Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Missing you - Story Cabaret

I read two very different books in the last two days with the same theme - that of missing people.  The first book, The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, is a poetic treatment of grief, confusion and first love.  Lennie's older sister died suddenly just weeks before the book starts and Lennie is cut adrift.  All of us second children know how hypnotic and stellar our oldest siblings are to us, and how we cannot envision the world without them.  The Walker girls were inseparable and now, Lennie finds herself all alone.   Lennie's libido awakens as she grapples with grief, and in the way that people grasp at anything to give them a break from pain and fear and sorrow, Lennie finds herself drawn to the only other person who seems to understand her suffering, her sister's boyfriend/fiance.  Enter the New Boy and everything shifts.

This book was like a kaleidoscope with recognizable patterns recombining in first predictable and then very unexpected ways.  Lennie's notes to her sister, scraps of poetry, begin each chapter and they come around at the end to save her.   Great romance, great story, great book.

 I just finished the second book and although no one is known to have died in the book it moved me to tears. In The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone, Felicity Bathburn Baghead is deposited on the porch of her American family in the summer of 1941.  Her beautiful mother and father, her Winnie and her Danny, drive away and disappear from her life - back to Europe.  She does not want to be in this big rambling house of secrets on the coast of Maine.  Her Uncle Gideon is angry with her Danny and Felicity decides to angry with him.  And no one will answer her questions.

Back then, adults kept a LOT of secrets from children.  The Bathburn house absolutely rings  with secrets, most rather benign, one or two universe-shaking.  One secret is the boy behind the closed door, a polio victim and soon, Felicity's best friend.  Derek's story is not fully explained in this book and I think Stone might want to do him justice later on.  The story is told through 11-year-old Felicity's eyes and with her very British sensibilities and turns of phrase.

And through it all, she misses her Winnie and her Danny and we gradually get a picture of her life with them in the London of the Blitz.  The strange letters filled with numbers that Uncle Gideon spirits away become an obsession to the two children and their friendship is cemented in their efforts to solve the mystery of what they all mean.  They do solve it but it is not the most important secret in this book.

Stone does a wonderful job of picturing those months before America joined the war and the waiting, the secrets, the longing for people far away.  The Bathburn house is full of good people with broken or frightened hearts.  Flissy, as they call her, ends up being a balm to their sorrows, even as she tries to bear up under her own confusion.  I LOVE this book.  Just thinking about it brings a lump to my throat.  How brave they all were back then! 

Of course, what I SHOULD have been doing all this time is preparing for the Story Cabaret on Friday evening.  I am telling TRUE "Stories of the 'Hood"!  My life is not so tragic as Lennie's or so worrisome as Flissy's but I do have some fun stories to tell.  Just which ones?  And how should I piece them together?   Stop by the Touchstone Theater on 4th in Bethlehem on Friday, April 29th (8 pm), to find out!  $10 gets you an evening of stories AND a glass of wine.  Tom Egan will tell his superb stories of growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, and if my stories don't excite you, let me tell you, you will be blown away by Tom's tales.  I hope he tells the one about riding on boxcars!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Earth Day

is every day.  So my list of my Top Ten Kids' Books for Earth Day is NOT late!  And here they are.

10.  Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.  The new kid in town meets the fastest kid in town and together they plot to save the nesting grounds of an endangered owl from crooked property developers.  Eco message heavy and full of high jinks this is a quick, enlightening read.

9. Inch by Inch : the Garden Song by David Mallett.  This picture book version of the '60s era folksong celebrates working in the dirt and the natural cycle of life.  Cooool, man, groovy!

8. The New 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth by Sophie Javna.  Reworking the advice from the original version of this book (c1988?), the author gives easy-to-accomplish tips for developing an eco-friendly lifestyle.  So easy a kid could - and should - do it.

7.  Planet Earth Projects by Oksana Kemarskaya.  This activity book is on this list because it is BRAND NEW and full of fun science projects using recycled items AND it is printed on 60% post-consumer paper, too.

6. Wangari's Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter.  Here's a picture book biography of Wangari Maathai, the activist founder of the Greenbelt Movement, an NGO dedicated to planting trees, women's rights and environmental conservation.   Her solution to many of Kenya's problems was to plant more trees!  Good advice wherever trees are native plants!

5. Easy to Be Green : Simple Activities You Can Do to Save the Earth by Ellie O'Ryan.  This book gets a bunch of stars for explaining carbon footprints to kids and advising them on how to reduce their own carbon footprint - and the book offers other suggestions, too.

4. A World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky.  Scary, well-thought out and full of good advice, this book explains what is happening in the oceans due to commercial fisheries and pollution.

3.  Get Real : What Kind of World Are You Buying? by Mara Rockliff.  Rockliff explains where the things we all want to own come from.  She covers shopping choices from shoes and clothes to food and electronics.  She discusses where the materials come from, what farming, manufacturing and disposal processes do to the environment and to local economies.  The book is accessible to teens and pre-teens which makes it PERFECT for busy adults, too.

2.  The EARTH Book by Todd Parr.  A picture book for the youngest environmentalist!!  Parr's eye-popping colors and simple shapes underscore the simple things we can teach all of our children to do to conserve water, clean up our neighborhoods and make a more lovely world.

1. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.  This book and Earth Day are both 40 years old this year.  And Seuss' fable of commercial greed and careless misuse of natural resources is an anthem for a new generation.  Take care of the world around you UNLESS....  After oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, and here in PA, and with the radiation seepage in Japan, this book's message is still fresh and new.  Where is the Lorax to speak for the trees, now?

Friday, April 22, 2011

New from Emily Jenkins

Emily Jenkins has a new book!  Invisible Inkling is the story of a pandapat, an invisible creature from the Peruvian Woods of Mystery - or possibly the Ukraine(?).  Inkling has one goal in mind - squash, his favorite food.  When Inkling finds his way into Hank's laundry basket in Brooklyn - how did he get THERE??? - Hank's bully problems become Inkling's as well.

I HAVE to get my hands on this book.  I am a big fan of Emily in all her various incarnations!  Under the name E. Lockhart, she writes funny, thoughtful books for teens - The Boyfriend List, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - and her books for younger readers are just as good.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A World Withour Fish

Mark Kurlansky's book, A World Without Fish is a warning of the devastation of our oceans perpetrated by commercial fishing and pollution.  Punctuated with comic strips about the naturalist Kram and his daughter, Ailat, this book first outlines the problem of quickly disappearing fish species, then Kurlansky describes how these fish became scarce.  Finally, Kurlansky gives some advice on slowing down the devastation of the seas.

Frank Stockton's comic strips and full color illustrations make this a graphically inviting book.  Changes in the font and size of print emphasize important points.  Kurlansky also includes archival photos within the text.  A Resources list at the end gives young activists all the information they need to start a movement to reclaim the oceans.

A scary book, this, and discouraging at times!  Kurlansky does his best to be fair to the various groups involved in the plundering of the seas.  He champions fishermen, who warned of disappearing species long before scientists did.  The one thing I wish he had added was a bibliography but his resource list gives some links to further research.

I am going to have trouble eating fish, now that I know what happens to the seas to get those fish to my table.  Kurlansky gives a list of fish to avoid (Never eat sharks!  he tells us.)  So, perhaps, if I am very careful, I can enjoy fish and not further the destruction of our oceans. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Visconti House

In The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar, two young teenagers solve a mystery and learn to feel more comfortable with who they are. Laura Horton feels awkward and out of place at school.  Her parents both work from home; her father is a writer; her mother, an artist and sculptor and the Hortons live in an old rambling, crumbling mansion up on a hill.  Two things make her life bearable; her quest to find out about her house's original owner, Carlo Visconti, and an acquaintance/friendship with another "outcast" at school, Leon Murphy.

Leon and Laura try to solve the secrets behind this beautiful old home with it's huge ballroom, a lovely room painted with garden murals and the tangled plantings in the garden.  They learn of a possible unhappy romance.  They unearth a hidden cellar and in the process, they become fast friends and learn to be less worried about what their classmates might say to or about them.

I had trouble getting into this mystery because I had a hard time determining just how old the main characters were.  Laura seems younger than her probable 13/14 years.   And she seems to give up unless answers are handed to her.  As I read further, I remembered my own shyness at that age and my own inability to talk to my classmates if they weren't people I was completely comfortable with.   And I saw how important Laura's friendship with Leon was to uncovering the story of Carlo Visconti and the home he built for a woman who never lived in it.

The story behind the house and the man who built is really a framework for Edgar to write about the process of giving other people a chance instead of hiding behind uncertainty and shyness.  Laura and Leon are transformed by their search and what they find.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Kutztown Children's Literature Conference

Time to rave about children's literature, the people who produce it and the people who love it-(that would be ME!)

Beth Krommes, Pat Mora, Linda Sue Park and Jerry Pinkney all presented to an enthusiastic crowd of teachers, librarians and kids book afficianados  at Kutztown University yesterday for their thirteenth annual Children's Literature Conference.

Here are some highlights:  Beth passed around her Caldecott medal so all of us could hold it, turn it over and see the reverse side.  We all see Caldecott's famous illustration of a man riding a horse on the gold seals on picture book covers.  I never knew another Caldecott illustration decorated the reverse.  I was thrilled to hold it.

Sitting next to Pat Mora at lunch.  She's delightful!  Her presentation was wonderful as well and she reminded us how very important it is to welcome diversity in our classrooms and libraries.

Linda Sue Park's Top Ten Things that Happen When you Win the Newbery Award was hilarious.  Bring this woman into your schools whenever you can.  She is a lively speaker and will keep your audience captivated.

The rain pounding on the roof as Jerry Pinkney showed his slides for Noah's Ark.  He couldn't have planned that to happen.  What a nice, nice man, Jerry Pinkney is! and what a huge talent.  Meeting him was a thrill.

I also enjoyed presenting book reviews to a nice crowd of teachers and librarians.  (I've posted the booklist on my Scribd account and someday I will learn how to link to that.)

Many, many thanks to the committee that made the conference possible especially Dr. Sycherz and, of course, Dr. Robert Dorney, the guiding light for the conference. 

So what did I do when I came home?  I picked up an ARC of Shimmer by Alyson Noel.  It was a good quick read.  I'm not going to say it was "fun", because it dealt with souls trapped on earth by their own anger and pain.  There's not much fun about that.  I liked the character of the ghost, Riley Bloom.  I liked her feistiness and her stubborn streak.  I also appreciated that she was willing to learn once she calmed down to listen.  There's an historical link in this story of slaves and slave owners and their ghosts on the island of St. John Virgin Island.  Noel keeps the story moving and leaves a great opening for the next installment in this series. 

So, now, I feel like I am truly retired but my brain is spinning with ideas of what I want to do next.  Podcasts?  Write and publish my own books?  Story programs for the Summer Reading Program theme?  There is just NOT enough time to fit everything in.  The world is full of possibilities!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Poem in Your Pocket

Thursday is Poem in your Pocket Day!  Carry a favorite poem all day and share it with your friends.  How many poems can you recite from memory?

This may let you know how old I am - not that I keep it a secret - but when I was in grade school, our classes had something called "Poem Study" almost every week.  We learned old standards, like Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" - (I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree..) and didactic poems designed to teach us values.  I particularly enjoyed the poems of James Whitcomb Riley.

I cannot remember any of these poems in entirety, just snippets here and there.  And, my meory, alas, is not sharp enough to start memorizing today.  Still I have a score of favorite poems and will have to pick one to carry around on Thursday.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Here's a short poem for the month of April:


I should not plant the peas
inside this colored pack;
for if I do, it's true,
soon as I turn my back
every beast and bird
within a city block
will pluck each small green leaf
right off each skinny stalk.
I should not plant these peas.
It's just a waste, but still,
I WANT to plant these peas.

I will!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fun kid's book sites

Catalogs from publishers??? Old hat!  Now the thing is book trailers and interactive pages online so that kids get to love a brand and want to buy it when they see it in a store.

Take a look at TOON books cartoon maker.  It's a simple enough graphics program, allowing children to pull elements from a popular series into a frame and add background and words to create their own cartoon.  Try it out.

Chronicle Books has added a book trailer to the page advertising their new big trucks book, Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site! Just scroll down to watch the video.

Simon and Schuster has created a page for the Cheers! series about a girl who is horrified to find out that she is relegated to the B cheerleading team.  Her life. (as she says) Is seriously. O-V-E-R.  The page has a playlist, an excerpt of the book, a trailer and party plans. Why not?

In the meantime, while book publishers scramble to find new ways to sell books, lawmakers are pushing ways to make it a lot harder for those books to make it into classrooms, public libraries and the homes of underprivileged children.   Exactly how we can insure that all American children get the food and resources they need to succeed is a huge worry.  So, I challenge my readers to write one letter - email or snail - to one lawmaker each day in the month of April, urging them to keep federal funds for education and health and wellness to poverty stricken children and districts IN the budget.

Thanks!  I'll let you know who I send MY letter to today.

Monday, April 4, 2011

April is Poetry Month

I have a lot on my mind this morning.  The state of poetry, the state of education, the state of the state do I put all these weighty concerns in one blog post?

Perhaps I should write a poem about my worries:

Feed me, the child said
But not just with bread.
I need words and birds
and love instead
Of texts and tests
that prove I'm best!
Feed me dreams!
Feed me streams
singing over shining stones;
Rockets winging through
Hands brushing sand from ancient bones.
Stories and history, maps and mysteries,
Numbers that dance in elegant patterns.
Sit with me.

Feed me, the child said.
Share with me bread and time
And I will grow strong and climb and climb.
Feed me.

PS.  Ring of Solomon won the Big Kahuna Round of SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books.  Do I know how to call them, or what?

Sunday, April 3, 2011


So, it has come down to this.  SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books will end tomorrow. Kathi Appelt's Keeper and Jonathan Stroud's The Ring of Solomon meet in the final head-to-head match-up.  But wait!  What's this?  A THIRD contender?  Yes, Back from the Dead, A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner has risen to challenge the two finalists.

And what sage of the writing world has the enviable task of choosing among these three???  It is Richard Peck, Newbery winner and all round great storyteller.  Whew!  Better him than me, is what I'm thinking right now.

Ok, here's my take on these three books.  I didn't read the Ring of Solomon so it is a little crazy that I am cheering for that book.   That's how powerful the character of Bartimaeus, the djinni, is.  Stroud's humorous writing, the excessive but effective use of tongue-in-cheek footnotes and Bartimaeus' oddly honorable amorality, MUST all add up to a compelling read. My former partner-in-storytime, SC, has told me - and I trust her - that this book is better than all three of Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy books.  So that is the book I WANT to win.  That is the book I think will win.

Here's why.  A Conspiracy of Kings is a marvelous adventure, well-plotted with characters the reader cares about.  The world Turner creates is credible and detailed.

Keeper is a dreamy book with lush descriptions, not only of the seaside setting but also of the workings of the young girl's thoughts and hopes.

But neither of those books have as strong and as original a character as Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus is the quintessential lovable rogue - funny, powerful and unexpected.  With all of his thousands of years of experience how could a handful of monarchs and a girl and her dog expect to compete?  I'm just saying!  Bartimaeus will rise victorious tomorrow - (I hope.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Stop me if you've heard this one!  An alley cat, a bluejay and a tree frog walk into a bar...  Nope, it's not a joke and although the three do walk into an inn, they don't actually walk into a bar.   These three are the main characters of a new book, and quite probably a new series, titled The Familiars, written by screenwriting partners, Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson.

Aldwyn is a black and white alley cat who hides from a bounty hunter in a pet shop that sells magical animals to wizards.  Before he has a chance to get out of the cage he has hidden in, Aldwyn is chosen by a boy named Jack.  Ahhhh, another boy and pet story - so cute.  Not so fast.

Soon after Aldwyn makes his home with Jack, two other young students and the old wizard Kalstaff, the humans are captured by evil forces.  The three familiars; Aldwyn, who has no magical powers to speak of, Skylar, who is a know-it-all bluejay and Gilbert, a tree frog,whose brain is always on food; are forced to go on a quest to find and save their humans.

There are a lot of formulaic elements here.  The three friends fall into the three most often used categories for buddy stories - one bright, one scrappy, one distracted by the here and now.  Aldwyn's lack of special qualities and his need to lie about it are a major part of the plot.  And that's a plot device that is used often in middle grade fiction - accepting oneself and finding value in oneself.

However, the writing flows so easily and the jokes are clever without being mean.  Aldwyn proves his mettle over and over again, even if he can't see the future or cast illusions.  Just who the evil master-mind behind the plot to kill the young human wizards turns out to be makes a very nice twist.

The ending leaves the door open for more adventures for these three heroes.  Readers of Erin Hunter's novels just might enjoy this mix of fantasy and animal adventure.  The book is slated to become a 3-D animated film, according to the jacket flap.  This one is fun to read and will be a popular movie.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Stories, stories and more stories

Tonight I told "funny" stories for the children and parents at Northampton Community College's Children's Center.  This was my fifth year in a row telling stories there.  The group was small and happy and they all thought my jokes were very funny.  YAY!  I love kids.

There was one particularly energetic little boy who told the "Interrupting Cow" Knock Knock joke so well, I was breathless with laughter and so was everyone else.  He was probably three.  A comic genius is what I am thinking.  We had rafts of "homemade" jokes and riddles, so convoluted and simply silly that I can't remember them but here is an approximation;  "Why did the Princess cross the road and her mother said 'no' and Jack's mother yelled?"  "I don't know."  "Because she wanted Cinderella." 

This had come right after a "real" joke that mentioned Cinderella, one of my stories was about Jack and his mother and everyone knows that mothers don't let their children cross the road.  Perfect sense and the teller thought it was hilarious.  I did, too.

Telling stories is so much fun.  I think I will tell stories forever and ever.