The Newbery Award and Recommendations for a Town Read…

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You may have heard that Erin Entrada Kelly’s middle grade novel, Hello, Universe, won the Newbery Medal last week for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature. Although I had read glowing reviews and the book was on the school library shelves, I had not yet read it. Of course, I regretted that it was not at the top of my list, but no time for looking back – I had a book to read!  Hello, Universe centers on four middle school students, each of them a little lonely and different from most of the other kids at school. As you can probably guess, the fates bring them together – but not in a way that you see coming. It’s a horrible act by the bully of the bunch that sets things in motion, resulting in a fast-paced, well plotted novel.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the book is the relationship between the main character, Virgil Salinas, a quiet Filipino-American boy, and his grandmother who tells him Filipino folk tales. When things go badly for Virgil, he recalls his grandmother’s stories, and they lead him out of a dark place (literally) and help him become more confident.

As much as I enjoyed Hello, Universe, I have mixed feelings about the the three Newbery Honor books: Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut written by Derrick Barnes, Long Way Down, written by Jason Reynolds, and Piecing Me Together, written by Renée Watson.  Crown is a fabulous picture book about the central role the barber shop plays in the lives of young black boys. Long Way Down and Piecing Me Together are young adult novels. Jason Reynolds, the author of Long Way Down, is one of the most important and honored writers for young people today. His books deservedly win awards and appear on countless “best of the year” lists.  I wrote School Library Journal’s starred review for his middle grade novel, Patina, and was hopeful that book would be honored by the Newbery committee.

My disappointment is not about recognizing Long Way Down, Crown, or Piecing Me Together, but the Newbery Award gives school librarians an opportunity to highlight books for our middle grade readers.  As the calendar drew closer to the Newbery announcement, I anticipated displaying three or four middle grade novels that I could encourage kids to read. The shiny sticker really helps!  My fingers were crossed for Patina, Orphan Island, See You in the Cosmos, Beyond the Bright Sea, The War I Finally Won, or even one of the many outstanding nonfiction books published this year.

Although I can’t recommend Long Way Down or Piecing Me Together to 4th and 5th grade readers, I will definitely recommend them to our middle school students. On to next year….

The middle school students are currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird and, as part of their work, they also read an article about cities and towns that participate in “one town, one book” programs, many of which select Harper Lee’s classic to spark civic conversations.  I assigned short papers to my students asking them to make a case for either To Kill a Mockingbird – or another title – to be their town’s book.

If you’re looking for recommendations for yourself – or for your town read – here are excerpts from their suggestions:

El Deafo by Cece Bell, would be the perfect town read for Scituate, Massachusetts. The fascinating story of a young girl who tries to balance her childhood and early teen years with her deafness, touches on topics people all ages in the Scituate society need to learn or further understand. For example some of the things this book include real first world problems, people with disabilities and how they are treated. The book is additionally in graphic novel form so it will be accessible for younger citizens to stay interested while learning, and an interesting shift for older citizens who are already reading regular novels in school and on their own.

Everyone knows that when you read, your vocabulary and language grows. A perfect book to nurture that growth is The Thickety. The Thickety, a fantasy by the author J. A. White, is a tale fraught with magic and adventure. The Thickety would be a great book for the adolescent and adult readers of Scituate and the book would be the new town buzz because of the amazing text that dances gracefully off the page.  White uses rich language and descriptions to fabricate the fantasy of The Thickety into an emulation of reality. Furthermore, the characters are relatable and they overcome obstacles, especially the main character Kara and her brother Taff. The book also addresses many events in life such as family loss and grappling with the concept of identity….the book´s magic is so powerful that the tale of The Thickety fills up three superb books that weave the story of Kara and Taff.

In today’s political, social, and academic climate, many people of diverse backgrounds and age believe that knowledge is power. I think that The Giver by Lois Lowry should be Hingham’s all town reading book. Because Hingham is mostly a wealthy, white, suburban town, The Giver would be a perfect book to demonstrate the breaking of conformity. Throughout The Giver, individuality, conformity, and deception are important themes. This book will definitely draw in teenage readers, specifically for the “breaking the system” aspect of the plot. The Giver also appeals to adults who are thinking about the future of our world. In addition to how interesting and entertaining the plot of The Giver is, this novel in particular makes people realize the importance of diversity and individuality. When we think about all of the injustices and catastrophes in world, this novel makes us think about if we how far we would go for peace. For example, would we sacrifice our freedom of appearance, hobbies, and language for the chance to possibly eliminate bullying? Would we sacrifice the joy of love or family to never have to experience heartbreak or divorce? 

And a picture….

I was in Woods Hole yesterday, and we parked near the town library. It looks like a library out of a storybook…

Happy Reading!

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Paris, Mystery Boxes, Cherry Blossoms, and Jenny Kroik…

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It’s a rainy Sunday, a perfect day for reading – and writing about reading. My current book is The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt.  I know – it sounds like the title of a paperback romance, the kind I used to find stacked in my grandmother’s bookcase. But it’s not. Hewitt’s book is a biography of Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne who was among other things: the subject of a painting by Manet, the inspiration for a novel by Zola, and made a countess by Napoleon III.

There are many other books in my “to read” pile, and arguably some that I should have chosen before this one. But I needed something different, a break from my reading list. I purchased Hewitt’s book about a year ago after reading a good review, but it has been sitting on the shelf since then. The other day, feeling the need to leave the contemporary world behind and enter a different time and place, I picked it up, and I’m now happily reading about the Paris theater world in the late 19th century.

Back in this world, one of my students did a cool project this week. Inspired by the novel Fish In a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jake asked if he could plan something for our writing class based on an activity in Hunt’s novel. “Each group will be given a shoe box wrapped in elastic bands with a mystery object inside,” the teacher in the novel tells his class. “Your job is to guess what the mystery object is.” Jake certainly knew I could never turn down a book-based project, so the next day, he brought in four boxes, put us in groups, and explained our task. It was great. The other students really enjoyed it, and there were some awesome guesses about what turned out to be a cork, an egg, a bar of soap, and a pencil.

It’s grey and cold outside, but beautiful with a hint of springtime in the Library. Thanks to Inly’s art teacher, our students made carp fish and origami cherry blossoms for the Library. This was part of our collaborative project during which we read Japanese stories during Library visits and the kids made brightly colored fish during art class.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with Instagram, not about posting my own pictures, but in following others. Facebook has never been a temptation, but I love the quick scroll of Instagram, especially while I’m waiting in a long line at the CVS pharmacy or while taking a 15-minute lunch break at school. It’s fun to see what my friends are reading and celebrating, but Instagram has actually become a tool of my work. Publishers use it to promote new books and authors share pieces of their work, but it’s the bookstores that are my favorites. It’s a great way to (quickly) see what’s being read and talked about. I now follow over 50 bookstores around the world, and those pics give me good ideas and a wider picture of the reading world.

One of my happiest discoveries was the artist, Jenny Kroik. She doesn’t promote specific titles, but her illustrations of people browsing in bookstores, visiting art museums, and walking around New York City are wonderful. In fact, this illustration of a woman shopping in the Strand Bookstore was the cover of The New Yorker’s November 13, 2017 issue:

Recently, scrolling through Kroik’s Instagram feed, I saw this one of a little girl at Books of Wonder, the children’s bookstore in New York City. I’m sharing it here with the artist’s permission.  If you are an Instagrammer, add her to your list:

Happy Reading!

Thoughts About February….

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If I’m being honest, I will admit that books featuring black protagonists do not circulate as much as those featuring white kids. I work in a private school in a predominantly white suburban area. Most of our students and staff are white. The library has a wide range of books, and I think every student can see him or her self represented on the shelves. Over the past few years, I have looked carefully and critically at our collection to be sure that the books represent the world as it is now.  I think it does, but it requires sustained attention. The place I need to think more proactively about is not the books that come into the Inly Library, but those that go out. Our kids read many books that are “mirrors” to their lives, but not enough of the equally essential “window” books.

As mixed as I am about recognizing the accomplishments of a group of people during a designated month, it does present an opportunity. This is one of the best parts of working in a school, rather than a public, library. I can use my position as a teacher and librarian to require students to read something from a different perspective. As Gene Luen Yang, last year’s National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, wrote in his Reading Without Walls Challenge, “read a book outside your comfort zone.” We are not doing our jobs if we don’t give kids a more expansive view of the world they will inherit.

And so tomorrow morning, along with displaying books about the Winter Olympics, Chinese New Year, and Valentine’s Day, I will put about books by black writers and illustrators: Jacqueline Woodson, Andrea David Pinkney, Christopher Paul Curtis, Carole Boston Weatherford, Kadir Nelson, and many others. The kids will need to make a commitment, but so will I.  My 6th grade students are each going to read one of those books. I will initiate conversations, read to them from the wonderful new book of short profiles, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, and with them, explore ways we can all take steps out of our comfort zones.

On a completely different note….

Apparently there was an after-hours visitor in the Library last week. I left school late after a meeting one evening and was the first person in the Library the following morning. This is what I saw:

It makes me happy to think of friends from different books getting together at the end of the day. Exchanging stories, perhaps?

Five New Books and Lots of Dots…

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Last week was a good week for new books. Many of the 2018 books I most looked forward to are out in the world and ready to begin their lives of being passed from one kid (or teacher) to another.

Here are five essential and wonderful additions to library shelves:

Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood

A timely and inspiring book about 14 women whose actions resulted in a change – activists, explorers, architects, scientists, and writers. Susan Hood has written a poem about each woman, and accompanying each one is a portrait by a different illustrator. As wonderful as the poems and the subjects are, it’s the art that draws me in. The impressive group of illustrators includes Sophie Blackall and Melissa Sweet, among others.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison

The perfect browsing book for a young reader’s nightstand.  One page biographies of 40 women, some of whom are well known (Oprah Winfrey) and others who will be new (Shirley Chisolm).  All of the stories are inspiring.

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed

A picture book biography of Mae Jamison, the first African American women to travel in space. As a young child, Jamison told her supportive parents that she dreamed of going to space, and they encouraged her. One of the many reasons I love this book is that Mae’s parents are always in her corner, encouraging their bright daughter to follow her dreams. Even when others (including a teacher!) discourage her, Mae’s parents keep cheering her on: “I’m sorry Miss Bell didn’t encourage you,” Mae’s mother tells her,  “but she can’t stop you. No one can stop you. Follow your dream, Mae, and go to space.”

The Digger and the Flower by Joseph Kuefler

If you are looking for a new picture book to read aloud, this is it. The story of a digger who, along with a crane and a bulldozer, build tall buildings. But when Digger sees a small blue flower in a patch of land he should be digging up, he stops. Rather than destroying the flower, Digger cares for it, gives it water, and protects it from the wind.  Of course, “progress” does not slow down for one blue flower and it is cut down. But….the seeds remain and Digger has plans. This is a book to go on display between The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Bulldozer Helps Out by Candace Fleming.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz

I read this book on a train to New York this past weekend, and missed all of Rhode Island and Connecticut!  Written by the daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, this middle grade novel is based on the childhood of the author’s mother. As an adult reader, it was interesting to learn about the formative years of the woman who would marry Malcolm X. For a young reader, Betty Before X is a compelling look at how we become aware of the world around us – especially its injustices. I am going to recommend this to our upper elementary teachers to read with their classes. It’s a good portal to discussions about race and social justice.

About the dots….

The library’s current collaboration with Inly’s art teacher has resulted in some especially beautiful dots. Our elementary school students are studying Asia so we decided to join in by reading Japanese stories, origami paper folding, and brightening the Library during these grey winter days. The picture book that sparked the dots is Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity by Sarah Suzuki. Kusama is a contemporary Japanese artist who is best known for her dots and mirrors. She came to my attention only last year when I read about the Hirshorn Museum’s exhibit of her work and the “Infinity Mirror Rooms.” Suzuki’s book describes the artist’s childhood in Japan and her career as an international artist.

I shared the book with Inly’s art teacher and dots seemed the obvious response. Many of the student’s tributes to Yayoi Kusama are now hanging in the Library.



Happy Reading!

Learning History through Good Historical Fiction

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“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  Nelson Mandela

Recently, during a conversation with my colleagues at the end of a school day, I shared with them that, during  a conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the students expressed surprise that Calpurnia, the Finch family’s housekeeper, is a black woman. Another teacher shared a similar story. We began talking about the importance of pre-existing knowledge, of having a basic understanding of history and an internal timeline to reference. I responded to my student’s question by telling them that a prominent white southern family in the 1930s would, of course, have a black housekeeper. Of course, kids have gaps and they don’t know what they don’t know – but as my colleagues and I continued to talk, I mentioned that several students are obsessed with the Divergent series and other dystopian novels.

That led us to thinking about how, as young people, we learned much of our history through reading historical fiction, and we wondered if the popularity of fantasy novels, has had an impact on what kids know.  Dystopian novels are valuable. They allow kids to process uncertainty, ask questions about the world we live in, and spark essential conversation about power dynamics.

But as I thought more about it, I remembered how many more fantasy novels circulate in the school library – compared to historical novels.  I also re-read a New York Times opinion piece from this past November called “How to Get Your Mind to Read.”  Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist and the article’s author, writes:

“…Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test haven’t improved in 30 years. Many of these poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate – they comprehend very little of what they sound out. So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.”

Willingham’s article provides clear examples of how much more successful students are when they have “broad knowledge.”  Here’s a link to the full piece:

All of this reminded me of how much I learned as a child from reading historical novels. It was not always the best of what was being published; I read indiscriminately, everything from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It took time for me to discern what was good, but in the meantime, I learned the basics of American history, how attitudes have changed over time, and how people have been treated based on their race and ethnicity. I laid the foundation so everything that followed had something to stand on.

There is lots to think about here: the teaching of history, the role of technology on our limited attention spans, and how we can encourage kids to read more of the excellent historical fiction and nonfiction available to them. Not at the exclusion of fantasy which has much to offer, but rather as part of a well-balanced reading diet.

Here are twelve excellent historical novels for middle grade readers:

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (the first in the Seeds of America trilogy, Chains follows the story of Isabel, a 13-year-old slave girl fighting for her freedom in New York City at the start of the Revolution)

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (an African American family travels from Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963)

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper (Depression-era North Carolina)

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (a young girl’s struggle for survival during the Dust Bowl)

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (a Vietnamese girl’s experience moving from Saigon to Alabama)

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (A Danish family hides a Jewish friend during WWII)

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (based on a true story of one of the lost boys of Sudan)

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (set in the 1930s, a young girl moves from Mexico to California)

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (three sisters travel to Oakland, California in 1968)

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin (a young Communist during Stalin-era Russia)

There are many more excellent historical novels for kids, but this shows a range of places to jump in: African American history, the Dust Bowl, World War II, the American Revolution, and more.

And wherever you live, there are places to visit to make these stories come to life, to take a break from virtual reality and re-enter the world.

Happy Reading!

 

 

48 Hours in Texas….

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During the fifteen years I spent working at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, I was always curious about the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. For obvious reasons, Johnson’s was the Library we regularly heard about – the place where the story continues.  And since then, there have been other reasons to visit that part of Texas: Austin City Limits, the Alamo in San Antonio, and truthfully, we were interested in seeing what makes Austin the trendy place it is.

I’m certain 48 hours – Saturday in Austin and Sunday in San Antonio – is not enough to “get it,” but we fit in a lot of sightseeing, two bookstores, a Josh Ritter concert, lots of BBQ, a breakfast taco, a walking tour of the Alamo, and we left Texas with a list of places we want to visit on our next trip to the Lone Star State.

The LBJ Library was worth the trip. At first, I found it a bit unsettling in the sense that one of their starting points is Walter Cronkite’s announcement of President Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s swearing-in as the 36th President of the United States. Of course, that famous broadcast comes near the end of the exhibits at the JFK Library. Once I shifted my lens a bit, I entered into a fascinating story of a man who was able to use public sympathy after Kennedy’s death to generate public support for civil rights legislation, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and his dedication to the War on Poverty.

One thing I especially appreciate about the Johnson Library is that they include books, movie posters, and TV shows to mark the passage of time. The books gave me an anchor in each exhibit…

One of my favorite exhibits focuses on Lady Bird Johnson, including her office in the Johnson Library.  It turns out I share something with the former First Lady. The sign on her desk reads:

“The floor was Mrs. Johnson’s favorite file for separating completed work from letters still to be signed.”

I don’t have letters waiting for my signature, but Lady Bird and I agree on the value of the floor as an extension of the desk:

It was impossible not to look at exhibits on immigration and civil rights without thinking about the current political climate. Here’s a poster that made us stop:

After a morning of American history, we visited two bookstores. South Congress Books, a used bookstore, is located on South Congress Street, one of Austin’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

It is a painting, rather than a book, that caught my eye here:

At first, I thought it would be a good painting for Inly’s middle school – a celebration of one our favorite books. But then I looked more closely: $895.00.  Never mind. I asked to take a picture instead.

Next we traveled to Book People, the largest independent bookstore in Texas. We spent close to two hours in this store where, in the interest of a complete review, we had to try the cookies and hot chocolate in the cafe!

The best part of this store is the employee recommendations. It’s a big store with lots of sections, and the staff has highlighted many of the books with their reviews. The recommendations in the children’s department are especially creative:

It was hard to get back on the plane knowing it was 40 degrees colder in Boston than it was in Austin…but we will go back!

 

Reading (and Looking) to Beat the Cold Weather Blues….

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It’s been really cold. On the way to the grocery this morning, the car thermometer could not decide if it wanted to read 0 or 1 below. The numbers seemed to shiver as they toggled between the two readings. Alarming either way.  The only “sunny” side to the last five or six days of record-breaking cold has been the opportunity to drink hot chocolate and read.

My reading has focused on art which has allowed me to immerse myself in good words and beautiful pictures: a short biography of John Singer Sargent. Letters between Henry James and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Essays from the catalogue that accompanies the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Michelangelo exhibition, and two illustrated books:

Coco Chanel: The Illustrated World of a Fashion Icon by Megan Hess

The book about Chanel was a gift, and probably not something I would ordinarily be drawn to, but this illustrated story of the influential designer’s life is fascinating.  She was twelve-years-old when her mother died and her father left her in an orphanage. When her “sartorial abilities” were recognized, Chanel became a milliner which ultimately led to ballet flats, tweed jackets, and, of course, Chanel No.5.  It was actually the best kind of reading: engaging, informative, and a book that left me wanting to know more.

Bolivar by Sean Rubin

Bolivar is a mashup: a book for kids that adults will love, a graphic novel, a picture book, an oversize illustrated novel.  I’m not sure where it would be shelved in a bookstore or library, but none of that matters. This is an amazing book and my first personal starred review of 2018. Bolivar is a dinosaur who lives in present day New York City. He’s quiet and keeps to himself – he even reads The New Yorker! But Sybil, the girl who lives in the apartment next door, knows her neighbor is a dinosaur, and she’s determined to take a picture of Bolivar to prove that to her disbelieving mother.

A number of unbelievable events lead Bolivar and the camera-carrying Sybil into a wild chase around recognizable New York City landmarks, but it’s that trip through New York that is most compelling. Every page is a tribute to New York: the produce stacked up outside of small markets, the subway, Chinatown, Central Park, and tourists. There are also fun visual jokes to catch, a wonderful picture of a paleontologist’s desk, and lots of water towers.

Bolivar is a sweet story about people who are too busy to see what’s right in front of them and a girl who is trying to get people to see the obvious. It is a memorable and wonderful book.

In today’s New York Times Book Review, there is an article called “For the Love of Malt Shop Novels” by Joanne Kaufman. In her piece, she talks about teenage books (mostly romances) as an “endless source of reassurance and hope.”  I did not know they were called “malt shop novels,” but I read them as a teenager too and got the same reassurance. As Kaufman writes, “You could be self-doubting like Jane Purdy, the protagonist of Fifteen and, nevertheless, end up wearing the ID bracelet of cute green-eyed Stan.”  Most of the books were win the 1940s and 50s – before my teenage years. But these were the books that I read voraciously as a middle school student.

Among other authors of this genre, Kaufman talks about Betty Cavanna. Cavanna’s name flooded me with memories of seventh grade when I read Stars In Her Eyes. I don’t remember much about the story except that I loved it. The books written for middle school kids today are far more realistic, and there are so many more choices of what to read. But I do remember Cavanna’s books serving the same function as many of the books I recommend to my students. They made me feel less alone.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all of the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

James Baldwin

Stay warm out there!