Ten: Books, Articles, and Pictures Worth Sharing….

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At last….spring!  My husband opened a box of seeds yesterday, and the incredibly tiny little beginnings hold the promise of flowers blooming over the months ahead. When he begins planning his garden, I know we are turning the corner.

Here are ten things that I thought were worth sharing this week….

  • Russell Freedman died on March 16. The author of many award-winning biographies for young readers, Freedman wrote 47 books, but the best known is his 1988 Newbery-winning book, Lincoln: A Photobiography.  I had the opportunity to meet Freedman when I was in graduate school and fondly remember his encouraging words when I was considering writing about Hank Greenberg. Here is a link to his New York Times obituary:
  • If you regularly read aloud to young children – your own or in your classroom – you need a copy of A Couch for Llama by Leah Gilbert on your bookcase. Mary and I read it to nearly ten groups of young children this past week, and it was a hit every time. The premise of the silly story is that the Lago family needs a new couch so they pile into the car and head to the furniture store where, in a scene straight out of Goldilocks, they look for a “just right” new couch for their family. They find a new couch, but on the way home, it falls off the top of their car and into a field where it is found by a llama. This is a sweet story that you won’t mind reading multiple times.

  • Friday’s New York Times had a wonderful story about George and Martha, the hippopotamus friends who are the stars of James Marshall’s picture books. It reminded me that George and Martha have been “on the shelf” for too long – it’s time to introduce a new generation of kids to these sweet stories.  Here’s the link:
  • Jillian Tamaki’s new picture book, They Say Blue, is a book about colors and changing seasons, but also about slowing down and paying attention. This is a book to share with classroom and art teachers.

  • I just read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated, the story of a young woman who grew up in a remote part of Idaho in a strict Mormon, survivalist family.  As a child, Westover did not have a birth certificate, did not attend school, and never saw a doctor. Incredibly, she finds her way to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge University. Her memoir focuses not only on her truly unbelievable journey, but on her quest to understand her family and the meaning of “home.”

  • The popularity of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series continues. We looked at what books have been checked out of the library most often over the past few months, and Gerald and Piggie rule the list. One of our students had them lined up and ready to read!

  • One of the books I read in Italy was Muriel Sparks novel, The Finishing School. It has been on my bookshelf for a long time, and sometimes, walking by our bookshelves, a title will catch my eye – a book I bought, but haven’t read. I read Sparks’ best known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, years ago, but had not read anything else by the British writer. This one was interesting – a study of jealousy. Roland is a teacher who, along with his wife, runs a small European boarding school. One of the reasons they have chosen this career path is to give time for Rowland to devote to writing his novel. But, as it turns out, one of his students is also writing a novel, and Rowland becomes consumed by jealousy, both professionally and personally. Sparks is an unsentimental writer. You can almost imagine her plotting this novel out by just taking everything to its most extreme and seeing how it all plays out. Funny. A bit dark. A biting satire.

  • One of the best parts of visiting Italy was being surrounded by Renaissance art – Lippi, Bellini, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, and others. If I had not gone down the book path, I would have studied art history, and as I get older, I’m devoting more time reading about and looking at paintings. Over the past five or so years, I’ve taken a deep dive into two periods that interest me: the Dutch Golden Age and the Renaissance. Like my other reading, it’s an endless well. So many paintings – and so many books.  As we visited churches and museums in Florence, I chose to focus on one specific story and thought about how it is interpreted by different artists. I focused on the Annunciation, a moment we must have seen represented 100 times during the week. Like a story that’s illustrated by many illustrators (think of Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella), the story of Mary hearing the “news” is represented in many ways. Here are a few that stood out for me. In the first, Mary seems unsure about what the angel has to tell her. The fourth image is part of a wall-size fresco that is absolutely stunning. 

  • It is April 1 – the first day of National Poetry Month. A chance to read poetry and awaken some part of you that may have been dormant over the winter. Here is one of my favorites:

Today
Billy Collins
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

  • A final picture to make it 10!  Happy Reading….
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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!

As 2017 Comes to a Close…

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As the year comes to a close, I am starting to see lists of books to watch out for in 2018, but it’s still too early to leave 2017 so maybe a look back….

Here are five books that defined my year:

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

Pilkey’s crime-fighting dog is the star of the most popular series in the Inly Library. The fourth installment will be released while we are on our holiday break, but I’m sure there will be kids waiting to check it out on January 2!

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna

This is my favorite picture book of the year. I love it more with every reading. The bright pop of orange on the child’s jacket. The reminder to put down our devices and explore the world. The way some of the illustrations seem to glow.

Patina by Jason Reynolds

The best book I reviewed for School Library Journal this year. Reynolds understands the difficulties and challenges faced by young people today and writes about their lives in a way they recognize, with integrity and respect.

Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson

My surprise read of the year. I bought this book because I needed something for a train ride and ended up wanting to skip my stop. Three characters whose lives intersect: Adri lives in Kansas in 2065. Catherine’s family is trying to survive during the Dust Bowl in 1934. Lenore’s brother has died in WWI, and she wants to travel to America. A quiet, mysterious, and beautiful novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

A ghost story that is truly unforgettable. Both sad and funny, it is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief after the death of his young son, Willy, that includes the voices of both historical and made-up characters. Winner of the Man Booker Prize. One of the New York Times 100 Notable Books. I read it earlier in the year. I’m listening to it now.

I’m hoping the last few weeks of the year are filled with reading. My book stack is so tall it wobbles. Last night I finished Autumn by Ali Smith. I’m now reading a book for School Library Journal, and after that Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben. There are 15 days left….

Happy Reading!

Notes From My Deck….

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I’m taking advantage of this bright and sunny Sunday by spending every possible minute on our deck.  I’ve gathered the food and books I’ll need and have set up camp – Frederick-style!  Just as Frederick collects colors for the grey months ahead, I’m holding on to the warm sun and the full green trees to call up a few months from now – when our deck is shut tight against the cold.  I’m also mindful of how this brilliant day is at odds with what is happening in Florida right now, and I’m keeping a “weather ear” on NPR for updates.  Like so much of the news today, it feels a bit overwhelming.

A few scattered book notes to share today….

Last week I finished reading No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, and although I read many good books this summer, this is the one that stands out.  Watts’ book has received glowing reviews, and it’s the inaugural selection of Book Club Central, an American Library Association program. No One Is Coming To Save Us is loosely based on The Great Gatsby, but takes place in an African American community in present day North Carolina where the furniture factories have been boarded up leaving many people feeling anxious and depressed. The story’s central characters, Sylvia, her daughter Ava, and JJ (the Gatsby character) are all searching for something and wondering how they arrived at this point in their lives.  Ava is in a bad marriage and desperately wants a baby. JJ builds a mountain top house and dreams of Ava returning to him. And Sylvia, the novel’s most memorable character, is mourning her dead son and trying to understand that the life she made for herself is not the one she expected.  The writing is beautiful, poignant and moving:

“The sting of not having or not having enough bores a pain black hole that sucks all the other of life’s injuries into one sharp stinging gap that you don’t need a scientist to remind you may be bottomless…..That beautiful house is just a street away, but as out of reach as the moon. But that house-pain is just one lack, and everybody knows one pain is far better than a hundred. That is the mercy. That is the relief – the ache of one singular pain.”

I recently reviewed Patina by Jason Reynolds for School Library Journal. Here is an excerpt from my starred review:

“Twelve-year-old Patina Jones not only loves to run, she needs to run—and win. She’s a gifted athlete, and since the death of her father and her mother’s life-altering health problems, Patty’s track club has become the focal point of her life. Running helps her to navigate the changes she and her younger sister, Maddy, are experiencing. They have left their urban neighborhood to live in a different part of the city with their uncle Tony (who is black like Patty and Maddy) and their aunt Emily (who is white) and attend a new school, Chester Academy. In this follow-up to Ghost, the award-winning author continues to display his mastery of voice…….Patty’s story is an invitation to grapple with the need to belong, socioeconomic status, and the dangers of jumping to conclusions. This “second leg” of Reynolds’s series is as satisfying as its predecessor and a winning story on its own.”

As you may have read, the farm where E.B. White lived and wrote Charlotte’s Web is for sale. At $3.7 million, it’s a bit out of my price range, but I’m hopeful the new owners will turn it into a place where the public can visit to channel Charlotte, Wilbur, and Fern. Friday’s New York Times featured an article by someone who visited the house:

While I was in Boston yesterday, I visited Goosefish Press, a stationary store I’d been curious about.

For a paper lover like me, it was a magical store. Here’s the awesome treat I bought….

Another week begins….Happy Reading!

Ten Happy Things….

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The days are grey and cold.  I am sad that someone who is remarkably incurious lives in a house where there is beauty and history in every room.  The list of things that frighten me is overwhelming. I am looking for sparks of light.  There are many of them – friends and family, books and art, my students and colleagues, and groups of committed and patriotic citizens who are finding ways forward.

Here are ten things that may shine light on the week ahead…

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  1.  A book tower!  During library class last week, a first grade student created her own work of public art:

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2. The Unexpected Love Story of Alfred Fiddleduck by Timothy Basil Ering.  A lovely and gentle picture book that celebrates friendship and hope. Ering’s art is beautiful – his two-page spread of fog looks exactly like what you see while driving through a foggy evening.  When we first meet Alfred Fiddleduck, he is in an egg waiting to hatch. The egg is being carefully ferried by Captain Alfred who is carrying it in his fiddle case – a gift for his wife who is waiting for his return in their little house by the sea.  But a violent storm sends the fiddle case into the sea, and “far offshore, deep in the fog, alone and drifting, the egg cracked.”  There is a happy ending, of course, but the journey is beautiful.

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3.  A poem by a 2nd grade student and printed here with her permission:

Winter by Ana

Winter means snow,

winter means fun,

winter means ice, and rarely sun.

Winter means snowmen, chilly toes,

winter gives you a red nose.

Dull grey skies predict more snow,

while you’re inside with the fire aglow.

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4.  Elephant and Piggie!  These two are always guaranteed to make you smile.  This week’s New Yorker includes an article about their creator, Mo Willems.  Here’s a link:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/06/mo-willems-funny-failures

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5. Kid book reviews.  As all school librarians know, it’s challenging to convince kids to take a risk on a new series.  Most of them prefer to check-out books their friends are reading. But if you can find one student to trust your guarantee that they will like the book, a new series may catch fire.  That’s what happened with the Billy Sure: Kid Entrepreneur, a series by Luke Sharpe.  For weeks, I unsuccessfully tried to get a group of boys who enjoy light, fast-paced chapter books to try them.  And then – success!  Oliver, a student who was perhaps tired of the same recommendation, checked out Billy Sure #1.  After we displayed his review, we can’t keep the books on the shelf!  Oliver’s review reads: “This is a really funny book. I like how Billy is an inventor. I like how he tries to build stuff and he goes on TV!  This is a really good book if you like inventing things.”

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6. The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli.  I finished it this morning and closed the book thinking about the kids I will recommend it to tomorrow.  Like many of Spinelli’s novels, this one takes place in Pennsylvania – this time in the late 1950s when kids are watching American Bandstand.  The Warden’s Daughter is Cammie O’Reilly, a 7th grader whose mother died when she was a baby.  She so desperately wants a mother that she tries to turn her “Cammie-keeper,” as she refers to the woman who cares for her, into a mother figure.  Meanwhile, Cammie’s best friend appears on American Bandstand – representing the change Cammie and her friends are experiencing on the cusp of becoming teenagers. This is a thoughtful and moving novel for mature 5th-7th grade readers.

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7. An origami boat made by an 8th grade student who read Around the World in 80 Days.

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8. There is a box of books under the library check-out desk.  It’s where we keep new books for Inly’s older elementary students – 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.  It started simply enough: a place to hold new books I plan to share with them or books put aside for specific students. Last week, three girls stopped by, and asked if there was anything special in the blue box.  I pulled it out for them, they sat down, and began pulling books out.  Spontaneously, one of them said – “this is the best plastic box I’ve ever seen!”

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9. The Mothers by Britt Bennett.  I’ve been listening to Bennett’s debut novel since reading a glowing review in The New York Times this past November.  It’s a story about secrets, about friendship, about leaving and returning, and the hold our past has on us.  The book mostly takes place in Southern California, but there were times, listening in my car on cold days in January,  I was tempted to roll the window down.

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10.  The Snowy Day on Postage Stamps!  2017 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Peter’s creator, Ezra Jack Keats.  I’ve been asking about the stamps at every trip to my local post office.  I will buy some to use and some to keep!

Happy Reading – and keep your eyes open for flashes of light!

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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Unknown-1As my friends and family know, being an Ohioan is important to me.  Although I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly 30 years, I grew up in Dayton and it will always be home.  It is a reflex for me to “stick up for Ohio.”  I know how much the state has changed, and looking back can be hard. But I never miss an opportunity to bring up the Wright Brothers and John Glenn and Neil Armstrong – all people, as my husband likes to remind me, who went to extraordinary measures to leave Ohio!

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Our house outside of Boston is a place for me to display Ohio swag. Our front door knocker is a buckeye. Our bulletin board is shaped like the state of Ohio. And, thanks to my sisters, I have a wide variety of Ohio t-shirts!

That being said, going home makes me sad.  I love seeing my family and eating the best chocolates in the world from Esther Price, but every time I drive through Dayton, I feel despair.  My dad, a Dayton native who worked as an electrician for thirty-five years, points out the closed factories and tells me about members of our extended family who struggle to find work.  There are bright lights, including the University of Dayton and the Dayton Art Institute, but there are too many boarded-up businesses in the small towns outside of Dayton.

I’ve read countless articles about the challenges of the white working class and the disappearance of well-paying factory jobs, but understanding it doesn’t make it easier.  I miss the vibrant mid-sized city where I grew up.

The first time I heard about J.D. Vance’s new book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, was on NPR. I immediately drove to the nearest bookstore, bought it, and then called my dad to suggest that we read it together.  It was not an easy read for us.  Vance’s story of growing up in Middletown, Ohio, although it differs in the specifics, is not so far from our own.  I recognize the people he describes. Hillbilly Elegy helped me make sense of what I’m seeing and is the best explanation I’ve read so far of why Trump’s message resonates with large groups of voters.

Today’s New York Times includes a review of Hillbilly Elegy that includes this passage:

“And he (Vance) frames his critique generously, stipulating that it isn’t laziness that’s destroying hillbilly culture but what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness” — the fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.  What he’s really writing about is despair.”

Here’s a link to the review:

Reading Vance’s moving book brought up lots of emotions: sadness, frustration, understanding. But above all, it made me hopeful. I am hopeful that stories like this one will contribute to the national dialogue about jobs and the changing economy that could result in policies that will revitalize small towns.

I know how lucky I am to live in the Boston area. It’s a dynamic city that has given me opportunities I could only dream about as a child growing up in Dayton – and I’m grateful. But the Boston area has lots of fans. I will continue to watch for signs of growth and opportunity 850 miles away in my hometown.

 

Scattered Summer Notes….

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It’s summer, and all attempts at a regular routine have been forgotten.  My reading is scattered – in a good way. In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, Geoff Dwyer said that his favorite short story is “The Gardener” by Rudyard Kipling.  Two hours later, I was on the deck reading Kipling’s story about a mother searching for her son’s grave after WWI.

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On Monday, although the plan was to begin reading Emma Straub’s new novel, Modern Lovers, I read Terry Tempest Williams’ essay about Acadia National Park.  The essay is part of her new collection, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.  Later this summer, we are visiting Acadia for the first time so I was an easy target for her beautiful new book. “Acadia is another breathing space,” Williams writes. “Perhaps that is what parks are – breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.”  A memorable sentence that elegantly captures the anxiety many of us feel as we try to comprehend Orlando, Brexit, and Trump…

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Yesterday I continued my scattershot reading, but my distraction may be helpful to those of you with children who have a summer reading list.  I read the short middle grade novel, Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little by Peggy Gifford.  It was published in 2008, and I remember reading it then, but for some reason, I took Inly’s copy before it was packed in a moving box and read it again. This is literally the perfect novel for every kid who has a tendency to procrastinate.

Nine-year-old Moxy is supposed to read Stuart Little during the summer before fourth grade, but it’s the day before school starts and she hasn’t even started it.  She’s busy “cleaning” her room and making plans for a peach orchard.  Basically anything besides reading Stuart Little!  The chapters are short and funny and Moxy is great – add this one to your summer library list!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles….

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My transportation-based reading plans trended the same way.  During a flight to and from Ohio, I read Stephanie Danler’s bestseller Sweetbitter.  It was not the book I had tucked in my travel bag. I started Sweetbitter in the Boston airport bookstore – drawn to it by the hype around Danler’s debut novel.  After reading five pages standing in the store (carrying other books in my tote bag), I walked to the cash register and didn’t stop reading until the plane landed and I was back in the land of Buckeyes!

Referred to in many reviews as a cross between Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Sweetbitter is a riveting and smart book. It’s the story of Tess, a young woman who arrives in New York and almost immediately starts working in an upscale restaurant.  It’s a coming-of-age novel with memorable scenes of life behind the kitchen door, lots of cocaine snorted behind bathroom doors, and a young woman who is pulled along by all of it.

I will never eat at a “fancy restaurant” again without thinking of Sweetbitter – not sure if that’s good or bad.  As much as I appreciated how Danler brings the reader hurtling along with Tess, I felt vaguely depressed while reading it. I kept wanting to go to the restaurant and get her out!  She was making bad decisions on every page.  I understand that I’m bringing my judgement to her situation – and that Tess is young and learning and we all make bad decisions.  That being said, it made me uneasy to witness her journey.

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I was also in New York for a few days, and the train ride was perfect for catching up on my stack of unread New Yorker magazines.  So many good articles – and cartoons – that stack up during the school year!

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Of course, we found time to visit McNally Jackson, our favorite bookstore in New York (traveling by an uber-mobile to complete the transport trio).

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The store’s window display pays tribute to people who tackle a “big” book over the summer.  My thoughts went immediately to a friend who just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov – an impressive feat.

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Next up: Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager.  It’s the first middle grade novel I’m reading with a group of kids at Buttonwood Books and Toys this summer. Eager’s novel takes place in New Mexico, a state I know and love.  I plan to bring a few souvenirs along so we can channel a southwestern mood. Chips and salsa will help!

Finally, I saw a picture of this new novel today:

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It looks like this one, doesn’t it?

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I’ll end this reading round-up with two pictures from the end of the school year.  As I looked at these pics today, I recalled a conversation I overheard a few days ago at Barnes and Noble. A boy, who was about 10 or 11, was consulting his summer reading list.  His mother reminded him to choose carefully because he had to write a summary of each chapter!  Ugh. And we wonder why kids don’t want to read.  Of course, work like that is often necessary (but not always) during the school year, but in the summer?  Why not give kids a list of books they might enjoy reading and encourage them to read. That’s it. No summaries. No assignments. Just read.

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