Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Review: Arthur, For the Very First Time, by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrations by Lloyd Bloom

     "Come, come," yelled Uncle Wrisby. "We'll have something to eat. Then we'll talk about the world and its workings." He took hold of Arthur's hand. "What would you like to talk about?"
     Arthur stared at Uncle Wrisby. Here was someone who wanted to talk about things! With him!
     Arthur opened his journal. "Moles!" he cried happily. "Let's talk about moles!"
     His pencil poised, the summer began.

Ten-year-old Arthur's summer isn't starting out so well. His parents are arguing. And a new baby is coming. And nobody seems to be listening to him. But then one day, his parents take him to stay with Great-Uncle Wrisby and Great-Aunt Elda for the summer. When hard-of-hearing Uncle Wrisby grabs Arthur's hand and yells, "What would you like to talk about?" summer starts looking much more interesting. 

Arthur meets Pauline - a chicken who loves French, and Bernadette - a pig who loves to be sung to. Aunt Elda introduces him to a mockingbird with no name, and Uncle Wrisby takes him to bargain with a trader named Yoyo Pratt. He finds new friends in Moira - a scrappy little girl who calls him "Mouse," and her grandfather - a veterinarian whom everyone calls "Moreover." As he spends his summer days and nights with this motley group, Arthur begins to see life in new and unexpected ways.

For Teachers and Librarians:
Arthur, For the Very First Time is a quiet book with a host of off-the-wall characters that work together to bring close-to-the-vest Arthur out of his self-imposed shell. But don't let this story's quietness lull you into thinking it's not powerful. As Arthur meets each of these characters, he's faced with decisions and situations he's never seen before, forcing him to look at things from a point of view other than his own, and letting him discover there are whole other new and exciting sides of himself that he never knew existed. 

Arthur learns to be brave enough to try new things, and to trust in himself and his ability to do what must be done. Moira who trusts only herself, learns that she can trust other people, too. Uncle Wrisby tends to keep some parts of life at a distance, to save his heart from possible hurt, while Aunt Elda prefers to embrace life closely, even if it means her heart may be broken. Each character in this book has their own ways of looking at life, and their own flaws that they're forced to examine. And each of them comes away from their trials with a new understanding of themselves and others. Students of all stripes will find connections with this story, and so will you.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Arthur, For the Very First Time is one of those books that, after you've finished reading it, you just sit and hug it to your chest. It is a story about family, and friends, and love, and heartbreak, and trust, and strength, and finding yourself. It's a story about discovering who you really are, and pushing your boundaries, and being there for others even when you're not sure you're able to. It is a story that will make your kids laugh out loud sometimes, and sit quietly and think sometimes, and smile sometimes, and maybe even cry a little bit. Let them read it on their own, or better yet, find a comfy spot to sit and read it together. You'll be glad you did. And so will they.

For the Kids:
Arthur, For the Very First Time is about Arthur, whose summer isn't going too well: his parents are arguing, and there's a new baby on the way. (His parents think he doesn't know about the baby, but he does, and he is not pleased about it.) So life is a bit itchy at home. Then one day, his parents take him to spend the summer with his Great-Aunt Elda and Great-Uncle Wrisby, on their farm. And finally, summer gets a lot more interesting. 

He meets their chicken who loves being spoken to in French, and their pig who loves being sung to. He meets Moira, who insists on calling him "Mouse," and Moira's grandfather, who everyone calls "Moreover." It's a story about what it takes to be a good friend. It's a story about letting yourself try new things. It's a story about learning to trust yourself. And it's a story about letting yourself trust the people you care about the most. Sometimes it's very funny, and sometimes it's a little sad, and sometimes it will make you think a lot. And isn't that the best kind of story? 

For Everyone Else:
Arthur, For the Very First Time is at times funny, at times sad, and many times deeply touching. Perhaps you will see some of yourself in one of the characters. Or many of the characters. It is a story of love, and trust, friendship, and family, and pushing your own boundaries, and learning about yourself. Whether you're 7 or 70, this is a book you will never forget.

Wrapping Up:
Arthur, For the Very First Time is well worth your time. Perfect for curling up and reading on a rainy day. Or a sunny day. Or any day, really. What are you waiting for?

Title: Arthur, For the Very First Time
Author: Patricia MacLachlan
Illustrator: Lloyd Bloom
Pages: 117
Reading Level: Ages 9-12
Publisher and Date: First Harper Trophy Edition, 1989
Edition: Hardcover, library copy
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $5.99
ISBN-10: 0-06-024045-8
ISBN-13: 978-0060240479
ISBN: 0-06-024047-4 (lib. binding)


Author Spotlight: Patricia MacLachlan

Photo Credit: John MacLachlan 
Patricia MacLachlan's parents were teachers who encouraged her to read when she was a child. Her mother told her "read a book and find out who you are." And read, she did. A lot. She also had a vivid and active imagination. But, she did not write stories then. "I was afraid," she says, "of putting my own feelings and thoughts on a page for everyone to read."

It wasn't until she was 35 years old that she began writing - something she realized she'd always wanted to do. Yet even then, writing still felt scary for her.  She began with a picture book: The Sick Day (1979). Then she wrote her first novel: Arthur, For the Very First Time (1980). And she continued to write. Since then, she has written more than 20 novels and picture books for children, some of them co-written with her daughter Emily. She has also written a series of journal articles on adoption and foster mothers, teleplays of some of her books, and short fiction pieces in anthologies. She says of her work, 

"Each time I write a new piece, whether a novel, a picture book, a speech or anything really, it has so much to do with what I’m going through personally or a problem I’m trying to work out."

After graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1962, Mrs. MacLachlan taught English for 16 years. She has also been a social worker, a lecturer, and a creative writing workshop teacher for both children and adults. She was a board member of the Children's Aid Family Service Agency from 1970-1980, and currently serves on the board of the National Children's Book and Literary Alliance. She has been a visiting lecturer at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts since 1986.

Born March 3, 1938, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Patricia (Pritzkau) MacLachlan was raised in Minnesota. She is an only child. She married John MacLachlan in 1962, and they have three grown children. She now lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts with her husband, and two border terriers - Charlie and Emmett.

Patricia MacLachlan - Simon & Schuster
Authors and Illustrators - Patricia MacLachlan - HarperCollins Children's
Series Books: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan - Author Information,
Patricia MacLachlan (1938-) Biography - Personal, Address, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Q&A With Patricia MacLachlan, by Ingrid Roper, for Publisher's Weekly
About Patricia MacLachlan -

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon, by Sally M. Keehn

"There ain't nothing like grit. Grit gives you the wherewithall to keep on doing what you're doing, even though it's hard, and it seems impossible and you feel like giving up."

It's October 2, 1872. Magpie Gabbard has just turned thirteen years old. And she is bound and determined to leave her home atop Gabbard Mountain, find her brother Milo, and give him back the foot he sorely needs, so he can get to High Jerusalem.

Magpie's quest is not without its difficulties: Big Mama is bound and determined not to see another of her underage children go off-mountain, never to return. There's also those pernicious Sizemores down in Squabble Town to think about, and the dreaded Cob Hollow Goblins to avoid. And then there's the fact that Milo is living inside a hollowed-out sycamore somewhere in faraway Pergatory, Kentucky. Plus, Milo's got a deadline: he has to get to High Jerusalem by October 16th.

Help comes to Magpie from some most unusual sources: the moon, Granny Goforth and her prophesying kettle, a talking head floating in a well, and a boar called Wild Bill, to name just a few. But, is all this enough to help Magpie find Milo? And can she get to him in time?

For Teachers and Librarians:
Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon has a little bit of everything. In the genre department, it's part American tall tale, part fairy tale, with a wee bit of time travel thrown in. It is a great companion to a unit on the Appalachian regions of the United States, shining a bit of light on mannerisms, speech patterns, and a peek in general into the ways of 19th century Appalachian life. Or, use it as a springboard for a side study of the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud, or other famous family feuds. Break out a lesson on the interesting vocabulary words used in the book, both real (such as pernicious) and made-up (such as cussedness). Perhaps you'd like to delve into a mini unit on Eastern Kentucky, or Tennessee, or both. There's even a bit of an overseas connection in this story (the Gabbards originally came to the US from England), which leads nicely into having your students research their roots. How did their own families find their way to America? There are so many ways to branch out with this book. Which will you choose to share with your students?

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon is, when it comes right down to it, a story about the bonds of family. And the Gabbard family, like most, is not without its warts: misunderstandings amongst family members, a long-running feud with the Sizemore family down-mountain, and a love for each other that's so sometimes tends to smother. But Magpie and her family find a way to work through it all and come out stronger by the end. It's a story that will have you looking a bit askance at the disembodied talking head, chuckling at sibling pranks gone awry, and nodding in a wee bit of understanding at Big Mama's drastic yet done-out-of-fierce-love measures to secure safety for her children. It will have your kids enthralled with Magpie's attempts to ride a wild boar, and nodding in understanding at Magpie's conflicting feelings about her brother Randall, and impressed with her determination to do what's right for her family - even though she's fairly certain they'll balk. Don't be surprised if your kids start peppering you with family history questions and suddenly itch to check out the branches of the ol' family tree.

For the Kids:
Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon has magical birthday sparkles, a time-traveling wild boar, and a talking head that floats in a well. It has a prophesying kettle, a girl full of cussedness, and the moon herself - come to Earth. There's a family feud that goes back ages, wily Goblins ready to snatch the unwitting away, honey that'll whiten your teeth, and Green Water from a pond that'll cure whatever ails ya if ya drink it. It also has a sister who'll do whatever it takes to get her brother to where he needs to go - even when it involves those pernicious Sizemores - because she loves him that much. (Yes, really. And I bet you'd do the same, if push came to shove.) Don't believe me? Go find the book. Read it. You'll see.

Wrapping Up:
Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon is full of the most surprising things. Supernatural things, and down-to-earth things, and heartstring-tugging things. And ain't that a story worth reading?

Title: Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon
Author: Sally M. Keehn
Jacket Art: Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Pages: 208
Reading Level: Grades 5-8
Publisher and Date: Philomel Books, March 1, 2007
Edition: Library copy, 1st Edition, hardcover
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $16.99
ISBN-10: 0-399-2434-0-2
ISBN-13: 978-0-399-24340-0 

Author Spotlight: Sally M. Keehn

Photo Credit: Sally M. Keehn official site*
Sally M. Keehn grew up the only girl among three "loud and boisterous" brothers, one of whom is her twin. Due to her father's Naval officer status, by the time she was eleven years old, Mrs. Keehn had lived in England, California, Rhode Island, Virginia and Maryland. When her father retired from the service, the family moved to her grandfather's farm near Annapolis, MD.

She earned her B.A. in English from Hood College in 1969, then went to work for the American Red Cross in their S.R.A.O. program (Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas) in South Korea, working with the American troops stationed there, as well as doing volunteer work in the Korean community.

Following this, Mrs. Keehn made the decision to become a Young Adult Librarian, and prepared by attending Drexel School Of Library Science from 1971-72. It was during this time that she met David Keehn, whom she married in 1972. She then served as Young Adult Librarian (1972-75) and part-time reference librarian (1975-79) in Severna Park, Maryland. 

In 1979, her husband's work as an attorney brought them to Pennsylvania, where she found work as a part-time and volunteer reference librarian at Parkland Community Library (1980-91). She also was a part-time tour guide for the Lehigh County Historical Society (1985-86).

Mrs. Keehn began her freelance writing career in 1981. By 1982, her first book, Hexcursions: Daytripping in and Around Pennsylvania's Dutch Country (co-written with her husband) was published. It was while researching for Hexcursions that she came across part of a story that inspired her first book for young people: I Am Regina (1991). From there, she has gone on to publish five other titles for young readers, the most recent being Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon (2007). Mrs. Keehn says that her novels are often "...inspired by a historical event or story. However, as the main character develops, the story changes and the plot evolves."

Born on August 11, 1947, in London, England (where her father was stationed at the time), Sally M. Keehn now lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters.

More About Sally - author official site*
More About Sally: The Work - author official site*
Follow-Up Interview with Author Sally Keehn, by Debbi Michiko Florence
Keehn, Sally M. (Miller) - bio prepared by Erin Russell, Fall 2005
Sally M. Keehn -
Sally M. Keehn -
About Sally M. Keehn - 

*As of September 1, 2012, Ms Keehn's website appears to be offline or is otherwise unavailable, so these starred links no longer work. If this changes, I'll update here again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't Put Away That Sandshovel!

Summer may be winding down, but that doesn't mean you have to abandon playing in the sand. There are still quite a few sand sculpture festivals and competitions yet to be held, both family-friendly and professional:

Sandcastle and Sculpture Day - Held annually on the third Saturday in August, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. The 2011 competition is this Saturday, August 20th, so if you're hoping to enter, you'd better hop to. The application deadline is Friday, August 19th. 

Itching to get building, but not sure how to prepare? No worries. I dug around and found some basic sand sculpture building tips to get you started, courtesy of and These tips are helpful for sand sculptors ranging from tall to small, and everywhere in between:

First, gather your supplies. 
You don't have to go out and get any special gear. Just poke around in your kitchen, garage, anywhere there's miscellaneous stuff, and see what you've got that you could use. First and foremost, you'll need big water buckets - some of those giant 5 gallon plastic paint buckets work well, if you have a few empties hanging 'round the garage. And you'll need shovels - long handled ones with short scoops are ideal - and the more, the better. After that, use your imagination: pastry knife, old paintbrushes, spoons, butter knives, toothpicks, water spray bottles, rakes, ice cream scoopers, drinking straws, funnels...really, anything that looks like it might be even a little bit useful. You should also have a drawing or photo of what you'll be building, so you have a reference to work from.

Next, find your spot.
Pick a spot on the beach. Scoop up a golfball-sized wad of wet sand into your hand and form it in a ball. If that sand ball can roll around on your flat palm without breaking apart, you've found your building spot. You also want to pick a spot close to the water - 'cause you'll need lots of water - but not so close that your masterpiece will get washed away by the next big wave. Check for the high water mark, and use that as a guide for where you want to park your project.

Then, prepare your sand.
You'll need very wet sand. Very wet sand. Did I mention VERY WET sand? Dig a hole close to the water, but not too close (see above suggestion), scooping out that VERY WET sand from the hole and piling it onto the flattened out spot where you've decided to build. If digging a big hole doesn't get you down to the water table for that drippy wet sand, or if you can't get enough sand that way, haul water up from the ocean/lake/body of water with your buckets and dump it on the sand. 

As you pile up the VERY WET sand, form it into a rough approximation of the shape of the thing you're sculpting. (It could be a castle, sure. But, it could also be a mermaid, or a giant spider, or a dragon, or even a life-size sculpture of Chuck Norris. Be creative!) Anyway, pile that sand up, gently jiggling each plop you add to the pile, so that it settles into the sand beneath and it all bonds together - do not pat, punch, stomp the sand. Gently jiggle. Jiggle. Jiggle. Keep plopping and jiggling until your pile looks big enough for what you're planning to carve it into.

Finally, get sculpting.
Carve out the details, and turn that sculpture idea into reality. Here's where you get to use all those odds-and-ends you gathered back in the first step. And don't forget those most wondrous of sculpting tools that you always have on you - your own hands and fingers. 

Keep referring back to your drawing/photo/reference to keep yourself on track as you sculpt the sand. Always start at the top and work your way down, and keep the sand wet (remember that water spray bottle?). And remember: patience. Carve out a little at a time, not in big chunks, and you'll have more control, making your sculpture look just the way you imagined it would. And if something goes wrong, just adapt and go with it. You may find that what you thought was a big mistake takes your work of art into a totally unexpected, yet fantastic direction. And don't forget to take a picture when you're done. Your sandy sculpture won't last forever, but at least your memory of it can.

* * *
Now, go have fun!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Of Parts and Purpose

"You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too."

       - Hugo Cabret (character)
         The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
          p. 378