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…

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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:

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/from-the-mixed-up-files-of-mrs-basil-e-frankweiler-fifty-years-later

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!

 

By the Book….

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Every Sunday I look forward to reading the New York Times Book Review’s weekly feature, By the Book, in which they interview a prominent person from the literary world.  Like some people play along with NPR’s puzzlemaster Will Shortz during Weekend Edition, I “answer along” with the Book Review’s questions.  Since my answers won’t appear in the actual New York Times, I’m having fun by responding to some of their questions here.

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What’s the last great book you read?

There are many books I’ve enjoyed recently, but if we are defining “great” as timeless, my answer is Graham Swift’s 2016 novel, Mothering Sunday. It’s a small book that is beautiful and intense.  Michiko Kakutani said it has a “haunting, ceremonious pace,” a phrase that has stuck with me.  Three other books that I have to mention in this category: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.

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What books are currently on your nightstand?

The books on the nightstand had to be moved to the floor so that the nightstand would not crack under the pressure!  There are so many good books in the queue, but I’m currently reading Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by the historian, Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Ona Judge worked for President Washington while the First Family was living in Philadelphia, and I was fascinated to learn that slaves in Pennsylvania were free after living there for six months. This was a problem for the first President and his wife who relied on the slaves who traveled with them from Mount Vernon.

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The next book on my list is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  I’ve also been reading The New Yorker’s recent profile of Anthony Bourdain, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (the book I’m reading with my middle school students), and enjoying a book about the artist William Merritt Chase, an American painter.  I saw an exhibit of Chase’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts and became obsessed with his painting of his wife called Meditation (pictured above).

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How do you organize your books?

Alphabetically, of course!  I work in a library.

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What book would people be surprised to find on your shelves?

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.  About a year ago, my husband commented that he could not remember ever seeing me read a science book.  He may not have meant it as a challenge, but I bought Montgomery’s book the next day, read every page in front of my husband, and have been talking about the intelligence of the multi-hearted cephalopods ever since!

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What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Voracious, but undirected.  I read constantly, but not in a way that distinguished “classics” or “literary” books from everything else.  I read whatever was in front of me: Bobbsey Twins at my grandmother’s house and what felt like every book in the children’s room of the Xenia Public Library.  Judy Blume is the author who sticks with me.  Years later, I wrote to thank her for writing Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and, although it never occurred to me that she received countless similar letters, she wrote back.  I will never forget that.

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Paper – 100% of the time.  I expected to like reading on a screen, but for me it felt too much like I was reading for work or scrolling through emails.  Pages are my portals to other lives.

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You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Barack Obama; Arlene Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right; and J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.  Maybe they could help me understand what is happening in our country.  But I would invite the poet Naomi Shihab Nye to join us for dessert.  Her poem, Kindness, would give us words to hold on to as we stepped back into the night.

 

 

 

Perhaps a Book a Day?

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“We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”  (John F. Kennedy)

Perhaps a way to see a way through some of the troubling discourse is to counteract negative words with those that appeal to our better nature.  When I worked at the John F. Kennedy Library, one of the things I grew to admire most about President Kennedy was the way he consistently encouraged people to be their best selves rather than giving in to their fears.  That is sorely missing now.

Like many people, I am trying to identify constructive ways to participate in the debate, but there are times when I find myself reeling from the divisive and hateful language.  Earlier today, reading School Library Journal, I found this poster:

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It will be displayed in the school library next week.  But it reminds me that I need to balance the angry rhetoric with words that are elevating.  I’m going to take 5 minutes every day to read a picture book that puts good words in my head.

Here are ideas for the first ten days, all of them books that emphasize kindness, empathy and the importance of understanding each other:

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How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

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Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena

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Zen Shorts by Jon Muth

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Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey

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Teacup by Rebecca Young

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The Arrival by Shaun Tan

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Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis

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A Sick Day for Amos McGee

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Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

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The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas

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Today, a snow day, is the perfect time to read one of my favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

One last note: the photo at the top was taken by Will Maxwell, an 8th grade student and talented photographer.

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!

Awards and Marching….

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Today was the brightest of Red Letter Days in the Library world: the announcements of the 2017 Newbery, Caldecott, and other American Library Association awards.

The winners are……..

The Newbery Award:

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Newbery Honor Books:

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Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan

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The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

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Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

The Caldecott Award:

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Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Caldecott Honor Books:

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Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol

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Freedom in Congo Square illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

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Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis

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They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

There are books with shiny new stickers in many categories.  Here’s a link to the complete list of award winners:

http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2017/01/american-library-association-announces-2017-youth-media-award-winners

I will write more about the winners over the next few days.

Like many Americans this past weekend, I participated in the Women’s March.  I joined nearly 100,000 people in Boston in a unified and peaceful demonstration of commitment to individual rights and freedom of speech.  Here are my three favorite signs:

A friend who was also in Boston sent this….

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A friend in Washington saw this one….

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And this one is my favorite….

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The little boy’s sign reads: Peace And Not Being Mean.

Well put.