Simmons Center for the Study of Children’s Literature: Summer Institute

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Unknown-1This summer has not gone as planned, to put it mildly. After the adventure I’ve had over the past three weeks, my advice to you is this: check for ticks. For such tiny parasites, they can certainly cause havoc.

One of the things I was most looking forward to this summer was the Summer Institute at Simmons, a three-day conference featuring the authors of books for children and young adults, master’s seminars, opportunities to talk with teachers and librarians, and to reconnect with other graduates of the Simmons Masters in Children’s Literature program.  So, while my unwelcome visitor caused me to miss most of the conference, I did participate on Saturday and it was so worthwhile.  Among Saturday’s speakers were:

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Kwame Alexander – the 2015 Newbery winner for his novel in verse, The Crossover

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Rita Williams-Garcia – the author of many young adult novels and the award-winning middle grade trilogy: One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama

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A Panel of Illustrators, including Shadra Strickland, David Hyde-Costello, and Hyewon Yum

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Emily Jenkins – author of Toys Go Out, That New Animal and Five Creatures — and as young adult author E. Lockhart, the author of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and We Were Liars.

Although all of the speakers were interesting and inspiring, it was Emily Jenkins’s presentation that I found especially moving. She was a generous speaker – warm and honest. At the end of her talk, I felt like gathering all of the books she’s written (as both Jenkins and Lockhart) and re-reading every one of them!

Jenkins had a peripatetic childhood – living on several communes with her mother, visiting her father in New York City, and her grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard.  Books, she said, were her stability. She loved Pippi Longstocking because she “created a home for herself.” She was a fan of The Boxcar Children because of their “fantasy of self sufficiency.”  She also talked about the importance of a 1978 book called Getting Organized by Stephanie Winston. (I just checked – you can buy a used copy on Amazon). Winston’s book belonged to her grandmother and it was about making a home, a topic that resonated with Jenkins. Although, as she pointed out, a young girl was not the target audience for this book, she read Getting Organized over and over until Winston’s book was part of the experience of visiting her grandmother.

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It brought me back to my grandmother’s house in Kettering, Ohio. She had a cabinet of paperback romances, and I pretty much made my way through the entire shelf – several times. My favorite was a book called Sally’s True Love – an Amish romance. (yes, it’s embarrassing now) Years later, thanks to a web specializing in romance novels, I found a copy and bought it. Just looking at it reminds me of sitting on the floor in front of that cabinet reading one romance after another. I wouldn’t have been interested in those books in any other setting, but sitting there felt like home.

Jenkins also talked about the importance of children owning books, not to the exclusion of visiting the library, but in addition. Owning books makes them “part of your internal picture of home,” she said. “You share your life with them.”  And my favorite line of the whole day was Jenkins’s definition of home as “the place where she keeps her books.”

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I’m a little behind on my reading this summer (due to the previously mentioned varmint), and there are so many books I should be reading, but last night when I was selecting my next book to read, I decided to read exactly what I want to read with no feelings of guilt. I’m reading Re Jane by Patricia Park. I first heard about Parks’ novel, an updated version of Jane Eyre, from Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/2015/06/02/411457923/four-books-that-deliver-unexpected-and-delightful-surprises-this-summer).

That was in early June. Since then, I’ve read several glowing reviews, and yesterday, author Jean Kwok talked about it on NPR’s Weekend Edition.  That sealed the deal. I’m on Chapter Four and it’s wonderful. The other books can wait.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

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As always, my winter dreams of summer reading bump up against reality.  There’s always something that gets in the way of my plan. This year it’s a virus that has hung around way too long – which explains my blog silence and my low summer reading count.  But yesterday, I finished David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, which was worth every hour I devoted to it.

In a personal act of hometown pride, McCullough’s new biography jumped to the top of my stack the day it was published. The Wright Brothers are the pride of Dayton, Ohio – my hometown.  I knew their basic story and, in fact, grew up not too far from the house Orville lived in between 1914 and his death in 1948.  I’m not proud to admit this, but my only hesitation in reading McCullough’s book was that it would devote countless pages to the mechanical aspects of flying.  As a frequent airline passenger, maybe I should care more about this, but I just can’t do it.

I could not have been more wrong. McCullough’s book in an inspiring and truly amazing story of perseverance and true genius.  What comes through most clearly is how incredibly true both Wilbur and Orville were to themselves and their home. After years working in quiet obscurity, they ultimately were honored by titled people all over the world, but as McCullough writes:

“For all they had seen and done, the unprecedented glory bestowed on them, it had by all signs neither changed them nor turned their heads in the least. There was no boasting, no preening, no getting too big for their britches, as said, and it was this, almost as much as their phenomenal achievements, that was so greatly admired.

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There were lots of places when I had an “I never knew that” moment. For example, I didn’t know that when Charles Lindbergh returned from his historic flight to Paris, he visited Orville Wright in Dayton.  It was also interesting to consider what a relatively short time there was between their first flights in 1903 and planes being used to drop bombs in WWII.

I’ll be in Ohio in a few weeks and my first stop will be Carillon Park, the home of the original 1905 Wright Flyer.

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There’s another book in my life – one that I haven’t read, but feels like a big elephant sitting in the corner of the room. Go Set a Watchman is causing me pain. I’m going to read it. I think.  I’ve read the reviews and know what’s waiting for me. I even listened to an hour-long discussion on WBUR’s On Point about the controversy. The guests made convincing arguments about a more realistic and complex view of Atticus, rather than the idealistic figure of To Kill a Mockingbird. That could be true, and I don’t shy away from complex characters – they’re my favorites. But I think I just need some time to sit with this one.  I’m having trouble squaring the Atticus who tells young Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it”  with the Atticus who says: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

There are lots of books to read – the elephant can stay in its corner for now.

 

Biographies in Books

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Recently, during a visit to the Harvard Book Store, I saw an awesome display. Staff members had selected books that represented their reading biographies. Each book included a short description of why the book was significant to the reader.

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The card above reads: “Read this when I was 9, growing up in Manhattan and obsessed with wolves, sled dogs and wilderness survival.”

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Many of their selections were obvious touchstone novels and others less well known. Of course, it made me wonder what books I would choose for a reading biography.

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I think there are three books that shaped my life as a reader:

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – One of the Harvard Book Store staff members chose this one as well. Her description says it perfectly: “Ask a woman my age about important books in her life, and there’s a good chance this will be on the list. We all wanted to be Jo.”

Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid; what it was she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her; and, meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, run, and ride as much as she liked. A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.”

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Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – This was the first book that made me truly aware of good writing. It was literally the first time I noticed language. White’s simple and beautiful sentences can still take my breath away.

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.”

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I remember feeling very sophisticated the first time I read this book – although in high school I didn’t really appreciate it. Since then, I’ve read it ten times and the paragraph describing Daisy and Jordan sitting on the couch is one of my favorite passages in the English language…..

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”

There was another bookstore display that caught my attention – this one at McNally Jackson, my favorite bookstore in New York.  So true, right?

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Talking With Kids about Race….

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At a time when racial tensions are erupting across the country, on talk radio, and on the campaign trail, my guess is that conversations are also taking place around family dinner tables. It’s not an easy conversation to have with young children who may not see racism in their daily lives, but they definitely see skin color.  A friend of mine, Katy, who is white, has two young black daughters. She says that well-intentioned friends will often encourage their own children to be “color blind,” and not acknowledge that Katy’s daughters are black. But as she says, “my children know they are black.”  Not answering their question sends the wrong message and “discounts their interest in a conversation.”

As Katy said, “kids don’t see race. They see skin color.”  In fact, her two young daughters first described their skin as brown – which, of course, is the true color. “Being black” is a social construct.  When young children ask about someone’s skin color, it’s adults who add the overlay of racism, the history of slavery, and racial tensions. Kids are genuinely asking why some people’s skin is darker than others.  The answer to a child’s genuine curiosity, Katy said, is that “dark-skinned people have more melanin in their skin than light-skinned people.”

Like many subjects that can cause discomfort for parents, sometimes a book is a good way to spark a conversation.  Here are ten recommendations for books to introduce children to our ethnically diverse world in a way that encourages healthy and honest conversations about race and identity.

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Families by Shelley Rotner (a picture book celebrating all kinds of families – for the youngest children)

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One Family by George Shannon (another good book to introduce young children to all kinds of family units)

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Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families by Robie Harris (a colorful book about families. I often recommend this title to parents looking for a book to start a conversation about adoption, divorce, same-sex couples and other family structures.)

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Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford (a picture book biography for older children about Gordon Parks, a photographer who chronicled the racial inequality in the mid-20th century.)

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The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko (the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who met in Virginia in 1958. They were not permitted to marry in Virginia, though, because Mildred was African American and Richard was white. They did get married – in Washington, D.C. But when they returned to Virginia, they were arrested.)

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Firebird by Misty Copeland (Copeland tells her story of being an African American soloist with the American Ballet Theater. A beautiful book about a young ballet star.)

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Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (Before Brown v. Board of Education, Mexican-American children in California fought to end school discrimination. Before reading this book, I had never heard of Sylvia Mendez, a young girl who wanted to attend the local public school, but was instead directed to the “Mexican school.”)

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Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter (An inspiring picture book biography about Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.)

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Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki (Published in 1993, this book remains one of my favorites. I remember reading it to my son many times when he was young and I still recall his questions about the WWII-era Japanese internment camps.  Baseball was a way to pass time for the young boy in this story, but of course the symbols – like his game-winning home run are appropriately obvious to young readers.)

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (An absolutely essential – and beautiful – read for everyone between the ages of 10 and 90. Written in verse, Woodson tells her story of growing up in South Carolina and in Brooklyn.)

Relatedly, I was in the Harvard Book Store this week and saw this display at the check out….

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and in the children’s book section….

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Books for the Beach Bag….

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There are so many summer reading lists that, lately, I’ve spent more time looking at lists than reading books!  Last week, during a segment on the South Shore radio station, WATD, I listed 5 books to put in a beach (or pool or river or small stream) bag for young children. When their fingers are wrinkly from the water and it’s time to wrap up in a towel and eat a snack, any of these would be good to pull out….

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Sea Rex by Molly Idle (A girl enjoys a “carefree day of fun in the sun” with her younger brother, her teddy bear and…..a T. Rex who wears a sailor’s cap!)

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Ice Cream Summer by Peter Sis (Written as a letter to his grandfather, a young boy reports on his many summer activities – all of which include ice cream!)

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Pool by Jihyeon Lee (In this wordless story, a boy goes to a very crowded public swimming pool where he discovers that more rewarding adventures exist underwater.)

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Beach by Elisha Cooper (This book, published in 2006, remains one of my favorite summer picture books because there’s so much to look at – sandcastles and seagulls and swimmers. Cooper is known for small watercolor vignettes, and here he captures all the joy of a day at the beach – beginning with an empty stretch of sand and ending when the beachgoers pack up their picnics and towels and return home.)

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Beach Feet by Kiyomi Konagaya (This is the experience of one boy’s day at the beach. Because the reader completely enters this particular child’s reality, this perspective reminds me of one of my favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – Baby at Play by Thomas Eakins.

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Both the book and the painting show a child completely absorbed in their activities – responding to hot sand and cool water or playing with blocks. The children remain happily oblivious to being watched.)

And if you’re a “middle-aged person” reading this post, here’s a good list from the Huffington Post.  One of the books on this list, The Children Act, is next on my list!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/14/best-books-middle-aged-summer_n_7571654.html

 

 

 

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

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I had a treat this past weekend – I got to read an advanced copy of Katherine Applegate’s new middle grade novel, Crenshaw. The cover is reminiscent of her Newbery-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, another beautifully written poignant story that reminded me how much I love books that make me sad and happy at the same time.

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Crenshaw is the story of a boy named Jackson and a large, athletically gifted – and imaginary –  cat named Crenshaw. This is how it opens:

I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat.

Thing number one: He was a surfboarding cat.

Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL.

Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.”

Jackson and his family are in a tough situation. His parents don’t have enough money to continue paying rent or anything else. His father has multiple sclerosis. Jackson remembers the first time, a few years earlier, that his family had to live in their minivan and they may have to return to life on the road. Crenshaw is an imaginary cat who shows up when Jackson needs him. He takes bubble baths and is generally awesome.

As I write this short review, I’m appreciating Applegate’s story even more than when I read it. I’m thinking about how few books there are about kids facing financial insecurity and about how much family and friends (real or imaginary) can help us navigate our way through hard times. Crenshaw is a book (and a cat) that opens hearts and reminds us that many children spend their days worried about things completely out of their control.

Crenshaw should be added to your fall reading list – publication date is September 22!

On a completely different note, two things that made me smile last week:

I saw this in one of our lower elementary classrooms. Kind of an awesome book project, isn’t it?

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And taking a walk one day, I saw two of these little marshmallow-shaped creatures in random spots. They made me smile, as I’m sure they did everyone else who noticed them!

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Ten Summer Reads for Ten-Year-Olds….

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I’ve listed six books for six-year-olds and eight for eight-year-olds so today…..the number is ten of course!

Here are ten books to recommend to kids looking for something to read this summer. There are many more suggestions on Inly’s summer reading list which is available at http://www.inlyschool.org.

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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones (I finished this new book yesterday while eating a salad at Panera. After I closed the cover, I looked at the people at tables near me and wondered who I could give it to. Really anyone between 8 and 88.  I’m in the middle of that age range and absolutely loved this debut novel about Sophie, a girl whose family moves from Los Angeles to a farm her family inherits after the death of her Great Uncle Jim. The story unfolds in a series of letters Sophie writes to Agnes from Redwood Farm Supply and her beloved – and deceased – Abuelita. I’m meeting with students on Monday morning to talk about summer reading. Jones’s novel will be at the top of my list.)

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Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff (All of Graff’s novels are awesome, but I have a soft spot for Albie, the 10-year-old main character of Absolutely Almost.  No one seems to understand him – Albie’s father isn’t around much and his mother criticizes his reading selections, telling him that “Captain Underpants is for babies.” He doesn’t get any relief from his grandfather either. But then he meets Calista, his new babysitter and an art student, who actually listens to Albie.)

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The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea by Eileen Beha (This is just an old fashioned – in the good sense – story. It’s told from the perspective of Throckmorton Sock Monkey!)

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The Perfect Place by Teresa Harris (Twelve-year-old Treasure and her younger sister have to move to Virginia to live with their great aunt Grace.)

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Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai (Eleven-year-old Ariana and her family’s grocery store, Kabul Corner, is  threatened when another Afghan grocery store opens nearby. A perfect introduction to the experiences of immigrants.)

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Sisters by Raina Telgemeier (Every-ten year-old may have already read this understandably popular graphic novel about a family road trip, but if you know someone who has missed it, you can be a hero for introducing Telgemeier’s books!)

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The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John (A fast-paced story about two pranksters planning the ultimate prank! Give this one to fans of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.)

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The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm (Eleven-year-old Ellie’s life changes when a boy shows up at her house, and he happens to be…..her grandfather!  With his encouragement, she develops an interest in science.)

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Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt (A hero’s journey about Tuk, a bighorn sheep, who leads his flock to a better grazing ground – the blue mountain. The journey, like all good quests, is filled with obstacles – most of them on four legs!)

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Super Sniffers: Dog Detectives on the Job by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (I could have listed more novels, but it seemed a nonfiction book should get a slot and dog books are still a common request by ten-year-olds. Kids will be fascinated by how dogs are trained to smell things like drugs and explosives.)

Last week, I looked over a stairwell into a classroom where a 5th grade girl was reading – and pacing.  It was awesome to watch her turn pages and walk laps around her classroom….

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