Summer Days….

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I’m not in a regular blogging routine during these mid-summer days, but here are some things that have caught my eye over the past few weeks…

Barack Obama’s summer reading list. I read the list and felt overwhelmed by how much I miss having a president who reads. Obama’s list has been making the rounds, but in case you missed it:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
“A true classic of world literature, this novel paints a picture of traditional society wrestling with the arrival of foreign influence, from Christian missionaries to British colonialism. A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.”

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
“A chronicle of the events leading up to Kenya’s independence and a compelling story of how the transformative events of history weigh on individual lives and relationships.”

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
“Mandela’s life was one of the epic stories of the 20th century. This definitive memoir traces the arc of his life from a small village to his years as a revolutionary to his long imprisonment and ultimately his ascension to unifying president, leader, and global icon. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand history—and then go out and change it.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“From one of the world’s great contemporary writers comes the story of two Nigerians making their way in the U.S. and the U.K., raising universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.”

The Return by Hisham Matar
“A beautifully written memoir that skillfully balances a graceful guide through Libya’s recent history with the author’s dogged quest to find his father who disappeared in Gaddafi’s prisons.”

The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes
“It’s true, Ben does not have African blood running through his veins. But few others so closely see the world through my eyes like he can. Ben’s one of the few who’ve been with me since that first presidential campaign. His memoir is one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people for eight years in the White House.”

I’ve been finding book-related scenes during my walks…

Walking in Scituate, I came to the spot Where the Sidewalk Ends….

And I saw a tree that made me think of Boo Radley leaving gifts for Jem and Scout:

I follow lots of illustrators and museums on Instagram. It’s fun knowing that when I have a few minutes waiting in a line or for a friend at Starbucks, there is a world of art and illustration one click away. One of my favorites is a London-based artist, Steve Scott. With his permission, here’s my favorite of his illustrations:

I’ve also been reading, but my “official reading schedule” was scrapped by late June. Something grabs my attention, and off I go…

The last two books I’ve read are a good example of my scattered summer mind.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston is the recently published book based on Hurston’s conversations with Cudjo Lewis, who was brought to America on the last slave ship. Hurston conducted her interviews in Alabama in 1931. “Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left,” Hurston writes. The only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; the barracoon; the Lenten tones of slavery; and who has 67 years of freedom in a foreign land behind him.” Lewis was enslaved for five years before being freed.

It’s a hard book to read for obvious reasons. The book is primarily written as Lewis’s monologue, with a few clarifications by Hurston. He spends much of his time talking about his life in Africa before he was captured in 1859 – and then there are the details of the passage, his years as an enslaved man, and finally learning of his freedom from a Union soldier. Honestly, I found it painful to read, but “listening” to a first hand account of the horrors of slavery made the experience more real than any novel I’ve read. There were small things I had not considered. For example, in most novels, the Civil War ends and there is some kind of resolution of how the enslaved people find out and what they do next. For Cudjo Lewis, however, the War was something he had heard rumors about, but he knew very little of the specifics. When a Union soldier tells him he’s free, Lewis says: “We glad we free, but den, you understand me, we cain stay wid de folks who own us no mo. Derefo’ where we goin’ live, we doan know.”  That’s real. What do I do right now?

On a far lighter note and perhaps a deliberate “about face,” I read Beck Dorey-Stein’s memoir, From the Corner of the Oval. Dorey-Stein spent five years working as a stenographer in the Obama White House. The stenographers, I learned, are responsible for recording every public word the president says. That means they travel on Air Force One, transcribe press conferences, and stand in the “corner of the Oval.” Dorey-Stein’s book is not about policy or even politics. It’s the anecdotal account of a young woman working in the White House and the impact her demanding job has on her personal life. Among Dorey-Stein’s many entertaining stories, there are also fun glimpses of life in the West Wing.

I’ve got a few books in mind for my next one, but then again…..

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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Scenes From London…Part Two

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After ten days in London, I had so many book-related items to share that I divided them into two posts. Last week, I wrote about the bookstores we visited. This week – everything else, including the little guy in the picture above. We saw him in a lovely garden on a sunny and warm day, but given how tightly he’s holding his jacket, he may have been cold!

One of my favorite things to do in any foreign bookshop is to look at the covers of familiar books. Sometimes, I like a different cover so much that I’m tempted to buy a book I already own. That’s what happened with Jane Eyre!  Here are a few especially wonderful ones from this trip:

We also bumped into one of England’s most beloved children’s book characters – the Gruffalo!  The famous monster is literally hiding in the deep woods of Westonbirt, the National Arboretum.  On our way to the Arborteum, which is 90 miles outside of London, I heard someone say that there is a wooden sculpture of the Gruffalo so, naturally, finding him became my top priority. Surprisingly, there are no signs leading you to the Gruffalo. We wandered around, expecting the Gruffalo to pop out along the way, but we finally took the necessary step of asking someone in the Arboretum’s gift shop. The Gruffalo, along with a few other characters from the classic picture book, are indeed in the dark woods. All of the sudden, you are face to face with this:

As a side note, the Arboretum is not too far away from the most picturesque Starbucks I’ve ever seen!

Another of Britain’s beloved characters is easier to find.  Each time we walked into Paddington Railway Station, we saw this:

My favorite Paddington, however, is this one:

This Paddington lives in the window of the British Railway’s Lost Property Office. It made me so happy to see the obvious commitment of the Lost Property Office staff to caring for their plush friend. They have even provided him with marmalade!

These last few pictures aren’t book-related, but they are too interesting not to share.

The first one is a wig shop that we passed while taking a fascinating tour of the British Inns of Court. Our tour guide explained that Ede & Ravenscroft is one of the oldest tailors in London, and that they make and sell legal wigs and gowns. It was hard to get a good picture because of the glare, but I definitely felt like I was watching a BBC drama!

I loved these two pieces in Southwark Cathedral. The two images face one another so you walk “through them.”

And this was fun to see:

At night, after a long day of sightseeing and Paddington-spotting, I read. Maybe it was the time change or the days that made my head spin with so many new things to think about, but I read alot during the trip. It was not my standard reading diet which was part of the joy of reading – new things to think about and learn.

Montaigne by Stefan Zweig (I was drawn to this short biography by the combination of author and subject. It is impossible to read this book without thinking about today’s political climate. Zweig writes about Montaigne’s commitment to tolerance and the dangers of factions. Zweig integrates his own story, especially his fears caused by the heightened rhetoric around WWII, and of course, I heard echoes of today’s fear-based rhetoric).

Where We Lived by Henry Allen (a series of short essays about the meaning of home by Henry Allen, the former culture critic – and Pulitzer Prize winner – for The Washington Post)

Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma (Walking around London, you can’t help but notice the incredible diversity of the city, and with so much news about immigration policy in both the U.S. and Europe, I sought out something to read that would help me understand one of the most complicated issues of this era. Using the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, Buruma interviews many people involved with the issue and analyzes what happens when cultural values come into conflict.)

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham (This is the first book I’ve read by Maugham, and it won’t be my last. This 1941 novella includes a scene that makes me think Julian Fellowes must have read this before writing Downton Abbey!)

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg  (I started this biography before our trip and finished it when we returned. I began reading this book because I knew so little about the author of Anne of Green Gables. The extent of my knowledge was L.M. Montgomery lived on Prince Edward Island. Her life was actually quite troubled. Rosenberg is honest about Montgomery’s complex personal life, but captures her joys equally well.)

Finally, a doorway that we saw during a tour. It is beautiful.

Happy Travels and Happy Reading….

 

Book Shopping in London….

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London is a paradise for readers and lovers of bookstores. Walking through central London, we seemed to walk by (and into) a bookstore every few blocks. I know London is a much larger city than Boston, but books seem to have a more central place in London’s culture. For example, there are ads promoting books in Tube stations, this summer’s Great Western Railway’s advertising campaign is based on The Famous Five, a classic children’s book series by Enid Blyton, and the bookstores are focused on books. By comparison, my local Barnes and Noble feels more like a pop culture toy store than a bookstore.

We spent most of our time in four bookstores: Daunt Books, Foyles, Hatchards, and Waterstones.

My favorite sign was in Foyles:

Foyles has the widest range of titles of any of the stores we visited. This is the store directory which made me feel a little rattled:

Not knowing if I’d ever again be in a store with a dentistry section, I decided to start there. After looking at a few books about dental diseases, I quickly moved on!

Hatchards has a wonderful window featuring children’s favorites, including The Famous Five (look at the bottom shelf):

In Hatchards, this section title struck me as more necessary than ever.

Daunt is a beautiful store, the kind of store you want to spend the night in to have all to yourself. The picture below is a wonderful invitation to explore the world:

 

Of course, there were other stores.

We sought this one out, a store I had read about in the New York Times, and then a friend who lives in London recommended it as well. Word on the Water sells used books and, while we didn’t buy anything, it is a very unique setting.

Sitting outside on a bench outside the boat, I caught this sweet scene:

Octavia’s Bookshop is in a village in the Cotswolds. It was closed, but a sign near the door reads: 2013 Best Children’s Independent Bookshop in The Bookseller Industry Awards. I was tempted to “test” their alarm system, but my husband convinced me that we did not want to start an international incident.

After all of our bookstore visits, we came home with a heavier suitcase. Between the two of us, we gave 20 books a new home in Scituate. Here’s my stack, an eclectic mix of new and old. And yes, there is a short biography of King George VI. Being in London does that to a person – I was getting curious about the Queen’s father!

I already have a copy of Jane Eyre, but could not resist this beautiful cover:

Of course, I also read a lot during our trip – long plane rides and evenings while my husband watched the World Cup. I’ll write about those – and other book related adventures from our trip – in my next post!

 

 

 

Summer Reading Photo Edition

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Summer Reading season has officially begun, and my “to be read” pile is ready.

I’ve already finished my first novel of the summer reading sprint – There There by Tommy Orange.

Orange’s highly praised novel follows the lives of twelve “Urban Indians” living in Oakland, California. All of the characters are on their way to a powwow, and their lives intersect and ultimately collide at the event. It is a powerful and memorable novel. I’ve read many glowing reviews of Orange’s novel, but these lines from the Kirkus starred review capture it best:

“What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here. In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.”

Next up – perhaps because it has the most beautiful cover (by Julie Morstad) of every book on my list!

Today I am sharing photos – of an Instagram post, a letter, and a student…

Although I’ve never been on Facebook, I’ve become a fan of Instagram. What has been most surprising is how much I’ve come to rely on it in my professional life. Because publishers and authors use Instagram to promote new books, author events, and cover reveals, Instagram has become a way to follow what’s happening. Among the bookstores and other book-centered accounts, I also follow illustrators and artists. One of my favorites is a London-based illustrator, Steve Scott.  With his permission, I’m sharing my favorite of his posts:

At the end of the school year, I receive many sweet notes from students, all of which I treasure. This is one I received this year:

It’s awesome that she thinks the books are mine, and I’m letting her look at them, but I may need to clarify that the books are actually hers, and I am the lucky caretaker. It’s also nice that we are dressed alike in her picture!

Finally, a picture that sums up the joy of summer time reading.  I’m taking a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be on a book adventure so I’ll have lots to share with you in early July!  Until then, happy reading…

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….

Italy: Art, Beauty, Spaghetti, and Books….

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I just returned from a week in Italy during which I visited beautiful churches, enjoyed delicious food, spent a magical day in Siena, and went to lots of bookstores. I had low expectations for how much bookstores would figure into this trip, especially since (even after a week in Italy) I know only two words of Italian: grazie and prego. But my husband and I were pleasantly surprised, not only by the number of English language books available, but also by the sheer number of stores.

It was especially notable that the bookstores we visited sell books, not stuff. As we walked around several large stores in Florence and Rome, we could not help but think about our local Barnes and Noble which is increasingly a toy and gadget store rather than a book store. One reason for this may be that trains are the primary transportation mode between Italian cities – and trains are great places to read.  I took the pictures below in the Rome train station. In the top picture,  you can see how closely the books are packed onto the shelves – just aisles of books and nothing else.

It was especially fun to see books about Maria Montessori in the bookstores. Of course I could not read them, but recognizing her name on the covers reminded me how much I value being a part of the world-wide Montessori community.

Our favorite store – and the one we visited three times – was the Paperback Exchange, an English language bookstore that has been in Florence since 1979. Each time we walked by, we stopped in for a few minutes to hear English spoken, and look at the wonderful selection of books about Italy.

We also saw Pinocchio everywhere! The famous Florentine wooden puppet character created by Carlo Collodi is available in every possible form, from “Made in China” bottle openers to lovely handmade figures costing hundreds of dollars.

Of course, I wanted to bring home a Pinocchio souvenir, one that was made in Florence and seemed to capture the puppet’s spirit. I took the decision very seriously, but ultimately decided on this little guy made in a stationary and bookbinding shop that has been in the same family for over one hundred and fifty years.

The woman working in the shop told us about the 1966 Florence flood and how the store was busy with book restoration for many years after that.  It was truly one of the loveliest experiences of our trip. A cozy shop full of beautiful books and stationary – and Pinocchios!

We arrived home too late to participate in Saturday’s March for Our Lives, but like many people, I felt inspired by the young speakers and hopeful about the future.  Here’s the dedication from Bill Peet’s 1975 picture book, The Gnats of Knotty Pine. 

I came home to lots of new books so stay tuned…

Happy Reading!

The First Sign of Spring – New Books!

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Flowers may not be blooming yet, but spring in the book publishing world means early March. The first flowers have pages rather than petals!

Here are five standout new picture books –

Franny’s Father Is a Feminist by Rhonda Leet

A sweet story about Franny, a little girl whose father knows that “girls can do anything boys can do.”  The cheery cartoon-like illustrations by Megan Walker add to the spirit of this book about what it means to be a feminist. Franny enjoys taking her bicycle apart and putting it back together, going fishing with her dad, playing hockey, and going to ballet class.  Her father supports all of her interests – and teaches her about Sally Ride and Malala. A fun book for young feminists and their dads!

The Boy and the Whale by Mordecai Gerstein

Over the past year and a half, there has been a necessary and responsive emphasis on children’s books that foster empathy in young readers. The Boy and the Whale, Gerstein’s new picture book which was published late last year is a good one to add to your collection of books that convey courage and sacrifice. In a setting that looks to be someplace in Latin America, a boy and his father lose their only fishing net when a whale becomes tangled in it. Although his father is understandably concerned about the net, the boy is determined to save the whale.  At great risk, the boy uses his fishing knife to free the giant whale. The pictures add to the dramatic intensity – and, of course, there is a happy ending.

Florette by Anna Walker

There are moments when I’m opening a new picture book, that I’m brought back to the joy I felt as a child when a character leapt right into my heart. That’s the response I had to Florette. Mae, the little girl at the center of the story, misses her garden after her family moves to the city: “Mae missed playing with her friends, listening to the birds in the apple trees, and gathering things for her treasure jar.” Ultimately, she finds a plant shop called Florette and new friends to share her love for the natural world. Beginning with the beautiful endpapers, Florette is a magical book about learning to grow in a new place.

Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima

Jessie Sima, the author of Not Quite Narwhal, has written another picture book that begs to be read aloud. Harriet is not the kind of child who wears a costume only on October 31. She “wore costumes all the time.”  The opening pages show Harriet in a dentist chair wearing a dinosaur costume and at the laundromat dressed as a ghost. On the day of her birthday party, she and her two dads go to the grocery store where Harriet is literally carried away by a group of penguins buying ice. In her fantasy (or is it real!), she follows the penguins happily at first before realizing she wants to go back home for her birthday party.  The large format cartoon-like illustrations make this the perfect book for sharing with a group of young children.

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel

The only nonfiction book on my list (so far), Girl Running is the true story of Bobbi Gibb who, in 1966, became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. This was an unfamiliar story to me – and it’s an incredible one. When Gibb requested an official application for the Marathon, she received a letter stating: “…Women are not physiologically able to run twenty-six miles and furthermore the rules do not allow it.” Bobbi Gibb ran anyway and finished in three hours and twenty minutes. Micha Archer’s collage-style illustrations enhance and extend the story, especially with the clever mile markers at the bottom of the page. An inspiring story for young athletes. I’m going to save this book for a read aloud during the week leading up to the Boston Marathon.

The picture at the top of the post is of a beautiful glass object sitting on a window sill at Fallingwater, the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the mid-1930s. A house with spectacular views both inside and outside, and yet, the thing I loved the most was this glass. I’m off on another adventure – no blog post next weekend. But I’ll return with more pictures of beautiful things that I see along the way.

Happy Reading!