Late Summer Thoughts….

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It is still technically summer, but as soon as the calendar turns to August, I can hear the faint sound of the new school year approaching and there are bright orange visual clues in the grocery store where I can already stock up on Halloween candy!  But before I take a couple of weeks away from my blogging life, here are a few things that have caught my attention….

The Great American Read, an eight-part PBS series about the “place of reading in American culture,” will begin next May.  The first episode will be a two-hour program featuring a list of America’s 100 best-loved books – and the last week will include the top ten titles.  I think it’s a safe bet that To Kill a Mockingbird will be #1.  The Great Gatsby?  Huckleberry Finn?  Charlotte’s Web? The guessing begins…

Earlier this week, I walked through the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston and learned that Catie, star of the Catie Copley picture books, died in May. But Gracie, her successor as the hotel lobby ambassador, is just as welcoming and lovable.

During a recent trip to Philadelphia, we visited the Benjamin Franklin Museum where this interesting box was on display:

The “Lion’s Mouth Box” was used by members of the Library Company of Philadelphia to leave suggestions.  If there was a book you wanted in the library collection, you left the title in the “Lion’s Mouth.”  Note that it was only “gentlemen” who could make suggestions.

In a display about Franklin’s childhood, I found this quote from his Autobiography:

“From a Child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books.”  I could relate completely. His quote reminded me of when I first began making money from babysitting and would spend it as soon as I could get to a bookstore.

I also read a book this week – The Losers Club by Andrew Clements.  Clements is one of the most popular authors for middle grade readers, and I wanted to be ready to talk with kids about it when school starts next month. As always, Clements captures the reality of school life perfectly, and this book has the added bonus of being about books and reading!  It’s about a sixth-grade boy named Alec who loves to read so much that he often misses what his teachers are saying because he’s reading something else. When he finds out that he has to join an after school club, he decides to start his own and call it the Losers Club so other kids will stay away.  A quiet club means more time to read. But of course, things don’t go exactly as planned.

The Losers Club should go on display with Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein and Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman.  Rather than a “loser’s club,” there could be a club for kids who want to read books about books!

On a completely different note, this was also the summer I went to my first book-themed bathroom…

When I was in Amherst for the Emily Dickinson program, one of our classes was in a building on the Amherst College campus. During a “bio break,” we discovered the Harry Potter-themed bathroom – immediately obvious to one of my classmates when she recognized the Mirror of Erised…

We all took pictures before returning to class!

And last but certainly not least…

Our niece’s daughter with a book that is clearly worthy of taking down the slide!

I hope the end of your summer includes a slide – and a book!


A Week with Emily Dickinson…


For years I had been avoiding Emily Dickinson.  Her poetry is hard, and the popular image of her as an unknowable recluse made it easy for me to put her in the “perhaps another day” box.  When my son became a student at UMass Amherst, I drove by the Emily Dickinson Museum countless times, peeking into the windows and wondering if it was time to take the first step. I began by visiting the Museum’s website and learning about the Dickinson family. Easier to access than her poetry, I learned about her family’s relationship with Amherst College and the compelling story of how Dickinson’s poetry was discovered and published.

But when I started to read her poetry, I was frustrated. Although I’m a good reader and can usually discern an author’s meaning, Emily Dickinson does not give the reader that luxury. Reading one poem quickly basically gives you nothing. It requires, as one of last week’s speakers said, “some ironing out.”  But I was interested enough to pursue her – or more accurately, frustrated by the riddle-like nature of her poetry.

During one of my visits to the Museum’s website, I saw a reference to a week-long program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and decided to learn more. In my letter, I was honest about my struggles to understand Dickinson’s poetry, but expressed enthusiasm for grappling with her work. But after being accepted, I was a little unsettled. What if the other participants “got” every poem after one reading!

Luckily, that was not the case. In fact, the best part of the program was reading Dickinson with others. Talking and re-reading and being guided by leading Dickinson scholars, I began to realize that the rewards for reading Dickinson are great, but not easily gained. Emily Dickinson was a brave writer who confronted things head-on.  She was subversive and engaged – not at all the caricature we latch on to of a woman unaware and uninterested in the world around her.

We spent the week immersed in Dickinson’s world, but looked at her life through a broad lens. One of the most interesting sessions took place at the Jones Library in Amherst where we looked at objects related to life in the mid-1800s. At a table filled with material related to the Civil War years in Amherst, I began reading an 1861 sermon delivered by Rev. William Stearns, the third president of Amherst College. I opened the document expecting to read a few pages before moving on to something else, but nearly 45 minutes went by before I looked up and remembered where I was.

The days were full and demanding, in the best way. There were lectures, small group sessions, poetry discussion groups, and curriculum planning.  At the close of the formal day, several of us gathered for dinner during which the conversation and questions continued.

There’s a lot more to say, but honestly, I’m still working through the experience myself. I keep returning to something the Dickinson scholar, Joanne Dobson, said: “We don’t read Emily Dickinson. She reads us.”

I’m not intimidated by reading Dickinson’s poems anymore.  They challenge and confuse me, but she is worth the effort. And I’ve just explored the tip of the iceberg.

One of Dickinson’s famous “envelope poems”

Emily Dickinson’s gravesite

Mid-Summer Reflection….

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Summertime and the living is…..kind of busy actually, but in a good way.  Ordering books for school, meeting with my book group kids at Buttonwood Books and Toys, and reading – along with helping my son get ready to move to his first post-college apartment. No complaints.

Next week I will be in Amherst to participate in a program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place – a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for Humanities.  Along with other middle and high school English teachers, I will spend the week immersed in Emily Dickinson’s world, and according to the description, gain “a deeper understanding of the forces that shaped Dickinson’s development as a poet and a greater appreciation for the quiet yet powerful presence she exerted at home, within her community, and, now, throughout the world. A diverse range of experiences will illuminate Dickinson’s life and poetry and inspire you to share that poetry as well as Dickinson’s story with your students back home.”

Although I’ve never included Dickinson’s poetry into our middle school literature classes, her themes: death, faith, science, and love, connect with almost every book we read. One connection I’m especially interested in exploring is how to integrate our reading of Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, with Dickinson’s poetry.  Although the two women write about dramatically different personal experiences that were separated by 150 years, they both challenge readers to think about their identities and beliefs.

Other book related news….

The New Yorker has a wonderful piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of E.L. Konigsburg’s classic novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Here’s a link:

I recently reviewed Kat Yeh’s new middle grade novel, The Way to Bea, for School Library Journal – and loved it. The factor that moved her book into “starred review” territory is the way Yeh’s secondary characters come to life.  Bea, the protagonist, is wonderful, but her supporting cast do not feel like stock characters, rather each is distinct and memorable. Here’s an excerpt from my review.:

“Seventh grader Beatrix Lee puts a lot of faith in haiku. Since her family and friendships are changing dramatically, Bea abandons her love of free verse poetry and takes solace in the haiku’s dependable five-seven-five rhyme scheme. After an embarrassing incident at a pool party causes a painful rift with her longtime best friend, Bea writes most of her poetry in invisible ink, a reflection of the loneliness she feels at school and at home, where her parents are happily preparing for a new baby. Bea’s love of words starts to reemerge with the encouragement of a supportive librarian who introduces her to the kids at Broadside, the school newspaper. During lunch time, Bea takes refuge in the Broadside office, where she meets Briggs, the paper’s editor, who makes her feel like a valued member of a team, and Will, who is obsessed with labyrinths…..As Bea works her way through the maze of new friendships and a new role in her family, she begins to see herself and her friends more clearly.”

Once again, I’ve gone “off list” from my summer reading plan.  I’m currently reading a short memoir, The Hue and Cry At Our House: A Year Remembered by Benjamin Taylor.  I read about it on a book website and started reading it later that day.  The jumping off point is Taylor’s memory of being eleven-years-old and meeting his hero, President John F. Kennedy. He shook the President’s hand in Fort Worth, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963.  Of course, only a few hours later, Taylor’s teacher announces that the President had been shot in Dallas.

Taylor grew up in a financially privileged Jewish family at a time when the world was going through seismic changes, and the book is an elegantly written story of one boy’s coming of age.

Finally….rocks.  During a morning walk earlier this week, I passed by a house with this on their front steps:

I’ll be back after spending the week with Emily…maybe I will leave a rock in her garden!


New Books and a New Bookstore….

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It’s summer.  My blog posts have become sporadic, but there’s time to read my stack of unread New Yorkers and sit on the deck with an iced mocha.  The pages keep turning though: books for my middle grade book club at Buttonwood Books and Toys, books about Emily Dickinson for a class I’m taking later this month, and the most fun reading – looking at new books for Inly’s library.  This morning, Mary and I met at school to experience Christmas in July by opening the boxes that have arrived over the past few weeks.  So many good ones, but two that I would encourage my colleagues in other school libraries and classrooms to consider adding to their collections:

Life by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel 

I love this book even though I’m not sure exactly who it’s for.  It’s a tribute to the world, to life itself. The book celebrates the glories of the natural world and, like poetry, encourages reflection.  It opens with an illustration of a seedling surrounded by mountains and the text reads: “Life begins small.”  On the next page there is an illustration of elephants gathered around a baby elephant, and it continues: “Even for the elephants. Then it grows.”  The message is one children have heard before, but the illustrations and words work together so beautifully that it manages to feel fresh.  It’s a book teachers could read at the start of a conversation about the life cycle. I would read it to a group of older students to show them that more words are not always better.  It would also be a lovely gift for a child (or adult) who needs a reminder that “it is worth waking up in the morning to see what might happen.”

A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices by Sally Derby and Mika Song

Six children, between kindergarten and fifth grade, get ready for a new school year. Through 24 free verse poems, we meet Ethan, Zach, Katie, Jackie, Carlos, and Mia as they share their excitement and worries. The book is divided into four sections: “The Night Before,” “In the Morning,” “At School,” and “After School” and each child has a poem in each section.  The kids are different in how they look and their anxieties about school.  For example, Katie is concerned that: “Miss Kring won’t be my teacher for second grade like I wanted. Instead I’ll have a new teacher, someone I don’t even know. The letter said his name is Mr. Patterson. Teachers at my school aren’t called Mr. Their names begin Miss or Mrs., like they’re supposed to.”  There are countless possibilities for using this book in a classroom: a read aloud on the first day, a starting point for writing poetry about first day jitters, and, because the kids here are so distinct, an introduction to inventing a character.  No classroom should be without this one!

During a visit to Newburyport earlier this week, I visited the Jabberwocky Bookshop.  It was a lovely surprise. Spacious and well-stocked, Jabberwocky is a must-visit for bookstore collectors.  It’s definitely a store I will visit again….

My personal reading has not gone as planned – but that’s okay. I read “on a plan” all school year so digressions from the “to read” pile are welcome. The other evening, reaching to pick up the next book on my summer list, I was instead drawn to Hisham Matar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, The Return.

Matar is the son of a well-known Libyan dissident who disappeared in 1990.  After many years away, he returned to Libya to learn the truth of what happened to his father and to reconnect with the place of his birth.  Moving between the present and the past, The Return is also a meditation on the passage of time and the story of a revolution.  I am so happy that the “reading god” reached down and put this one in my hands. In addition to teaching me about a part of the world I knew very little about, it is so beautiful that I find myself re-reading sentences on every page.  I’m leaving my next book choice to fate!

Happy Reading!

The Fourth of July….


“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” – Abraham Lincoln

In honor of Independence Day, a list of books about ten people who have brought dignity and honor to our country.  In different ways, through words or actions, they exemplify the best of the American spirit.  A child interested in learning about people who truly made America great, could begin here.  There are numerous omissions, but it’s not meant to be complete.  Rather it’s a subjective list of people who have given shape to the way I think about our country:

George Washington

I recently listened to Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations by John Avlon, and my biggest take away was that George Washington was the right man at the right time. The “united” part of this great experiment was truly hanging by a thread, and it was the steady hand of Washington that guided us through those early days.  For children, Roslyn Schanzer’s book, George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen From Both Sides is a good place to begin understanding the American Revolution.

Abraham Lincoln

One thought that sticks with me from the book about George Washington is that Washington’s Farewell Address is this nation’s “Old Testament.” And that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is our “New Testament.”  That idea gave me a framework for thinking about our country’s values and principles. For kids ready to dive into the world of Abraham Lincoln, the absolute best book is Russell Freedman’s 1988 Newbery Award winning biography, Lincoln: A Photobiography. 

Frederick Douglass

Douglass’s story of sheer determination – rising from slave to social reformer – makes him essential to understanding this country’s complex history.  For teachers who want an example of the power of words to make change, Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers is the perfect book.

Harriet Tubman

Could there have been anyone as personally courageous as Harriet Tubman?  One trip to escape slavery is dangerous, but nineteen trips!  The conductor of the Underground Railroad risked her life to save over 300 people.  Kids will be inspired by Thomas Allen’s Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent. 

John Muir

No conversation about great Americans is complete without understanding the legacy of John Muir.  A good place to start is Kathryn Lasky’s picture book biography of the famous naturalist, writer, and founder of the Sierra Club.  Pair your reading about Muir with learning about the national parks, a movement that Muir initiated with his commitment to protecting the environment.

Wilbur and Orville Wright

We turn to Russell Freedman again to learn the story of the two brothers from Dayton whose dogged determination led to the invention of the airplane. I’ve read a lot about them (hometown pride of course!), and their most striking characteristic is how hard working they were.  They did not have fancy educations or access to the scientific community, but from their bicycle shop in Dayton they overcame tremendous challenges and ultimately succeeded.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The history of race in this country is hard and important and absolutely essential to understanding the very nature of our founding, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is a good gateway.  And here, I recommend focusing on his words, his “Big Words” to be exact: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport.  From here, a conversation about the Civil Rights Movement can branch out to include Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, John Lewis and countless others.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I know – two people here, but the Wright Brothers were counted as one so I’m standing by my decision.  The relationship between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, their mutual commitment to women’s suffrage, is what led to the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Two of  the books I like are: Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins and Elizabeth Leads the Way by Tanya Lee Stone.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt

So great were both of their contributions, that it just felt wrong to leave either Roosevelt off of this list.  Like George Washington, President Roosevelt was the right man at the right time.  Eleanor’s political activism and her commitment to equal rights are equally inspiring.  To dip your toe into the world of FDR and Eleanor (and add Theodore too!), return to Russell Freedman’s stellar biographies for young readers.

Finally….I saw this boat during my walk this morning:

It seems only appropriate to end this post with a quote from one of the great American novels:

A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention. It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. . . . Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.

Happy Fourth of July!  








New Books!

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New books – two of the most beautiful words in the English language!

This one is amazing.  A Newbery contender perhaps?

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson will be released in early September, and I anticipate a waiting list by the end of the first day of school. Fans of Jamieson’s first middle grade graphic novel, Roller Girl, are going to love All’s Faire in Middle School.  At the center of the story is eleven-year-old Impy who is beginning 6th grade in a “real” school after being home schooled.  As Impy describes it herself, her life with her parents and younger brother is pretty “normal.”  There is one thing though that makes Impy’s family stand out: her family is part of the Florida Renaissance Faire.  In fact, her parents are both cast members during the weekend festivities, and Impy is looking forward to training to be a squire. She fits in perfectly at the Faire, but middle school is a different story.  The rules are different and not as clear.

During weekend performances on the Faire’s main street, Impy is comfortable asking visitors if they are “looking for victuals” and using phrases like “loggerheaded rump-fed giglet,” but trying to figure out what shoes she should wear to school is more challenging.  Of course, mistakes are made and there are consequences, but Impy and her family are memorable characters.

And there’s this…..

I read The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli and immediately started thinking of various ways to use this book in classes – and making a mental note about kids who will enjoy this fascinating story. It’s a picture book based on the life of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who spent years searching for a mythical civilization in the Amazon rain forest.  Born in 1867, Fawcett was born into an adventurous family, and from the beginning he was committed to learning to surviving in the jungle. He took numerous trips deep into South America where, Pizzoli writes, Fawcett “heard stories from locals that gave him clues to the possible location of the lost city of Z, and he became obsessed.”  Ultimately, Fawcett disappeared during one of his explorations, but his story caught the imagination of people then and now.  Pizzoli writes: “It’s estimated that as many as one hundred people have disappeared or died in the hunt for Percy Fawcett and the blank spot on the globe that he called Z.”

In fact, this book reminded me of a bestselling book from a few years ago, The Lost City of Z: A Deadly Tale of Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann.

Speaking of new books…

I went book shopping today with a 5th grade Inly student. Our mission: her summer reading plan.  It was a successful trip:

Based on her interests and Inly’s summer reading list, here are the books she is going to read this summer:

Happy Reading!

The View from the Roof…

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I had a few thoughts about this week’s post, but then a student sent me this picture from his travels in Germany:

In response to my comment about his beautiful picture, the student wrote: “Feel free to use in your blog.  Rooftops are a great theme with lots of meaning!”  Clearly, he needs a break from my class where we search for meaning in everything.  But he has a point. Rooftops are a good place to take a look around.

Here are seven books that encourage us to get up a little higher, look down, and realize (in the words of Hamilton) “how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell  (Rundell’s middle grade novel is a few years old, but the rooftop scenes are still vivid in my mind.  The story centers on a young girl named Sophie – who everyone thinks is an orphan who survived in a cello case during a shipwreck that claimed the life of Sophie’s mother. Convinced her mother may have lived, Sophie goes to Paris to find her. It’s in Paris that she meets Matteo and his friends who live high above the city.  This is a magical novel – best read at night, perhaps overlooking the twinkling lights of a city!)

Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather (A fun and quirky book – that “flew” under the radar!  A pigeon’s-eye view of famous structures around the world. An excellent introduction to architecture.)

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein (the story of Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Obviously, the book has a special poignancy because of what happened to the Towers in 2001, but that adds to the power of the book; it becomes a tribute not only to Petit’s incredible feat, but also to the lives lost that day.)

Albert by Donna Jo Napoli (This picture book is not technically a rooftop story. Albert lives in a tall apartment building, but the action takes place outside of Albert’s window. Published in 2005, Albert is about a man who is a bit of a recluse.  He stays in his apartment and only puts his hand outside to check the weather.  It’s never a good day to go out.  But when a cardinal decides to build a nest in Albert’s outstretched hand, Albert is forced to watch the life happening on the streets below.  This is kind of a quirky story, but it’s one I find myself returning to again and again – it’s a perfect book to introduce symbolism to young readers.)

Home by Jeannie Baker (I have used Jeannie Baker’s books, Home and Window, every year since I started teaching – with elementary age students and middle school students.  Like the viewpoint in Albert, we have window views rather than rooftops, but the shift in perspective is equally affecting. Baker’s wordless picture books are powerful warnings about the impact we have on our environment.  Teachers – to spark a discussion (with older students) about overdevelopment and our changing communities, pair Home with The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton.

ABC: Alphabet From the Sky by Benedikt Gross (As it turns out, if you look down, the alphabet is hiding in plain site!)

The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest by Steve Jenkins (Everything Steve Jenkins done is amazing, but this is my favorite of his cut-paper collage works. The closest many of us will get to views from the top of Mount Everest!)

I didn’t get a rooftop view of Scituate’s new library, but the view from the inside is lovely.  The library was closed for nearly two years for major renovations.  It was worth the wait….

Happy Reading!