Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Read-a-Palooza Recap

We here at Chez Wheedleton embarked on a most wonderful Read-a-Palooza Weekend, and I have some great pics to share and tales to tell:

So, our book-loving household set off way too early on a non-school day, bleary-eyed but excited, as we drove down Saturday morning for the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. Our first stop was the Children's Tent, where we managed to snare front row seats to hear and see something special: the first installment of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, which can only be found exclusively on the Read.gov website, with new installments posted every two weeks.

Wait a minute: Corpse? For kids? Yep! From Read.gov:
Ever heard of an Exquisite Corpse? It's not what you might think. An Exquisite Corpse is an old game in which people write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold it over to conceal part of it and pass it on to the next player to do the same. The game ends when someone finishes the story, which is then read aloud.
Intrigued? Click here to read the very first installment. (But don't forget to come back here - I'm not done yet!)

The event was MC'd by Mary Brigid Barrett (Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out), though I didn't get a good picture of her. But here is the panel that was with her (left to right): Jon Scieszka (Stinky Cheese Man), Megan McDonald (Judy Moody series, Stink series), Steven Kellogg (The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash, The Mysterious Tadpole), Nikki Grimes (Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope), Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux, The Tiger Rising), and Shannon Hale (Princess Academy):

Megan McDonald tells part of the tale, as Steven Kellogg illustrates (live onstage!):

From there, I stood in line with Lovely Girl and Handsome Boy for over an hour so Kate DiCamillo could sign their copies of The Tale of Despereaux. (She stayed later than scheduled, to try to get to as many kids as she could.) They were so excited to meet her:

Then my husband C got in another line with the kiddos to wait for Jeff Kinney (Wimpy Kid series) to sign their books, while I wandered the grounds on my own a bit.

Look who I found: Lois Lowry! Speaking! As you can see, I was way way in the back (and this photo is cropped, even), but I could at least hear her, and it was wonderful:

When Ms Lowry finished her talk, I wandered back to the kiddos and C, and still got there in time to see them meet Jeff Kinney. He even took the time to read some of Handsome Boy's writings in Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book, before he signed it:

I was hoping to catch Lois Lowry's signing line (and brought my copy of The Giver - one of my favorite Lois Lowry books), but by then the kiddos were pretty well festivaled-out, and it had started to rain (books + rain = oh, crud!), so we called it a day. Besides, we knew she would be in Baltimore on Sunday.

So, Sunday came (yay!) but we got to the Baltimore Book Fest too late and missed seeing Lois Lowry by one teeny hour (boo!) but her website says I can still send my book to her to get it signed (yay!).

And, we did get there in time to hear Liz Kessler speak (yay!) and she signed two of Lovely Girl's Emily Windsnap books (yay!) and she is a very delightful woman:

After that, we walked around, and ate some ice cream, and Handsome Boy met Lyle Crocodile, and Lovely Girl sculpted a wolf out of clay...

...and oh! It was a wonderfully fabulous book-festive weekend.

Friday, September 25, 2009

It's a Read-a-Palooza Weekend!

My usual Friday Book Review will not be posted today, because I have stumbled upon a veritable Cornucopia of Book Stuff. A Literary Treasure Trove. A Book Lover's Dream Come True. It's too great not to share, and it's all crammed into this very weekend. Not only does it kick off Banned Books Week and its many accompanying celebrations, but there are a couple of awesome - and free! - book fests that I found.

And now, the book stuff:

Banned Books Week begins this year on Saturday, Sept. 26th. All week long, libraries and bookstores and other book-minded places are drawing attention to this issue in their own ways.
  • Banned Books Week Read-Out* - Held in historic Bughouse Square in Chicago, Illinois, on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009. Authors of six of the ten most challenged books of 2008 will be there to read their books, and "share their experiences as targets of censors." And of course, there will be booksignings afterward.
  • Ninth Street Book Shop - Located in Wilmington, Delaware, this bookstore will once again have a banned books display in their front window. Why? Here's what they have to say:
    "Starting in September and running through October, our store will feature a large front window display of recently banned books, which we've presented annually since Banned Books Week was instituted. Always a very popular and provocative exhibit, it draws many into our store to question "Why is my favorite book of all time being banned?" which is precisely the point of our display."
  • Page after page* - This Lewisburg, Pennsylvania bookshop will also have their own Banned Books Week display.
  • La Grange Association Library* - You can find this library in Poughkeepsie, New York, where they'll have a banned books display, and will hold a Banned Books Challenge: asking participants to match book descriptions with their titles and authors.
  • McNally Jackson Books - Located in New York, New York, this bookstore plans to have a Banned Books Week display, too.
Except for the Banned Books Week Read-Out, the above events are Near My Neck of the Woods. To find out what folks are doing elsewhere, click here. If you find that there aren't any events near you, Banned Books Week has you covered with a list of all kinds of ways to participate in the festivities, whether you're a librarian, a teacher, a bookseller, a parent, a kid, or a Book Lover In General.

And finally - book festivals! Both of these a quick and convenient road trip apart from each other. But there are a ton of other book festivals out there, in all kinds of places, on various dates. A quick Google search for "book festivals" will point you in the right direction.

14th Annual Baltimore Book Fest - Going on all weekend: today (12 pm - 8 PM), Saturday, Sept. 26, (12 PM - 8 PM) and Sunday, Sept. 27 (12 PM - 7 PM). You'll find it at Mount Vernon Place, 600 block of North Charles Street, in Baltimore, Maryland. Food, music, presentations, author readings and booksignings, events, Literary Walking Tours, hands-on activities for kids, and more to keep the whole family busy, fed, and full of fun!

2009 National Book Festival - You'll find it on the National Mall, in Washington DC. Saturday, September 26, from 10 AM until 5:30 PM. Free and open to the public. Pavillions all up and down the Mall, full of more than 70 authors and illustrators - reading their books, presenting, and doing booksignings. Check out the official website for a list of authors, as well as signing and reading schedules. Can't get there? No worries - the official site also will point you to podcasts, and you can follow updates through Twitter (@librarycongress) and Facebook (become a fan of Library of Congress).

So, my weekend plans are all set. How about yours?

Edited Sept. 23, 2013:
*Banned Books Week Read-Out original link no longer works. However, you can visit the Banned Books Week site's Banned Books Virtual Read-Out instead, which seems to be a similar concept, only virtual.

*Page After Page no longer appears to be in business.

*Here is a link to the LaGrange Association Library's calendar page. For 2013, they are holding children's activities all week for Banned Books Week.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Celebrating the Freedom to Read

I have to admit - I swiped my title from the theme for a very important celebration going on all next week, all across America: Banned Books Week. This year's celebration takes place from September 26 through October 3, 2009, and is the United States' only national celebration of the freedom to read.

Banned Books Week is an event held annually the last week in September, and was first launched in 1982 as a response to a sudden increase in the number of books being challenged in libraries, bookstores, and schools. In fact, more than 1000 books have been challenged since 1982 - in every state. And just in 2008, the American Library Association says, there were about 513 book challenges, though they believe that number to be much higher in reality - since between 70-80% of challenges are never reported.

So, why is a book challenged, banned, or restricted? The reasons vary: too sexual, too violent, use of profanity and slang, or a protest against an offensive portrayal of groups - both racial and religious...more or less, because somehow, in some fashion, the contents of the book will be harmful to the reader. The problem is, when a book is banned, the Reader isn't free to determine that for herself. Because someone else has taken that freedom - that choice - away from her.

Most challenges made are against children's and young adult books, and of course parents and others have a responsibility - as well as a great and burning desire (and rightly so) - to protect and care for their children. And yes, that responsibility and desire does extend to guiding their children's reading choices toward what they are developmentally ready to read. Yet when one person, or a group of people, decide that a book's content is inappropriate - at any developmental level - not only for their own child, but also for everyone else's child, that crosses a line.

Here's something else to consider when looking at what we each decide is appropriate reading material for our own children: Do we decide for our kids what they are allowed to read, for fear of what they will be exposed to? Or, do we raise our children in the best way we know how, and be involved in their lives (but not too involved), and teach them to think for themselves, so that when they choose their own books, we can encourage them to ask questions if they don't understand what they've read, and then have open and meaningful discussions with them about what they encounter in those books, and about how all of that makes them feel, and about how all of that relates to them in their own lives?

It's all about making an informed decision. And if we as adults have done our job well, then our kids will be able to do just that.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Party Time for People With a Penchant for Proper Punctuation

Move over, Grammar Gurus, 'cause tomorrow...is not your day. Tomorrow is reserved for those folks fascinated and maybe even a wee bit obsessive about all things curvy, slashy, or otherwise dotty.

That's right - September 24th, 2009 is the sixth annual National Punctuation Day! According to the official NPD website, this most auspicious day is:
"A celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotes, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis."

NPD has all the trappings of a first-rate holiday right there on their website for your perusal, but let's start with my personal favorite - food. NPD has its very own Official Meatloaf of National Punctuation Day. (Seriously. You can check out a picture of one, and even nab a PDF of the recipe.) But if you're not much of a follower, you can flex your creative oven mitts by entering the National Punctuation Day Baking Contest. Oh, yes. And, there's still time to enter! But the deadline - September 30, 2009 - is fast approaching, so check out the official rules for all the important deets.

Let's move on to the next celebratory staple, shall we? Christmas has Santa, Easter has the Bunny, and those momentous days of tiny lost teeth have the Tooth Fairy. Not to be outdone, NPD has its very own (dah-dah-dah-daaaaahhhh!) superhero! Who is this epitome of proper punctuation? Well, just think: there you are, writing away, when you have to write one little three letter word. Just one, tiny little pronoun. But, which version should you use: its, its', or it's? Who ya gonna call? Punctuation Man, of course, who swoops in to give you just the guidance you need.

So, ya got your food. Ya got your holiday figure. Now, how will you celebrate the day? The NPD website has you covered there, too, with a link to all kinds of relaxing and punctuating things you can do. Some examples: read a newspaper, circling all the punctuation mistakes you find; take a walk and note the signs you see with punctuation errors; and write a mistake-free letter to a friend. For the more leisurely among us, the site also lists some less strenuous and decidedly more relaxing - if questionably related - options.

There's lots more to explore on the NPD site: photos sent in of poorly punctuated signs, info on a program for kids to help them develop great communication skills, and letters from folks from all over with questions and/or praise. There's even a page dedicated to punctuation resources. And for the shopaholics among us - you guessed it - stuff to buy!

Who knew there were so many ways to celebrate punctuation? Choose a few from the site, or make up some of your own, but any way you punctuate it, have a fabulously fun National Punctuation Day!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Book Review: The Wump World, by Bill Peet

One morning the Wumps were awakened by a far-off humming sound. It seemed to be coming from somewhere above, and as the humming grew into a heavy roar, the sleepy-eyed Wumps crept through the trees for a peek at the sky.
Zooming straight for the earth came a great flock of potbellied monsters, with tails and fins, spitting fire and shooting out streaks of black smoke.

Furry and cute, the Wumps live in a wonderful world. They spend their days contentedly munching the soft green grass, cooling off in the clear rivers and lakes, and resting beneath the shady bumbershoot trees. Until one day, when the noisy Pollutians shatter the silence, roaring into the Wump World aboard their smoke-belching ships, and the Wumps go running for safety in caves deep underground. Meanwhile, the tiny Pollutians - who have fled their old world in order to start again on a new one - bring out their giant, noisy machines as they "improve" the Wump World. The Wumps grow more and more despondent in their underground hiding places, fearfully listening to the rumbles, roars and screeches coming from above. Will they have to live in the caves forever? What are the Pollutians doing up there? Will the Wump World ever be the same?

For Teachers and Librarians:
The Wump World is a very simple yet powerful story, with a very planet-friendly message that is subtly yet clearly delivered. It is a great book to use in conjunction with a unit on the environment, pollution, or any other type of eco-educational study, and you can mix reading skills right in there to knock out two (or more) subjects at once. (That's my favorite part of theme-based learning!)

Have your students compare and contrast the Wumps and the Pollutians: how each group lives, what each group feels it needs to survive, how each group's behavior affects the worlds they live in, etc. It is a great prompt for discussing "green" alternatives for energy, transportation, and lifestyle. Ask your kiddos to tell you how the Pollutians' lifestyle affects their health, and how the Wumps' lifestyle affects theirs, and chart their responses. Ask them how they feel about living where they do (city? 'burbs? country?): Does pollution affect them more or less than what they've read about in the book? How?

Let them create an alternative ending where the Pollutians learn how to clean up the mess they made of the Wump World, and live peacefully together with the Wumps. Create a sequel where the Pollutians go back to their home world and fix it, using what they've learned while repairing the damage they've done in the Wump World. Have them act out the stories. Let them brainstorm ways they can be more "green" while at school and at home, and ways they can persuade their parents to live a more "green" lifestyle. So many ideas, and so little space to list them all here. What else will you come up with?

For Parents, Caregivers and Grandparents:
The Wump World is an easy-to-understand story about a complex subject that is still as relevant today as it was back when it was first published. It clearly yet non-threateningly shows your kiddos how what we do affects our world - for better, or for worse. Your kiddos may find themselves more interested in their environment, and how their choices affect the world in which they live.

Ask them: What is one little change they can make to help the world be a cleaner, healthier place? Turn off the lights when they leave a room? Close the main door when the air or heat are running? Decide what they want from the refrigerator before they open it, instead of leaving the door hanging open while they peruse the contents? You could stop with just the discussion, or you could go further: Create a contract between you and the kiddos of what you each pledge to do - big or small - to make the world a healthier place. Donate to a worthy organization that's working to educate people on how to be more "green." Volunteer - anywhere, with anything you feel helps someone else. Where will you let this story take you and your kiddos?

For the Kids:
Who lives in The Wump World? Furry, cuddly little Wumps. They're happy in their comfy world - the grass is green, the water is clear and cool, and the bumbershoot trees give them a nice place to sleep beneath at night. Everyone is happy and healthy. But their nice quiet world is suddenly invaded by the noisy, sneezy, tiny Pollutians, who have left their worn-out world behind to take over the Wump World. The Wumps are afraid, and run to the safety of underground caves, where they listen to all the noise above, and worry about what is becoming of their world. What have the Pollutians done to the Wump World? Will the Wumps have to live underground forever? Find the book, and find out!

For Everyone Else:
The Wump World is a wake-up call that's been hanging on the line for much longer than "being green" has become an oft-quoted catch-phrase. Read this simple yet powerful story to remind yourself of where we could be headed, and what we still have time to do to fix things. After all, we want to keep this big, beautiful, world of ours healthy and vibrant and, yes, "green," for generations to come. Don't we?

Wrapping Up:
The Wump World. It's one of those books that just sticks with you. And for this book, that's a very good thing.

Title: The Wump World
Author and Illustrator: Bill Peet
Pages: 48
Reading Level: Ages 5-8, Grades K-3
Publisher and Date: Sandpiper, 1981
Edition: Paperback
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $5.95
ISBN-10: 0395311292
ISBN-13: 978-0395311295

Author Spotlight: Bill Peet

Though Bill Peet's professional accomplishments included author, illustrator, and animator/filmmaker, drawing was his most cherished hobby - from as far back as he can remember. He said,
"I drew for hours at a time just for the fun of it, and yet I was hoping to find some practical reason to draw for the rest of my life."
His "drawing habit" frequently got him in trouble in school. He kept a small notebook in his desk, and stole as many moments as he could to sneak drawings in it. He was caught unawares by his teachers many times, mid-draw, and his notebooks ended up confiscated. But one teacher, instead of putting the discovered notebook in her desk, strode to the front of the classroom and smiled as she showed his drawings to the entire class. Then she returned it right back to him and said, "I hope you will do something with drawing someday." Luckily for legions of fans of all ages, he did.

By high school, he knew drawing was something he "coudn't possibly give up," and he was determined to find a way to make it his livelihood. In 1933, he won a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he studied drawing, painting and design for three years. It was there that he met Margaret Brunst, and they decided to marry once Bill could find gainful employment.

In 1937, he headed to Los Angeles, California, after having heard that Walt Disney needed artists for his animated films. He got the job, and once it seemed secure, he married Margaret - his biggest supporter. Bill Peet started as an "inbetweener" (a low-level animator who copies the hundreds of drawings needed to make them appear to "move" on-screen), then moved up to sketch artist. When he began making up bedtime stories for his two small sons, it prepared him well to move on to become storyman and, ultimately, Disney's top writer/illustrator on animated features. In fact, he was the only storyman in the history of Disney studios to do all the storyboards for an entire animated feature film. He accomplished this feat twice: for The Sword in the Stone, and for One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

It was toward the end of his time at Disney that he began writing and illustrating children's books. His first book, Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure, was published in 1959. He continued to write and illustrate books in his spare time, until 1964, when he left Disney for good to concentrate on the books full-time. All told, Bill Peet wrote and illustrated over 30 books for children, with all but two of them fantasies. His last picture book, Cock-a-Doodle Dudley, was published in 1989.

His awards include the Annie Award - For Distinguished Contribution in the field of Animation (1981), the Pioneer Award - For Innovation in the Field of Animation (1994) and the Caldecott Honor for his book, Bill Peet: An Autobiography (1990).

Bill Peet was born January 29, 1915, in Grandview, Indiana, and died May 11, 2002, at the age of 87.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

And Down the Stretch He Comes!

Train stations. They're wonderful Microcosms of Life: You can study behavior there. You can shop there. You can eat there. You can sleep there. You can catch a ride there. You can hang out there. You can people-watch there. You can get lost there - either accidentally or on purpose. And you can be entertained there.

Now, the great thing about Train Station Entertainment is that, sometimes, you find the entertainment. And sometimes, it finds you. Like that one time, when we ventured outside of Chez Wheedleton for a trip to The Big Apple for the day. We like to visit New York City, and most of the time, we travel by train - because hanging out in train stations in The City That Never Sleeps is far from ordinary, and rarely dull.

So, there we were: waiting, waiting, waiting for the arrival/departure board to show our train's status. Remember, we here at Chez Wheedleton are easily entertained. But this time, the entertainment found us when Handsome Boy spotted a humongous cockroach. Humongous! (Seriously. That thing could've picked up a small mammal and hauled it off to its secret lair without even breaking stride.)

Anyway, Handsome Boy jumped up from his seat, shrieked, "Look, Daddy! A cockroach!" and pointed to a spot on the floor about fifty feet away. There he sat: Mr. Humongous Roach. Let's call him Hugh for short.

So, Hugh was perfectly still, sizing up the rolling bag resting next to the feet of an Unsuspecting Young Woman. We barely contained our giggles as we each took turns narrating what Hugh must have been saying to himself as he contemplated this potential travel conveyance, then darted out of sight beneath it. We tittered as we imagined the scene when this Unsuspecting Young Woman opened her bag later and discovered her stowaway. And we groaned with disappointment when Hugh suddenly scurried back out from under her bag.

Our spirits lifted again when Hugh moved on to potentially greener pastures: a rather large suitcase was sitting on the floor a mere five feet away - but guarded by a Rather Large Man. Go for it, Hugh! we urged, trying to muffle our guffaws. You can do it! Then, zip! Hugh disappeared beneath the rather large suitcase. We cackled as we imagined the Rather Large Man screaming like a Very Tiny Girl when Hugh greeted him as he unpacked later. But alas, it was not meant to be, since once again Hugh came scrambling back out the other side.

By this time, Hugh's prospects were mighty dim. People had started picking up their bags from the floor as the arrival/departure board began lighting up with arriving train notices. Hugh frantically scurried toward one bag after another, only to have his efforts thwarted when each bag was snatched up and carried away. We felt for Hugh. And we were a wee bit sad that Hugh would not complete his adventurous travel quest.

Hugh must have realized the same thing, because he began to skitter toward the safety of the floor beneath the line of chairs opposite us. But between him and it was five feet of shiny train station corridor. He skittered back and forth, in a quandry. We decided he needed some more encouragement: Go, Hugh! Go! we cried. You can make it! Hugh rattled about a bit longer, then took the plunge.

By now, we were laughing out loud as we took turns giving the play-by-play of Hugh's journey toward the safety of the chairs. We cheered at his every thrust forward. We commiserated with every setback. Yet overall, things were looking good for Hugh - until the arrival/departure board posted the dreaded "all aboard," and a crush of people began barreling down the corridor...straight toward Hugh. We covered our eyes, but peeked through our fingers as he bobbed and weaved and dodged the feet and wheels and canes and things that people dropped. We shrieked at his close calls, and cheered him on as he popped in and out of view.

Finally, he was only inches from the chairs. We were giddy with glee. He's gonna make it! He's gonna make it! Go, Hugh! Go-go-go-go!

And then, just as he got to the edge of the chair row, a pointy high heel sent him spinning out of control. He bounced like a pinball from sneaker to business loafer to boot, and then a great big shoe came rolling by: Heel. Toe. Gone.

And Hugh was nowhere to be seen.

"I lost him, Mom. Where did he go?" asked Lovely Girl, squinting out at the floor of the now-clearing corridor.

She didn't see where he went. And neither did Handsome Boy. But I did. "I think he's hitching a ride on that guy's shoe, kiddo."

Unfortunately, he was riding on the bottom of that shoe.

So long Hugh. And thanks for the memories.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Locomotive Psychology

Train stations. They're the perfect setting for a wonderful case study on Type. Now, I revel in the non-traditional - increasingly so, as I continue on my determined journey toward eventual Cranky-And-Proud-OF-It Old-Lady-dom. So, for practical purposes, we'll define "type" here as simply, Habitually and Hopelessly Late, or, Unfailingly and Unnervingly Punctual. (Not to be confused with the Time of Day Types, which are a totally different animal.) Don't fit into either one of those? No worries. It all gets reconciled in the end. Trust me.

So anyway, let's begin, shall we? At the train station, HHL's dash into the place. UUP's stride in purposefully. Upon arrival, both Types squint up at the arrival/departure board. (Please, don't be alarmed. It's not unusual for disparate Types to share one or more common behaviors. It doesn't make you one of Them.)

Back to the arrival/departure board: The HHL's - who've let their attention drift to people-watching, suddenly realize they should have been watching for their train to arrive, and hastily look up to see "all aboard" next to their train. Then they run like mad to the designated track, shouting profuse yet unconvincing apologies to the little old ladies they just bowled over and left in their wake. They barely manage to slip through the closing train doors, then smile smugly, because they made it. This time.

The UUP's - who have been diligently watching the board, have noticed with satisfaction that their particular train now has a track listed, even though it still has another 10 minutes before it arrives in the station. So, they join the ever-increasing mob of similarly-minded folks that are all squeezing through the same one-person doorway/funnel, patiently waiting their turn to go, because, after all, they have plenty of time. As the train roars into the station, the UUP's are the ones already waiting on the platform, toeing the yellow line, and keeping pace with the entry doors as the train slows, so they can be the first ones to board when it finally stops to admit them. As usual.

Now, if you didn't stride calmly into the station, and if you didn't bum-rush the platform doorway, then you probably just moseyed on into the place, and took in the sights, and had a bite to eat, and maybe stopped to watch and listen to the awesome trash can drummers, and then thought you might want to start looking for the arrival/departure board, or whatever. Which means you've probably missed your train. But you don't sweat it, man, 'cause it's all good: there'll be another one coming along in a little while. So for you, this whole Type thing is, like, a Non-Issue. 'Cause really, it's not about the Destination, man. It's about the Journey.

And you don't need no stinking Label.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is That Your Refrigerator Snarling?

Yes. Yes, it is.

(Darn Furberries. They're so rude.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Review: The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler

I'd never been in the ocean. I'd never even had a bath. Hey, I'm not dirty or anything-I do take a shower every night. But there isn't enough room for a bathtub on the boat, so never in my life had I been totally immersed in water.
Until the first Wednesday afternoon of seventh grade.

Emily Windsnap has a secret. She discovers it by accident, in seventh grade swim class - her first time ever immersed in water. Her legs feel like they've fused together as soon as she hits the pool, then feel normal when she hauls herself out, and it totally freaks her out. Later that night, she jumps off the pier near her houseboat to see if it happens again. And it does: she sees her legs morph into a sleek purple-and-green tail, then morph back into legs when she's out of the water. After she gets used to the idea, she's thrilled, and starts taking secret swims in the ocean to test out her newly discovered fishy self. For a while, she's the only one who knows her secret. But then she meets a new mermaid friend, Shona, who shows her a whole other world beneath the sea.

Emily begins to wonder: is this why her mother never let her in the water, even though they live on a boat? Does she know what I am? And then the lighthouse keeper, Mr. Beeston, starts acting strangely towards her, and Emily starts getting suspicious. Why is he always around? And how come her mom seems to forget things Emily had just told her, after Mr. Beeston's regular coffee-and-doughnut visits? With help from Shona, Emily starts piecing it all together, and what they finds out changes Emily's life forever.

For Teachers and Librarians:
The Tail of Emily Windsnap is an engaging and exciting story that is a perfect book around which to build a reading unit on the fantasy genre. It could also fit well into a mystery unit, as Emily works to uncover just who she is, and why Mr. Beeston is around so much, and what has happened to her mother, and why her mother seems not to recall her father (she wants to, but can't, and doesn't know why). You can also incorporate lifestyles - Emily and her mom live on a boat. Mr. Beeston lives in a lighthouse. Others live in conventional houses. What type of home do mermaids live in? A discussion on family groups and their similarities and differences could come into play as well: Emily and her mom are a family. Some kids live with two parents, some live with grandparents, or guardians, or aunts and uncles, etc. It is also a great story to use within a friendship unit - how do we meet friends? What kinds of things do friends do with or for each other? How do friends make us feel? And of course, you could use this book as a fun supplement to an ocean unit, comparing and contrasting real ocean dwellers with fantasy ones, for example. The possibilities are endless. Which will you choose for your students?

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers
The Tail of Emily Windsnap is a fun, yet meaningful book with a great focus on family - in various forms. It shows a positive friend relationship, a good way to contend with kids who aren't very nice (with a bit of fun, feel-good justice thrown in for good measure), and some great examples of problem-solving and working together toward a common goal. And besides all that good stuff, it is a fantastic story that your kids will just love. (And so will you.)

For the Kids:
Have you ever dreamed that you would discover some magical side of you that you never knew existed? Well, that's just what happens to a seventh grade girl in The Tail of Emily Windsnap: Emily has never been immersed in water, and she wonders why (since she and her mom live on a boat near the ocean). So one day, she decides to find out, and persuades her mom to let her take swimming for her seventh grade gym class. On the first day of class, Emily's legs fuse together the instant she hits the water. OMG! She's a mermaid! She manages to hide it from her classmates, then goes on secret swimming adventures when no one else is looking. It is on one of these trips that she meets another mermaid, Shona, who introduces her to the mermaid world, and an age-old mystery that goes on there. Could there be a connection between Emily's questions, and the mysterious goings-on down below? There's only one way for you to find out, and that's to find this book and get reading.

For Everyone Else:
The Tail of Emily Windsnap is a great story for kids. It's also a fun bit of escapism for adults, along with a couple of side trips down memory lane (dealing with "mean girls" at school, wondering who you are, wishing you had some secret magical "thing" to discover about yourself...oh, that last one may just be me...) Bottom line: magical book, magical story, you'll love it!

Wrapping Up:
The Tail of Emily Windsnap pulls the inquisitive mind in right from the cover art, and the story keeps that mind firmly entrenched in the fantasy: willingly suspending its disbelief, and having a grand time in the process. Read the book. Your mind will thank you.

Title: The Tail of Emily Windsnap
Author: Liz Kessler
Cover Art: Sarah Gibb
Pages: 224
Reading Level: 8-12 years, Grades 3-7
Publisher and Date: Candlewick Press, 2006
Edition: First US Paperback Edition, 2006
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $5.99
ISBN-10: 076328115
ISBN-13: 978-0763628116

Author Spotlight: Liz Kessler

Englishwoman Liz Kessler has always wanted to write. Not only that, but she was convinced from a very early age that she would become a poet. She was nine years old when her poem, "Jinx's Shop," was published in the Manchester Evening News, in 1976. Yet, fate had different writing goals in mind for Ms Kessler: by the time she'd reached her 30's, she had decided to write books - switching her job to part-time in order to have more time to write.

She studied English at Lougborough University, then did her teaching qualification at Keele University, then received her Masters degree in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Following university, Ms Kessler lived on a narrowboat on a canal for about 10 years, then moved to a house in Manchester for two years, then rented that house out for another year while she traveled around Europe in a campervan. (You can read about her traveling adventures on her blog: Liz Kessler's Blog.) Her newest adventure is to sell that Manchester house and move, possibly, to Cornwall.

She has been a teacher of English, and of Media Studies, and has run Creative Writing courses. She has been a journalist in local and regional newspapers in Manchester and York, in England. And of course, she writes novels for kids. Her Emily Windsnap series - about a seventh-grade girl who discovers she is a mermaid - now numbers four titles, and she has written two books in the Philippa Fisher series - about an 11-year-old girl and her fairy godsister.

Born in 1966, Liz Kessler grew up in Southport, England, the youngest of three siblings. She has a Dalmatian named Poppy, and enjoys sailing, playing guitar, surfing, and practicing one of her favorite hobbies: poi. (You can catch a glimpse of Ms Kessler and her poi skills here.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Chrysanthemum By Any Other Name

Usually I post my book reviews on Fridays. In fact, I have a new and fabulous review all set to be posted on Friday morning. (Chalk it up to Tiki Hut Writing Hideaway mojo. But that's a story for another day.)

Aaaanyway, today I have for you a fantastic literary bonus. Though at first glance it may seem to have absolutely no literary connection whatsoever, please bear with me, because it actually really and truly does. Trust me.

See, today is Chrysanthemum Day, and though the chrysanthemum is a lovely flower:

this flower is not not not the chrysanthemum I intend to celebrate.

Instead, the Chrysanthemum I choose to celebrate is small.

And very unique.

And a mouse.

She is the star of Kevin Henkes' most fabulous picture book, Chrysanthemum. I found it when I first started teaching, and it has been one of my absolute favorite books ever since. And so, in honor of Chrysanthemum Day, I give you a bonus book review of this very special story:

The day she was born was the happiest day in her parents' lives.
"She's perfect," said her mother.
"Absolutely," said her father.
And she was.
She was absolutely perfect.

On the day she is born, the tiny mouse's parents think she's absolutely perfect, which is why they give her an absolutely perfect name: Chrysanthemum. Once Chrysanthemum grows "old enough to appreciate it," she loves her name: how it looks and how it sounds. It's absolutely perfect - just like her. But when her very first day of school has come and gone, Chrysanthemum comes home with a very different perception. Will she ever again think her name is absolutely perfect?

For Teachers and Librarians:
Chrysanthemum is the perfect book for the early days of a new school year. Kevin Henkes' words practically sing as you read them aloud - each word beautifully woven into a touching story sure to please your small charges. It shows a positive way to for kids to handle teasing and find their own perfect way to "fit in." It celebrates the uniqueness of each and every student in the class, and helps calm those first few days of New School Year Jitters. It portrays teachers (for the kids) in a trusting and caring light, and highlights (for you) the powerful impact an intuitive teacher can have on the sometimes fragile self-esteem of those little guys and gals just starting their school careers. But most of all, it is a lovely story, full of caring, and love, and a little bit of nervousness, and just the right amount of giggles. It's just the right kind of book to start off just the right kind of school year.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
If you have little ones just starting school, Chrysanthemum is just the book you need. Be sure to read it aloud - the sound of the words and the way they fit together when read out loud give a whole new and wonderful dimension to the story. This book will captivate your littlest kiddos who may be worried about whether they will "fit in," and reassure them that they are absolutely perfect just as they are. It portrays teachers as kind and caring people who really do notice what goes on, and it portrays parents as being able to help their kids smooth over even the toughest of days when they get back home. And just as Chrysanthemum shines as her true self and makes a few friends in the bargain, so will your little ones as they bounce off to another (or their first) school year.

For the Kids:
Chrysanthemum thinks her name is absolutely perfect - just like her. When her very first day of school finally comes, she is excited to go. But other kids tease her about her name, and she comes home feeling maybe her name isn't absolutely perfect. At home, her parents cheer her up with her favorite things, and it helps...until she has to go back to school. Then one day, the class meets Mrs. Twinkle, the music teacher - and something happens that makes Chrysanthemum's days get a whole lot better! What did Mrs. Twinkle do? Ask your parents or teacher or someone you care about to read you the book, so you can find out!

Wrapping Up:
Chrysanthemum is a sweet story that is just perfect not only for a kiddo's first days in school, but also for anyone who just needs a bit of a lift.

Title: Chrysanthemum
Author and Illustrator: Kevin Henkes
Pages: 32
Reading Level: Ages 4 and up, Grades Preschool - 3
Publisher and Date: Atlas Editions, Inc., Reprinted by arrangement with Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2000
Edition: Reprint
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $16.00 (Original publisher's price)
ISBN: 0688096999
ISBN (library binding): 0688097006

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: First Light, by Rebecca Stead

"[Peter's] eyes found the red ring, no bigger than a quarter, and focused on it. The ring came closer until he could see it clearly, twisting strands of color suspended in the ice. He stared at it, careful not to bring it too close this time."

Peter lives in New York City with his scientist/professor parents. Now that he's twelve, they seem overly concerned about whether he's been getting headaches, like his mother does. He gets the feeling there's something they aren't telling him. Then his father receives an invitation to study glaciers in Greenland, and he gets to bring the whole family, and Peter is excited and anxious at the same time. One day, while exploring the glacier on his own, Peter finds an intricately woven red ring embedded in the ice. And then, he experiences visions both terrifying and exciting. Peter is determined to get to the bottom of things. Why are his parents so concerned about headaches? Where are these visions coming from? And how did that ring get in the ice?

Thea desperately wants to see the sun - something she has never done. She doesn't understand - why is her grandmother so against the expansion? Their world, deep beneath the arctic glacier, is rapidly approaching the day that it can no longer sustain her people as it is. They need to branch out, and the surface seems to be the only way to reach the far side of their subglacial lake. Thea can't shake the notion that getting to the surface is the answer to saving their world. She wants to see the sun. And she's determined to figure out a way to get there.

For Teachers and Librarians:
If you have students slow to warm to books, First Light could be just the thing to light the fire of curiosity in them. The story is told from the point of view of both Peter and Thea. Both are strong, smart, independently thinking kids. Both have their own mysteries to solve. But neither can solve their mystery with out the other. And neither realizes that the other exists. Both will have to rely on science, history, family, intuition, and ultimately each other to solve their dilemmas.

You'll be able to link this book to discussions and activities centering on a wide array of scientific subjects: DNA, geothermal heat, arctic climate, global warming, glacier study methods, earth forms and phenomena (glaciers, subglacial lakes, glacier melt, glacier calving), to name a few. You can also head to cultural discussions: people with extra-sensory abilities and society's reactions to those, government structure, familial structure, etc. You can discuss story genre - this one has elements of mystery, possible science fiction, realistic fiction, and adventure. The possibilities are too numerous to mention, and the book is too fantastic not to find a way to include it in your teaching this year and every year. And of course, it is a gripping story - one you may have trouble prying from their fingers. (And, isn't that a good thing?)

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
First Light is just the thing to spice up a so-so day, or entice a reluctant reader to keep asking, "Just one more page? Please?" And you will enjoy it as much as your kiddos. It is full of mystery, drama, and adventure. It is brimming with themes of courage, family, trust, determination, and facing your fears. It shows the true power kids can and do have to affect change. And it is one great story. What more could you ask for?

For the Kids:
If somebody told you that you had the chance to skip school for a few weeks, drive dogsleds, live in a giant blue tent, explore a glacier in Greenland, and have adventures, would you turn it down? Of course not! And neither did Peter, in the book First Light. And while he's there, he's hoping to discover what's really going on with these headaches his mom has, the headaches he's started to have, and the strange visions he's begun having. Meanwhile, deep below him in the glacier, Thea is trying to convince her grandmother and her whole world that they need to reach the surface to save themselves. But they seem reluctant, so she's hoping to find out why. And she's hoping to finally be able to see the sun - something she's only heard and read about, but never seen.

One day, Peter goes exploring on his own on the glacier, and finds a bright red ring, embedded deep in the ice. And Thea goes exploring in her world and makes a huge discovery. Will Peter's and Thea's paths ever intersect? Guess you should read the book, and find out, huh?

For Everyone Else:
First Light is a fascinating story, all wrapped up in journeys of courage, journeys of adventure, journeys of discovery, and journeys of mystery that adults will enjoy as much as the kids. You'll find yourself impatient to turn each page and find out what happens next, and the story is so masterfully told that you won't see the plot twists coming. And you'll be delighted with each new discovery.

Wrapping Up:
First Light is a gem of a book - one you'll want to have on your own personal bookshelf, so you can return to it again and again.

Title: First Light
Author: Rebecca Stead
Cover Art: Ericka O'Rourke
Pages: 328
Reading Level: 5.6 (Ages 10-14)
Publisher and Date: Yearling, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, October 2008
Edition: Paperback, First Yearling Edition
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $6.99

Author Spotlight: Rebecca Stead

Growing up in New York City, Rebecca Stead was a voracious reader. It was an intensely private experience for her: she loved to read books, but hated to discuss them with others. She wanted to believe that the worlds she read about were only hers to enter (and hated that it wasn't true).

In addition to all the reading she was doing, she began writing in elementary school - everything from writing her own stuff to scribbling down bits and pieces of jokes and conversations and other things she overheard. "Writing down what people say," she says, "is a great way to learn what they might say, if you wanted them to."

Later, she became a lawyer, got married, and worked as a public defender, but still wrote stories as time allowed. By the time she had had her second son, Ms Stead's writing time became severely curtailed.

Then one day, she says, she "read a wonderful newspaper article about a scientist who studies climate change by camping out in the arctic each summer and watching birds." Shortly after that, her younger son accidentally pushed her laptop off of the dining room table, and in one fell swoop, she lost all of the short stories saved on it that she had been working on for years. And so, between the article and the accident, she found a spark for writing something new, and that something eventually became her first novel, First Light. Mrs. Stead alternated between writing the book and doing research for it, until completion. First Light was published in 2007, and her latest novel, When You Reach Me, came out in July 2009.

Rebecca Stead still lives in New York City, in the same Manhattan neighborhood she grew up in, with her husband and two sons.