , NCLB does not.

The truth is that the best teachers have always used both whole language and phonics to help students learn to read. Our human brains need context to learn and reading stories to children allows them to be captivated by story so that they seek out the learning for themselves. There is no substitute for self-directed learning. At its peak, whole language students spent their days in a print-rich classroom, spent time in their school library with a trained librarian, and optimally went home to read books with their families. Today, there is less money to invest in classroom libraries; librarians are losing their jobs because the library is deemed non-essential to schools struggling with funding issues; and fewer adults read for pleasure and are raising a generation of children who associate reading only with school.

In attempting to decrease the disparity between the lowest and highest achievers, NCLB is not accomplishing one of its primary goals - we are not creating more readers; we are not creating a culture of life-long learners invested in their own development. We are creating a generation of test-takers, not at all the same thing. The needs of children who are at the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum have received the bulk of the attention from schools and districts as a result of the NCLB legislation. This is a good thing as every child in this country is entitled to a good public school education. But, as a practical matter, the needs of the rest of the children have been largely ignored. Some states are opting to lower their learning standards as bringing the children up to grade level proficiency is such a daunting task.

There is a lot of talk about teaching kids 21st century skills. The best way to prepare our children for life in the 21st century is to help them develop a hunger for reading and learning and self-directed exploration. Our approach to learning must expand not contract. Often, the greatest barrier to change is the teaching community itself. We need to put our money where our talk is and restore respect for reading, learning, and teaching at the core of our communities so that we do attract the best and brightest to teaching. We need to invest in our children by ensuring that they have the highest level of instruction so that they learn to exercise their highest order thinking skills - not rote memorization and mastery of non-contextual skills.

Our children and our future deserve more. Parents, educators, politicians, and every citizen of this country should be invested in education policy and practice. It's our future too.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

YouTube Reading List

Even though this is above the age level I usually write about, it is such an awesome way to spread a love of books that I had to pass it along. This young man shares the books that he's found meaningful and have helped shape his view of the world. Classics (in the original sense of Marcus Aurelius), science fiction, philosophy, pop culture, psychology, sociology, current fiction, poetry, etc. which, when set to music ["Slow Motion(Explicit Version)" from "Third Eye Blind: A Collection (Remastered)"] become social commentary.

My son is working on his personal music biography, and this is somewhat the same idea. This would be a great reading list for anyone, but for young people coming of age at this time in this culture, the titles are particularly appropriate. I am fascinated by the communication opportunities that new social media communities like YouTube present to all of us. This is just as valid a way to communicate the importance of books in our lives as any other. It's also going to reach a lot more people than BookTV. Check it out. I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Review: Hank Zipzer - The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down

Hank Zipzer is billed as the "world's greatest underachiever," because he has learning differences that make school more difficult for him than it is for other kids. This is actually #11 in the series and I can't wait to read more of these middle grade novels. Hank reminds me of several boys I've known including one of my sons. Based on the true-life adventures of Henry Winkler, Hank and his adventures are brought to life by the talented co-writers Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler - both accomplished story tellers. They write with humor and absolute veracity about something that didn't even really have a name or a diagnosis 30 years ago.

We know a lot more about how the brain works now and conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and various kinds of information processing challenges. We have a vocabulary, diagnostic tests, and teachers trained to recognize symptoms of learning challenges in the early grades. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to being "labeled," but whether there are actually more cases of learning differences now or we are just getting better at diagnosing them, it is rare that teachers don't have at least one student in their class and in some cases, several students struggling with a learning disability of one sort or another.

Brain research has helped us learn much more about how and when human beings learn. Even without learning challenges, everyone has a preferred learning style and our optimal learning occurs in a multi-sensory way - by reading, listening, doing, reflecting.

What is great about this novel is that the characters, situations, and dialog all resonate. The story is skillfully told and the situations and characters are believable. Certainly, anyone who has helped a child struggle with learning differences will see that story reflected here. And, it's not just about the learning difficulty itself, it's also about self-perception, and coping with other people and their expectations. And for "tweens" there is the social aspect of not being perceived as different that is still as important as it's always been.

With his lead in the school production of "Anna and the King" at stake, Hank must score a B+ on the math test or his father won't let him stay in the play. Hank works with his peer tutor, Heather, who always acted "like her braids were pulled too tight." Hank's typical dance-and-duck response to uncomfortable situations is to be the class joker. But by using stacks of library books, Heather finds a concrete way to explain long division so that Hank finally gets it. We are as happy as he is at his "Eureka" moment.

"Seeing the answer to the math problem right there in front of me was like a door opening and letting light into my big, dark brain. My head couldn't visualize the numbers on the page, or understand the fancy math words. But I could see the books, count the books, and figure out the answer that was right in front of my eyes!" This AHA moment is what every teacher lives for. It's why they put up with everything they do to stay in the classroom. And good teachers, even a "peer" teacher in this case, will figure out what they have to do to convey the learning in a way the student can understand.

Series fiction allows writers to develop a character over time and multiple stories. For kids captivated by a character, it is almost impossible to have too many stories. I inhaled Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Lane, Black Beauty and other series when I was a tween. For kids who see their story reflected in Hank Zipzer, there are many opportunities to see him react to different situations throughout the 14 books of the series - so far. Visit Hank's website and share his stories with some of the learners in your family.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Texas High School Teacher Suspended for Book Choice

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that in Tuscola, Texas, a 9th-grade English teacher has been suspended (on paid leave) after a student's parents complained to police about a book their child read by Pullitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy called Child of God from the 9th-grade reading list . The 1974 novel is a story about an outsider falsely accused of rape, who then begins killing people and living in a cave with their decomposing bodies.

The reading list was compiled by all of the high-school English teachers for an advanced Placement class. Last week the school board voted to keep the three-year veteran teacher on paid leave even though more than 120 parents attended the meeting asking that he be reinstated. In fact most of the school's parents are in favor of reinstating the teacher. The teacher has not been charged with anything, but is being investigated for distributing harmful material to a minor. In the meantime, the book has been deleted from the reading list by school officials.

My first response to this story was, "here we go again."

My second was, "why did the parents report this to the police instead of the principal?" Were they concerned about the reading list or were they exploiting an opportunity to push their own agenda?

It occurs to me:

  • that the list was assembled by a group of high school English teachers not just the one on suspension.

  • since the author is a Pullitzer Prize winner and this is a 34-year old title, the English teachers must have agreed that despite it's macabre story line, it had redeeming value or it would not be on the list.

  • the student chose to read this book. If the parents were that concerned, why didn't they help their child select a "more appropriate" title?

  • if we accept the premise that a community has the right to decide what is and is not offensive,(even though it is clearly a violation of the first amendment) and we know that most of the school's parents are in favor of reinstating the teacher, can we infer that the parents filing the complaint are out of step with the majority of the town's 700 inhabitants?

As I've stated before, banning books makes them more attractive to the people. What credentials to these parents have for judging whether a book is or isn't worthy of study? Why didn't these parents choose to minimize the alleged "damage" the book produced by quietly discussing the book with their child and then moving on to reading a book that was more in line with their personal moral code? Why report it to the police?

I understand that definitions of "good writing" vary and there will never be consensus. It seems clear to me, however, that these people must be making a larger point, although I'm in the dark as to what that might be. The situation might be more understandable if it were a current book reflecting today's pop culture. But, it's not. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to book challenges in schools is to pull the title. And predictably, that is what happened in Tuscola. One can only hope that cooler heads will prevail in the end and that nobody has to leave town.

What invariably happens when books are challenged or banned is that they achieve a stature far greater than they would have claimed had the book not been challenged. The American Library Association (ALA) website gives a comprehensive history of book challenges in this country as well as helpful advice in coping with a book challenge.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: Library Lion

I love waking up on Saturday mornings. Saturday has always been the day of greatest possibility. You never know what can happen on a Saturday. It is usually the one day of the week that has fewer "must dos" or scheduled activities. We have the luxury of imagining our day unfolding in many different ways. One of the things I have always loved to do on Saturdays is go to the library. You can imagine with all of the wonderful libraries in the world that you should be prepared for wonderful things to happen. But a real live lion?

Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is a warm and engaging story about libraries, books, rules and friendship. And most of all, when it is okay to break the rules to help someone. One of the librarians, Mr. McBee, is quite upset when a lion walks into the library one day. When he reports it to Miss Merriweather, the head librarian, her only concern is whether or not the lion is following the library's rules. The main rule in a library, of course, is keeping quiet or speaking in a low voice so as to not disturb other people in the library. When Mr. McBee reports that the lion is not breaking any rules, Miss Merriweather says to leave him alone

As it turns out, the lion's favorite time in the library is story hour when the story lady reads aloud to the children in their comfy story corner. However, he is not at all happy when she is done for the day as he wants to hear another story and so he roars very loudly. When Miss Merriweather comes to scold him, the children ask if he can return the following day for more stories if he doesn't roar. Miss Merriweather responds, "Yes. A nice, quiet lion would certainly be allowed to come back for story hour tomorrow."

Each day the lion returns early for story hour and makes himself useful by licking envelopes or dusting the encyclopedias with his tail or putting children on his back so they can reach books on the high shelves. But one day while he is helping in Miss Merriweather's office, she falls from a ladder and hurts herself. She tells the lion to get Mr. McBee to help. Mr. McBee has not grown any fonder of the lion and ignores him. The lion is trying to follow the rules and not make noise but Mr. McBee does not understand that the lion needs his help, so finally in frustration, he roars "the loudest roar he had ever roared in his life."

Mr. McBee runs to Miss Merriweather's office to report that the lion has broken the rules when he finds Miss Merriweather on the floor with a broken arm needing help. He realizes that the lion broke the rules to help a friend. But the lion doesn't come back to the library the next day, or the day after that. Everyone was sad, especially Miss Merriweather. So, Mr. McBee searches the town to find the lion to tell him about the NEW library rule - that there is no roaring in the library unless you have a good reason like trying to help a friend who's been hurt. The lion returns to the library the next day and is welcomed by all his friends.

In addition to being a good story with a happy ending and illustrated with evocative, soft pastels, the story celebrates friendship and the importance of community.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Gluttony and Delight at the Library

Libraries are such magical places. You can choose your delights from the featured books gathered in places (usually by theme) throughout the library; cruise the fiction shelved alphabetically; or hightail it directly to a favorite section such as history, art, or gardening. Long before children learn the Dewey Decimal system, they learn where their favorite books are shelved. The youngest children choose by cover design - young readers often choose by favorite author - then we mature into readers who also consult the covers, inside jacket blurbs, and perhaps the introduction or table of contents before we make our selection.

No matter how we make our selection, every book can be checked out and taken home. Unlike the book store where selections are made according to need and bank balance, hungry-eyed readers have access to every single book in the library. Food gluttony can lead to illness, but I never heard of anyone getting sick from reading too many books or learning too much.

Because books are always coming and going from library shelves, you are never sure what you are going to find in a favorite section or by a favorite author. Yes, you can reserve books in advance and pick them up when they're available, but that takes the fun of discovery away. I love that "oh, wow" feeling when I find a treasure I wasn't expecting on the library shelves.

Last Saturday on a gorgeous afternoon, I went to my local branch. I found two books I had been wanting to read and empty rocking chairs on the screened in porch looking out over a lovely wood. As I rocked and reviewed my stack to determine which of the lovelies would actually go home with me, I was so thankful to Andrew Carnegie and all the other hundreds of folks who developed and continue to sustain public libraries across the country.

The role of libraries continues to change. There are more and more computers as people surf the information highway. There are study groups, language tutoring, story telling, community meetings...but the main business of the library is still circulation. Sharing books with anyone with a library card. What a gift. Today, I'm thankful for my current bag of books from the library. Support your library. It is partially funded on its circulation numbers. Patronize your library. Join a book group, tutor a child, attend a meeting, or just sit and read. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fancy Nancy and Tiara Day

You know, sometimes you just have to call it a tiara day. There is something about wearing a tiara that lifts your spirits and sends you out into life with an entirely new attitude. I have several tiaras in my collection, but the silver one with the pink boa trim is my favorite.

Nancy, in Fancy Nancy written by Jane O'Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, is just the sort of girl who internalizes the tiara philosophy of life. From the tip of her tiara to the toes of her pink high heels she is the epitome of "fancy" and makes it her mission to transform her family from plain to fancy. Obviously good sports and full of playful indulgence to their fancy daughter, they dress up to the nines and descend upon the local diner in full regalia. Glasser's illustrations are fabulous and carry the story well, but the one that will make you laugh out loud is turning the page to see Nancy and her family burst through the door of "The King's Crown" with sunglasses, feathers, tiaras, canes, ruffles, bows, fans and attitude firmly in place. Of course they are greeted with gasps from the assembled diners "who probably think we're movie stars". It is a terrific moment with a priceless illustration.

The ensuing adventure is a bit predictable for adults, but still very fun because of our heroine and her wonderful family. This family has such a great sense of play, you really want to be IN her family.Dress up girls of all ages will love this book. ISBN 978-0-06-054209, Harper Collins.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Cybils' Annual Book Bloggers KidLit Awards


CHICAGO – Will Harry Potter triumph among critical bloggers? Will novels banned in some school districts find favor online?

With 90 volunteers poised to sift through hundreds of new books, the second annual Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards launched on Oct. 1. Known as the Cybils, it’s the only literary contest that combines both the spontaneity of the Web with the thoughtful debate of a book club.

The public’s invited to nominate books in eight categories, from picture books up to young adult fiction, so long as the book was first published in 2007 in English (bilingual books are okay too). Once nominations close on Nov. 21, the books go through two rounds of judging, first to select the finalists and then the winners, to be announced on Valentine’s Day 2008.

Judges come from the burgeoning ranks of book bloggers in the cozy corner of the Internet called the kidlitosphere. They represent parents, homeschoolers, authors, illustrators, librarians and even teens.

The contest began last year after blogger Kelly Herold (Big A little a) expressed dismay that while some literary awards were too snooty – rewarding books kids would seldom read – others were too populist and didn’t acknowledge the breadth and depth of what’s being published today.

“It didn’t have to be Brussels sprouts versus gummy bears,” said Anne Boles Levy (Book Buds) who started Cybils with Herold. “There are books that fill both needs, to be fun and profound.”

Last year’s awards prompted more than 480 nominations, and this year’s contest will likely dwarf that. As with last year’s awards, visitors to the Cybils blog can leave their nominations as comments. There is no nomination form, only the blog, to keep in the spirit of the blogosphere that started it all.

Review: Looking for Alaska

John Green's first novel, Looking for Alaska, is a faced-paced coming-of-age novel in which many teens will see themselves and their concerns. Although the basic plot line is one we've seen before - "odd" group of kids find themselves thrown together where they wrestle with big issues such as the meaning of life and how to be true to oneself - Green gives it freshness and depth.

This book was written for a young adult audience, but it resonates for adults as well. Many of us can also relate to the experiences of Miles (Pudge) Halter and his new boarding school mates because the situations they encounter mirror much of what we deal with as adults: friendship and loss; distrust of others not exactly like us; emotional pain; possibility; finding kindness; and adventure. They also recall the pain and uncertainties of our own adolescent journeys.

Miles is a smart and witty narrator. The story and the action centers around Alaska Young who is beautiful, bright, sexy, angst-ridden and tragic. She is the comet that Miles and his roommate, "the Colonel" chase after. She befriends them, she taunts them, she mystifies them, and she loves them. There are two others that round out this little circle but they are less defined and exist only as foils for our main trio. Green takes characters that could be stereotypes and realistically fleshes them out so that we are caught up in their story and care about them.

While there are plenty of warnings for inappropriate behavior and consequences, they are presented through an intimate story of one, individual boy's deepening maturity. A boy the reader grows to care about even if he likes to memorize the dying words of famous people.
Although this book would be perfect for school discussion and I am confident that there are teachers who see this book in the same way they view Catcher in the Rye, it will certainly make appearances on the banned books list for language, sex, and underage drinking. It is precisely because of these things and the universality of the experience for today's young people that it should be read and discussed. It accurately represents the choices and activities of today's teens and would resonate with them for precisely these reasons. I highly recommend it. ISBN978-0-14-240251-1, SPEAK; Penguin Putnam imprint.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Salute a banned book: The Higher Power of Lucky

It seems such a silly thing to me to ban books for children. Any one who knows kids will tell you that to forbid something makes it that much more enticing. Even if they weren't initially interested, telling them not to do something almost always ensures that they will. Which is okay with me because kids are supposed to test their limits and boundaries. That's how they learn to be adults who understand action and consequence.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron won the 2007 Newberry Medal this year, it set off an amazing brouhaha that did not put school librarians in a very good light. Schools are fighting for resources, fighting for relevance, fighting for change - and the last thing they want to do is fight with parents who are up in arms about "bad" language. So, some school librarians preemptively struck the title from their lists. Now the fact that most public and school libraries make it a point to have multiple copies of the entire list of Newberry and Caldecott award titles made this news. What makes it sad is that the wonderful story of a plucky girl who takes charge of her history, her pain, and her future took a backseat to ONE vocabulary word which happens to be the last word of the second paragraph on page one. I'm sure that many people never read beyond the second paragraph. That the name of a body part (which we do teach in school, by the way) could be the catalyst for such nonsense - particularly in light of what kids can see on network TV any day of the week - was surprising.

After months of media attention, the controversy settled down and many school libraries quietly added the title to their collections. Like many other wonderful titles on the banned books list (check out the
American Library Association), the issue will be resurrected annually at the beginning of the school year.

Some things to consider:
  • Author Susan Patron has spent her career as a children's librarian in the Los Angeles County Public Library so one would expect that she spends a lot of time with kids.
  • Could the author have chosen a different word? Probably, but word choice is clearly in the realm of the author's creative imagination and process. And we have to assume that she crafted her story with care and chose her words intentionally.
  • In a culture where "family" is continually being redefined, isn't it our responsibility to create mirrors for our children that illustrate and illuminate these various iterations of family so that more children can see themselves?
  • Isn't that one of the primary roles of fiction?
  • How revealing is it that knee-jerk reactions to a single word in a children's book tell us so much more about where our attention is as opposed to where it could be - like poverty and lack of basic healthcare for America's children.

In the end, like most of the banned books list, The Higher Power of Lucky is a terrific story, well-written and engaging for kids. It's a contemporary treatment of an age-old yearning to belong. And why people find that objectionable in any way is beyond me. So what was the "word" that provoked all the controversy? Well, you'll just need to read the book to find out. ISBN 978-1-4169-0194-5

For another perspective of this title check out this posting at the Miss Rumphius Effect.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Call to Action for Funding School Libraries

Unfortunately, I'm a bit behind on my blog reading and just discovered this September 19th post from Kelly Fineman tonight which relates to an earlier post of mine on funding school libraries.

Congress is considering proposed legislation that will increase financing for school libraries and in many cases, improve or restore library programming in school districts across the country. The SKILLS Act (short for Strengthening Kids' Interest in Learning and Libraries -- clearly the acronym came first here) was sponsored by Senators Jack Reed (RI) and Thad Cochran (MI) and by Representatives Raul Grijalva (AZ) and Vernon Ehlers (MI). According to the tracking organizations, the bills (one in the House, one in the Senate) have been referred to committees.

In less than two weeks Congress will be voting on legislation that will:
1. Get much needed funding to school libraries.
2. Requires that every school in every school district of every state employs at least one state certified, highly qualified school library media specialist.
3. Provides monies for training and professional development for school library media specialists.

What does this mean?
1. It means more monies for schools to buy books and educational materials.
2. It means that young people will have access to more and better books because informed, knowledgeable librarians will be making book selections for their schools and will have more input and influence on trade and educational publishing for young people because they will have more purchasing power. (Many schools' libraries are run by parent volunteers and/or a teacher or other educational professional who may or may not have the skills and knowledge of a certified school librarian.)
3. It means that young people will have a knowledgeable librarian to teach them how to be informed consumers of information and critical thinkers.
4. It means that those wonderful people who are running school libraries who are not trained as professional librarians, will have access to professional develop monies to help them to get the professional training they need to help our kids.

1. Fax or email or call your congressional representatives in support of this legislation: the Strengthening Kids’ Interest in Learning and Libraries (SKILLs) Act. If you are uncertain who your Senators are, or who your representatives is, you can find out at this website.
2. Copy and paste this into an email and send it to everyone you know, especially: friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues, editors, publishers, authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, parents---everyone and everyone you know. Add your own short personal note and ask them to please contact their congressional representatives today by fax or email to support the SKILLs legislation. Encourage them to write a very few short words in support of this legislation. If you use a formula message it will not be taken as seriously as a more personalized fax or email.

Remember- Your voice and your vote do count---Your legislators keep actual tallies of fax, phone and email messages from their constituents on various issues, and it can influence the outcome of their vote!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Four Meme

This is my first-ever meme, but I was tagged by Lee Wilson and fair is fair.

What is a meme? Veteran bloggers don't have to ask, of course, but I'm always after an excuse to learn a new word so...according to Wikipedia, a meme is a unit of cultural information that is propagated (I LOVE that word) from one mind to another. Sounds very twilight-zonish, but in a fun way.

Here goes!

Four jobs I have had in my life (not including your current job):
1. I sold shrimp on the street corners of Virginia Beach.
2. I worked in a sailboat factory. My job was to attach the hiking straps with a pneumatic drill. (Can you say mind-numbing?)
3. Backup singer.
4. When my boys were babies, afternoon naps were taken in the car while I delivered newspapers. I got pretty good at rolling and throwing newspapers, shifting, and feeding snacks and bottles into the back seat.

These are all true. I have witnesses!

Four movies I have watched over and over.
Casablanca, of course!
Robin and Marian with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn
Sense and Sensibility - Ang Lee version
The Thin Man - oh that witty repartee!

Four places I have lived.
Corpus Christi, TX
McGuire AFB, NJ
Oak Harbor, WA
Norfolk, VA
and 10 other places.

Four shows I love to watch.
The Daily Show
The Closer
Mystery/Masterpiece Theater
Made in America

Four places I have been on vacation.
New Zealand will be the next big one.

Four favorite foods.
Greek salad
Grilled chicken

Four favorite drinks.
Sparkling water
IBC diet root beer
Gold margaritas

Four places I would rather be right now.
At my sister's kitchen table in Sarasota.
In my son's apartment in Chicago.
Ireland - because I love it.
Santa Fe - because it's on my list and I'm dying to go.

Four things I know but will never blog about.
How to dehead and devein shrimp.
How to cut my husband's curly hair.
How to iron a shirt perfectly.
Sing the prepositions in alphabetical order to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

Four bloggers to tag.
I'm going to have to give this some thought since I'm a new blogger and just learning the landscape. I'm not wimping out, I just have to think about it.

Thanks to Lee Wilson for this bit of fun.

Funding School Libraries

eSchoolNews reports on a new first-of-its-kind survey conducted by the American Association of School Librarians. Sara Kelly Johns, AASL president and library media specialist for New York's Lake Placid Middle/Senior High School is quoted as saying, "There is a growing body of research that documents the effect of a strong school library program on student achievement, and we need the data on staffing, size and age of collections, and budgets spent on resources to get a picture of a strong program that makes a difference for students."

It's amazing to me that anyone would be startled by this news. The more access kids have to quality reading materials and good information sources, the better they learn. No duh! as my kids would say. It is not just an issue of quality and quantity, it is about attitude - are children in school to learn a finite number of facts to graduate or are they in school to learn how to become lifelong learners?

Okay, you have to start somewhere and it turns out that there has been no entity operating as a storehouse of information about school libraries across the country so AASL is shouldering this responsibility and the survey is just the first of many. Hats off to AASL. Perhaps sharing some of these results will help people understand the value of school libraries.

It's interesting to hear stories from across the country about which positions are considered "optional" in a school when they have to cut budgets. Many times the school librarian or media specialist is the first head on the chopping block. Some forward thinking states such as my own state of NC mandate a media specialist in every public school so it's not considered optional in any way.

The survey finds that most school libraries are wired up with sufficient numbers of computers. Where things get interesting is the chasm of library staffing and expenditures per student between well-funded libraries and not so well funded.

During the critical learning-to-read years in elementary schools, it seems that the average elementary school library is open five fewer hours per week than a comparable middle- or high-school library. High school librarians spent twice as much time collaborating with teachers than do elementary librarians. Although there is not enough data to declare it conclusively, it seems that reading scores tend to be higher in schools with full time librarians who work collaboratively with teachers and students.

"The average school library spends about $11 per student, per year. But there is a wide gap between the average per-pupil expenditure of school libraries serving fewer than 300 students ($15) and those serving 2,000 students or more (less than $8). " eSchoolNews

And the school libraries in the top 25%? You know the ones...well staffed, well equipped, lots of new books, always crowded, happy faces? They're spending $30-$50 per student. If we are truly serious about increasing literacy in this country, we need to take our money out of our wallets and out of the federal and state coffers and invest in our country's future through support of our public and school libraries.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

LLama LLama Red Pajama

Llama llama
red pajama
reads a story
with his mama.

So begins this delightful bedtime story for very young ones who are struggling with having to be "alone" when they fall asleep. Anna Dewdney captures perfectly in verse and illustration the separation anxiety that children feel when a parent turns out the light and closes the door. After baby llama has worked himself up into a real lather about whether Mama is even still there and screams at the top of his for her, Mama comes back to scold...

Baby Llama
what a tizzy!
Sometime's Mama's
very busy.

Please stop all this
llama drama
and be patient
for your mama.

What parent hasn't said that? Perhaps not in such simple wonderful rhyme, but the sentiment will resonate with many parents. Of course Mama Llama relents and assuages baby's fears and tucks him in for sleep...again! My favorite line is "Please stop all this llama drama..." A fine addition to the bedtime collection of stories for little ones.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Libraries have always been magical places to me. I am still awestruck whenever I walk into a truly impressive library. To me books mean adventure, knowledge and freedom. Growing up in a large family, books were the only time I was alone. I would lose myself in the pages and have adventures that had nothing to do with my real life. As I grew up, I realized that everything I needed to know could be found in a book. It is still my first instinct to go look for a book even though the entire world is at my fingertips via the Internet. Now I look for a book on the Internet.

I clearly remember the first day I was allowed to walk to the Bookmobile myself. I was ten years old. It was a mile down a fairly busy street. Even though I had been selecting my own library books for some time under the watchful eye of my mother, this was something new and exciting. She would not even be on the premises while I made my choices. I felt free and wonderfully grown up. I also felt like I had the keys to the kingdom and that I could learn anything I wanted to learn.

Thanks to many wonderful people, our country is blessed with a strong public library system. I spent a number of years working in public libraries. In fact, in junior high, I was a member of the Junior Librarians Club and went to the state convention. Other than girl scout camp, it was my first trip on my own without my family. Talk about thrilling.

Unfortunately, public libraries are losing funding. Some cities and counties are so strapped for cash that they have begun limiting hours and services. This is a travesty. Although I am one of those people who never met a bookstore I didn't like, the library is still a great resource for me. Libraries have changed with the times in order to stay in sync with their patrons. I recently heard a presentation on public libraries and the speaker referred to users as customers - certainly a 21st century innovation as librarians reach out into the community as never before. Fewer and fewer of us classify ourselves as readers. For everyone of the avid readers who read daily, there are hundreds of those who read one book a year.

It's trite to say that reading enriches the mind and imagination. But it does. And those who do not read on a regular basis are denying themselves a great joy. For those who bemoan the loss of the independent book stores and criticize the large chains, it's important to remember that public libraries are the single largest consumer of books in this country. Support your library and you support the book industry. You don't have to be a book buyer although most library customers are also book store customers.

One of the great benefits of living in this country is that there is no excuse for being uneducated. Even if you happen to attend a less than stellar school, you can get a library card for free. Now the world's leading libraries and data bases are available to all of us through our local libraries. Libraries are not just about books - but about making content available to us. So whether you are interested in a picture book or dinosaurs or learning how to write a resume, your first stop should be your local library.

Check out the American Library Association and your telephone book to find out more about all of the resources available to you at your local library.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Special Teacher

Most of us have a story of a teacher who made a difference in our lives-- one without whom we would not become the person we are today. In The Rising Star of Rusty Nail, Lesley M.M. Blume tells the story of 10-year-old Franny Hansen, piano prodigy, who has outgrown the available piano teacher in her small 1953 Minnesota town of Rusty Nail. Franny and her best friend Sandy Anne Hellickson are as concerned with hijinks and mayhem as Franny is with her piano practice. Franny's father, a former big band wannabe, is her strongest advocate and understands Franny's potential.

On one level the story plays out as a standard coming-of-age story of a little girl in the back-of-beyond who finally gets her big chance. Through this process, she learns up close and personally the bigotry and small mindedness that is endemic to small towns. Continually outflanked by a lesser pianist, Nancy Orilee, whose father's money buys her anything she wants including a win at a state piano competition, Franny learns hard lessons about what is required of someone who has a gift but must fight for her dream. She also learns that suspicion and prejudice are not limited to small towns but are found in small minds everywhere.

Madame Olga Malenkov, a mysterious Russian musician, moves into the home of the local lawyer and the townfolk jump to the conclusion that Madame is his new wife. This is a convenient cover story for the couple as we see later in the story. Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that adults will recognize the clues to Madame's true identity long before children reading this book will.

The book is structured to represent the three movements of a concerto: Moderato, Adagio, and Allegro. This is explained in an introduction by the author and the action of the story mirrors the intensity of the concerto's movements. It is well written and the author does a good job of moving the story forward while revealing the strengths and foibles of the town's inhabitants. The conclusion is quite satisfying as justice and understanding prevail. Alfred A. Knopf, 978-0-375-83524-7.

Other Blog Reviews
Becky's Book Reviews
Miss Erin

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus' Name Amen

One of the most difficult concepts for young children to understand is death - particularly death of a family member or pet. Tomie de Paola's Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs is a long-time favorite of mine. In fact, I read it to my own children many times when they were trying to grasp the concept of death. It can be disturbing for a child to participate in funeral rites for the first time. Their regular world is turned upside down while people gather together with food, tell stories, cry, and laugh. When there is a mix of faith traditions, the entire experience can be even more confusing.

In Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus' Name Amen, five-year-old Emily's grandfather dies. Their special relationship is symbolized by Grandpa's glasses' case which he was always misplacing and Emily was good at finding. When he dies, Emily's family decides to celebrate his life and remember him in two ways - the Christian way and the Jewish way. Emily finds great comfort in the different funeral rites, and the story celebrates both faith traditions of this blended family. This unique approach to remembering a loved one becomes an integral part of how Emily remembers her grandfather and provides the touching final lines of the story:

It wasn't the Christian way and it wasn't the Jewish way. It was just my way. My Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus' name amen.

I highly recommend this book. ISBN 978-0-689-80185-3. Athenueum Books for Young Readers.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

My Cat Copies Me

Originally published in Korea, this is a poignant story of friendship between a girl and her cat. The two share games and fun together as well as comfort each other when things are scary. While the story begins with the cat imitating the girls' actions, by the end of the story the girl has resolved to learn from her cat. She faces her fears directly as she learns to climb high, to not be afraid of the dark, and to stretch her mind and body as far as she can. Her cat comforts and sustains the girl and gives her the courage to go outside their home to make new friends together. Youngsters will find encouragement in this story to reach outside their comfort zone for experiences that might seem scary at first but are easier to face with a friend at your side. ISBN 978-1-933605-26-5. Kane/Miller Book Publishers.

Becky's Book Reviews

Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind

On the first day of school, Miss Malarkey announces that by the end of the year students will read 1,000 books so Principal Wiggins will dye his hair purple and sleep overnight on the school roof. Miss Malarkey is indefatigable in her mission to get kids excited about reading as a goal in and of itself as well as part of the challenge of full school participation in the Everybody Reads in America program. One by one she turns the most reluctant readers into avid readers by finding a good match between the student's interests and a particular book. Except for one boy who is her greatest challenge. As the months roll by, she tries title after title to tempt him. Just like dominoes, the stalwart non-readers fall one after the other into the delightful books Miss Malarkey finds for each person. It's down to the wire, two days before the deadline, and she's still one reader and one book shy of the goal. You guessed it. She finds the one book that captures our hero in its grip keeping him up all night reading. As it turns out, he doesn't read the 1,000th book, but the 1,001st book. But seeing Principal Wiggins camping out on the school roof with his purple hair pales in comparison with what Miss Malarkey must feel by finally captivating her most reluctant reader. There's a lot to like in this book. Miss Malarkey represents good teachers everywhere who are looking for ways to help kids get excited about reading and learning. Kevin O'Mally's believable illustrations carry the story forward with action and speech bubbles. Judy Finchler tells this classic story of a determined teacher who finds just the right book for her book-hating student in a realistic and charming way. And the book that finally turned our hero into a reader? Well, it was the one that has aliens, race cars, jokes, chewing gum, hot sauce, cannonballs and even a pool! ISBN 978-0-8027-8084-3. Walker & Company.

Friday, September 7, 2007

July Book Sales - AAP Reports

I've been on vacation in Florida doing lots of reading and no posting. I will remedy that over the next few days. In the meantime Shelf Awareness shares the July book sales from the AAP.

Net book sales in July rose 20%, based on data from 82 publishers provided to the Association of American Publishers.Among the strongest categories:
  • Children's/YA hardcover (read HP7) rose 504.2% to $255.1 million.
  • Audiobook sales jumped 240.8% to $32.1 million.
  • E-books rose 31.8% to $2.8 million
  • Adult hardcover gained 28.6% to $73.4 million.
  • University press hardcover rose 19.7% to $6.9 million.
  • Professional and scholarly rose 13.8% to $107.6 million.
  • University press paperbacks rose 10.8% to $9.5 million.
  • Higher education rose 5.5% to $923.2 million.
  • El-hi, basal and supplemental K-12 rose 2.1% to $921 million. Weaker categories:
  • Religious books were off 2.6% to $33.5 million.
  • Adult paperback fell 6.5% to $102.4 million.
  • Adult mass market fell 24.7% to $62.9 million.
  • Children's/YA paperback dropped 25.7% to $36.9 million.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Meet a Reading Mentor

Teacher Magazine is giving new teachers an opportunity to learn from 6th grade teacher Donalyn Miller who is passionate about kids reading.

"A self-proclaimed “book whisperer,” 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher Donalyn Miller says she has yet to meet a child she couldn’t turn into a reader. On average, her students at Trinity Meadow Intermediate School in Keller, Texas, read between 50 and 60 books a year; last year, one of her students read 300 books. According to school lore, Miller's 6th graders have been known to become so engrossed in books that they walk into walls and insist on being photographed with their favorite books in class pictures. Even her former students return to borrow from her library, which has more than 2,000 titles and extends beyond her classroom into a storage closet across the hall. And her methods have also produced more than anecdotal results: Last year, her students received a 100 percent passing rate on the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, with 90 percent receiving a "recommended" score. "

Don't you wish every child could have a teacher like Ms. Miller for 6th grade? Teachers can submit questions through the website to learn what has worked for her. There is general concensus that new teachers who receive mentoring (and it doesn't have to be face-to-face) are less frustrated and more successful in their teaching jobs. So kudos to Teacher Magazine for making this possible. Website registration is free.

The White Giraffe

Making a virtual journey to another place and being held captive throughout the duration of the story is one of the great discoveries of reading. Learning that people in other places struggle with the same issues is an important concept for young readers to understand. In The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John, 11-year old Martine Allen's life changes dramatically on her birthday night. Martine loses her parents in a tragic accident and must move to Africa to live with a grandmother she's never heard of. Her grandmother manages a game preserve. Transplanted into an exotic locale with a grandmother who seems put out by her very existence makes Martine feel alone and afraid. Almost as soon as she arrives, Martine begins to hear tales of a "mythical" white giraffe, and she stumbles upon some clues about her grandfather's death two years before. Readers will identify with Martine's struggles to make friends in a new school in a new country where everything is different from "home". The wild animals and their habitat on the reserve, their need for protection against predators (mostly the two-legged kind), and the growing awareness that things are not always as they appear make for a good adventure story. Martine comes to find her place in this new world, helps solve a mystery, and learns to accept her special gifts. First-time novelist Lauren St. John grew up in Zimbabwe on a farm that was part game preserve. Her love for the landscape and the people is evident throughout the book and she clearly identifies with Martine's quest to find a home in this new strange land. ISBN978-0-8037-3211-7. Dial Books for Young Readers.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I am making the leap. I'm starting this blog to celebrate the adventures of reading. If kids get hooked up with the right books - ones that pull them into the stories - they will become lifelong learners. Granted there are a lot more distractions today than there were when I was a young reader, but the richness of the brew when an interesting location meets well-defined characters and terrific storytelling just can't be beat.

My mother started reading to me when I was an infant. As the oldest of an extensive brood, my mother was still reading to me when I was in high school (that is, if I chose to grace the family with my presence) as they gathered each evening before bed. And all the hours I spent cuddled with my own fresh-from-the-bath boys are some of my sweetest memories of their growing-up years.

Sometimes I think our culture has lost its moorings. So much attention is spent on things that are unimportant. Reading with a child provides the opportunity to share so much more than the words on the page. What all those things are and why they're important will be part of what I'll write about here.

But mostly we're going to talk about books. Good books.