Things I’m Thinking About….


Like everyone I know, my head is spinning: hurricanes, Las Vegas, and Santa Rosa – along with all of the news from Washington.  Friends recommend taking a news break, and I know they’re right.  But I’ve been addicted to news and reading analysis of current events since college; it is the water I swim in.  Every day I dive in again with the heightened awareness that I am also responsible for putting words and ideas into the minds of our students.

With that in mind, I participated in a day-long conference at Moses Brown in Providence yesterday. The subject of the conference was how to help students discern truth in an age of polarization and “fake news.”  Moses Brown is a Quaker school, dedicated, in their words, to: “….advocating and standing up for a society that is fair and just.”  Their philosophy was the starting point for a day of thought and honest discussion.  Every teacher, when asked what brought them to the conference, expressed a commitment to helping kids discern truth, but as one participant said, “there is no longer an agreed upon truth.”  We each have our own, and we can select our own echo chambers to confirm our beliefs. We began to ask if, as a society, we can agree on ethics and morals. We looked at websites and tried to check our biases. We asked challenging questions for which there are no easy answers. I drove home with more questions than answers, but I appreciated sharing the day with teachers who challenged me with new questions to consider.

I’m also thinking about a new picture book called Shelter by Celine Claire.  I read it yesterday and again this morning. Shelter is a sweet and beautiful story about kindness and generosity. The story opens when a big storm is approaching, and all of the forest animals are safely in their homes when “two figures emerge from the fog” and ask for help. The animals don’t want to help the strangers, but there is a turn of events that makes things more interesting. Shelter is an absolutely essential book for parents and teachers who want to start a conversation about empathy and about what truly matters. I remember years ago hearing that some of Leo Lionni’s picture books have been used in philosophy classes. Shelter could be added to the syllabus.

I’m also thinking about yesterday’s StoryCorps segment on NPR’s Morning Edition. Every Friday, I look forward to hearing this short uplifting piece among the many other stories that aren’t as uplifting. This past Friday’s was a good reminder of the power of libraries. Here’s a link:

I’ve also spent a few days looking at the cover of this middle grade novel:

I absolutely judged The Secret of Nightingale Wood by its cover – and the wonderful reviews I read quickly during Inly’s recent book fair.  The art was done by Helen Crawford-White, a British illustrator and graphic designer.

“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.”
― Maggie Nelson, Bluets

It’s the blue of the book cover I’m drawn to, a color that is taking more space in my thoughts these days. I’m drawn to it everywhere, sometimes catching my breath at its beauty. The blue of Mary’s robes in Italian paintings, the blue of the sky, and in the blues I see in photographs or book covers.

Here are some of my favorite blues:

In Morocco, there is a city called Chefchaouen that is known for its blue walls.  I had never heard of it until I saw this photograph on Instagram:

Little Girl in Blue by Modigliani

The Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal

The roof of an outside room at Naumkeag, a historic house in Stockbridge

The blue of this Azurite stone I saw in a display at Amherst College

The blue in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book

The blue in this detail of a watercolor by John Singer Sargent

It’s a treasure hunt with no end, and I am continuously surprised by its very existence. I am a collector of blue.




Inspiring Children’s Books About Immigrants and Refugees…


With immigration and the status of refugees on the nation’s front burner, kids are going to have questions. There are many good children’s books that will encourage kids to wonder about what it’s like to move to a new country.  Here are five picture books that are gateways to deeper questions:

Welcome by Barroux (I love this sweet and engaging book about three polar bears looking for a new home.  They keep meeting animals who have “reasons” the bears can’t move to a new land.  Reasons like there’s “not enough room” or, like the giraffes, pretend not to hear the polar bears at all.  What is especially appealing about this book is that it can be read to young children as a story about welcoming new children to their classroom or after school activity.  The book’s message is just what the title says!)

I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien (This is a really sweet book, and like Welcome, it’s perfect for very young children) O’Brien’s tells the story of three immigrant children at a new school.  The kids are from Guatemala, Korea, and Somalia, and they are struggling to learn a new language, fit in with new classmates, and hold on to their traditions.  Parents and teachers sometime ask me to suggest books that teach empathy. This is the book.)

The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Inspired by the author’s visit to a refugee camp in Italy, Sanna describes her book as “a collage of all those personal stories and the incredible strength of the people within them.”)

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Ali Badr (This is a truly unforgettable book. Badr is a stone artist, and he uses stones and pebbles to illustrate a Syrian family’s experiences as refugees.  The story is told in dual language text: English and Arabic.  A masterpiece.)

Teacup by Rebecca Young (The story of a young boy looking for a new place to live.  He travels on a boat carrying “a book, a bottle, and a blanket. In his teacup he held some earth from where he used to play.”  The oil paintings of the boy alone on the sea are incredibly powerful.)

On the topic of immigration and mixing cultures….

Every year I can count on a number of parents who will stop by the Inly Library to talk about the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The books are thrilling and beautiful – and problematic.  As a childhood (and adult) fan of the Little House books, I understand the questions parents have about how to navigate a series that includes passages like: “White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?” Understand?  Not really. But reading the books to an older child, a child able to engage in conversation, presents an opportunity to talk about stereotypes, racism, and our country’s complicated history.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth, there was a good story about the series.  Here’s a link:

The sweet illustration at the top of the post is by Penelope Dullaghan.  She is the artist responsible for the beautiful cover of Lucky Broken Girl:

I follow Dullaghan on Instagram which is where I saw the banner picture – and a note reading “feel free to share.”

Finally…here’s a cute picture Mary took in the library this week:

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!

Book-Themed Days in Maine…


I spent a few days in Maine last week, and as wonderful as it was, I felt agitated. We spent the days outside enjoying beautiful ocean views, lobster rolls, and picturesque harbor towns, and then in the evening, we returned to our cottage, turned on the news, and were stunned by the images on TV.  Like many people, I felt off balance.  Were the words “very fine people, on both sides”  really being spoken by the person who is supposed to unite and heal our country?

When school opens, Inly’s students will be welcomed to the library with a display of new books that are beautiful and inspiring. Libraries are the perfect places to start conversations, share knowledge, and engage with an increasingly diverse world.  These are hard days, but I am grateful for the opportunity to put good words in children’s minds and hearts.

My days in Maine were full of inspiration. We spent an afternoon in Damariscotta, Barbara Cooney’s home until her death in 2000.

The author of Miss Rumphius lived in this house, just down the street from the main commercial area:

A quote from Miss Rumphius greets you at the entrance to the children’s garden at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. It reads: You must do something to make the world more beautiful.

The gardens are amazing – worth a trip to Boothbay.  And so many book connections!

Among other delightful features, the children’s garden has a story barn which includes books about Maine and the outdoors.

We also stopped at one of our favorite bookstores, Left Bank Books in Belfast.

One of the best parts of being in Maine was the nearness of Charlotte’s Web.  The book shows up almost everywhere – especially if you’re looking for it:

Happy Reading!


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!