A blog for kids (and their parents) who love books, words, and dreaming big...
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Friday, August 31, 2012

On the Write Track

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net
Something happened to me last Wednesday.  It wasn't anything earth-shattering, really, but for me -- for my life -- it was big.  What was this life-changing event?  My youngest started first grade.

I have been a stay-at-home mom for almost 16 and a half years now.  Pretty much every single day since my daughter was born back in 1996, I have spent my days with at least one child here at home.  (And often three or more.) Yes, there have been a few exceptions along the way.  I've been lucky enough to be able to get away with girlfriends occasionally, for scrapbooking weekends and other fun events.  There were also four weeks back in 2005 when Emmalie and Nick were both in school and I was home alone.  I'm not sure those weeks really count, though.  See, I was in my ninth month of pregnancy and we'd just moved into our new house two days before school started.  The entire time my kids were in school those four weeks, I was busy, busy, busy -- unpacking boxes and painting rooms, just me and my big belly.

I also had half the day to myself last year when Ben was in Kindergarten.  It was virtually impossible to get much of anything done during that time, however.  Two and a half hours goes by awfully quick, especially when 30 precious minutes of that time is taken up by travel, to and from school.

This year, though... this year is different.  For the past week, I've had seven glorious days to myself.  A whole five and a half hours every day (once you subtract that travel time).  It's been heavenly.  Don't get me wrong.  I love spending time with my kids.  Really, I do.  I'd rather spend time with them than with almost anyone else in this world.  But I also truly love spending time alone.

What have I been doing with all this time to myself?  I could spend the day on the couch, watching chick flicks or reading good books, munching on bonbons.  I could go to the theater and watch a movie there.  I could hang out at the mall, people-watching or shopping, money permitting.  I could scrub the house from top to bottom and organize every closet and cupboard.  (I think I do need to schedule one of those days!)  I could do lots of things with my time, and it would be very easy (and tempting) to waste it on something frivolous, but so far I have actually been fairly productive.

Besides finishing some household chores that really needed to be done -- and taking some time out for exercise (something else that really needs to be done) -- I've been writing.  Last week I wrote several poems and spent quite a bit of time working to revise some old stories of mine.  I also wrote a few cover letters, then submitted poems and stories to a number of magazines.

This week I started something new.  One of my goals for 2012 was to start writing another novel for kids.  I made that goal for myself back in January.  Here it is, almost September, and I hadn't even written one sentence yet.  I've had two or three ideas for new books rattling around in my head, and over the weekend, I finally decided which one I would tackle first.

Many years ago I came up with a character, a young teenage girl named Tasha. I wrote down a page-long description of her, a paper I still have.  Ever since then, Tasha has been in my head, waiting.  She's been pretty patient, but every once in awhile, I can hear her asking, "When are you going to tell my story?"  I've always thought she deserved to have her story written down.  The problem has been that, while I had a compelling character, I hadn't thought of an actual story plot yet.  Last weekend I decided I would just start writing about her, and that maybe if I listened carefully, Tasha would tell me what happens.

On Monday morning, while I was power-walking, she started talking.  The story ideas kept coming and coming.  I couldn't wait to get home and start writing!  I've been writing and writing all week, wishing that I had even more time to get all the words down.  So far, I've written almost 9000 words, which translates roughly to 32 pages of a novel.  And I still have a lot more of Tasha's story to tell.

Ideas, characters, plots -- they all come from somewhere. They don't magically appear out of thin air.  (At least, not for me.  Maybe other writers have a different experience.) The origins of Tasha and her story go back a long way -- all the way back to when I was ten.  One day that summer before 5th grade, I picked out some books at a garage sale and my mom bought them for me.  One of them was Ready-made Family by Frances Salomon Murphy, 1953:
I had to get this image from Amazon because I couldn't find my
copy.  It's around here somewhere... and looks just like this one.
This middle-grade novel is about 12-year-old Hedwig Kowalski and her two younger siblings.  After being moved around from relative to relative, and then living in the state home, the three are taken to live with foster parents, the Kennedys.  The transition is not an easy one, and Hedy worries that her brother's unruly behavior is going to ruin this chance for the Kowalskis to finally have a home of their own.  Though it was written in the 1950's, and some of the details of the story are dated, the themes and the emotions Murphy writes about ring just as true today.

The book had a profound effect on me.  It was the first time I'd ever heard about foster children and social workers.  It opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole world of people out there with life experiences vastly different from my own.  I realized then just how lucky I was to have a loving family with a home, where all my basic needs (and more!) were met.  I knew after reading that book that I wanted to help kids like Hedy, that I wanted to be a social worker when I grew up.

After that, I read just about every book about foster kids, social workers, child abuse, and other related topics that I could get my hands on.  All through the rest of elementary school and then junior high and high school, my dream of becoming a social worker continued.  I majored in social work in college, and then, finally, became an actual social worker.  Though I wasn't a foster care case manager as I'd once thought I might be, I did help severely emotionally disturbed kids (some of whom were in foster care) for six years.  And all because of a book I read when I was ten.

My character Tasha comes from those experiences of mine. She is a foster child and has had a rough life.  My heart aches for her.  I want to help that scared little girl in my head by writing her story, and maybe, if it ever gets published, it could help a real-life foster child, too.

Yesterday I was in the car, listening to a CD of my favorite band, The Airborne Toxic Event.  The beautiful, haunting song "A Letter to Georgia" came on, and as I sang along, I realized that it reminded me of Tasha.  Even though the song was written about an adult, the lyrics can also apply to a child, frightened and alone in the world.  If I ever get Tasha's story published, I plan to ask the band's permission to print the lyrics in the front of the book.  (Hey, when you're dreaming big, you might as well dream really big!)  Here's the song, if you'd like to hear it:

So, that's what I've been up to the past week.  It's exciting -- and a little scary -- but I'm very happy to be "on the write track". :)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A thousand thoughts...

Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery

"There are a thousand thoughts 
lying within a man 
that he does not know 
till he takes up a pen to write."    

~ William Makepeace Thackeray

Isn't that the truth?  There have been so many times that I've sat myself down to write and then the  thoughts and ideas start pouring out, much faster than I can write or even type.  (Of course, then there are those days when I really want to write something, but I'm stuck staring at a blank piece of paper!  I much prefer the first scenario.)  Our brains are amazing machines, filled with stories to tell -- sometimes stories that we don't even know about until we start writing!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


The word sublime [suh-blahym] is an adjective, meaning "supreme or outstanding, inspiring awe".  (It can also be used as a noun or a verb.)  I like the sound of the word.  Do you?

The sublime scenery of the Boundary Waters
 leaves me breathless.

"Waiter, please tell the chef that his work 
is much appreciated.  This meal is simply sublime!"

The author drew me in with her sublime writing, 
and I couldn't bear to stop reading till I'd reached the end.

How would you use the word sublime?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Star

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

My Star

My star comes out
When I'm in bed,
There is a place to put my head
where I can watch it twinkle
in one small windowpane of sky.

~ Myra Cohn Livingston

This poem reminds me of my childhood bedroom, and how I always looked through one of my windows at bedtime, out into our dark backyard and the night sky.  I still love to gaze up at the moon and the stars, looking for various constellations and searching for falling stars.  What things do you still enjoy doing that you liked to do when you were younger?

Monday, August 27, 2012

The first day of school...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

An excerpt:

     Unless you're somebody like Huckleberry Finn, the first day of school isn't too bad.  Most kids, by then, are bored with summer and itchy from mosquito bites and poison ivy and nothing to do.  Your sneakers are all worn out and you can't get new ones till school starts and your mother is sick and tired of yelling at you to pick up things and you're sick and tired of picking the same things up.

~ from The Best School Year Ever,
written by Barbara Robinson

Me, I always liked the first day of school.  I loved having new supplies and new clothes, meeting my teachers, and seeing all my friends and classmates again after a long summer.  How about you?  Were you/are you eager for the first day?  Glad to have something to do?  Or are you more like Huck Finn, wanting nothing to do with school?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The crown of literature...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

"The crown of literature is poetry.  
It is its end and aim.  
It is the sublimest activity 
of the human mind. 
It is the achievement of 
beauty and delicacy.  
The writer of prose 
can only step aside 
when the poet passes."

~ W. Somerset Maugham

I love both poetry and prose -- but my favorite kind of prose is poetic prose.  After thinking about it, I realized that I agree with Maugham: "The crown of literature is poetry."  What do you think of this quote?  Does it ring true for you?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Books About Boys

Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery

Last month, in my post Books With Girl Power, I featured some books with interesting, engaging main characters who all just happened to be female. I promised then that I would actively seek out and read books about appealing male characters for a future post.  Well, this is that post, and I am happy to share these books about boys with you today!  I also want to point out that, while these books are about boys, they are not meant solely for boys -- these books will appeal to many girls out there, as well.

As I did in my Girl Power post, I will begin with a picture book that I stumbled across at the library:

Be Boy Buzz,
written by Bell Hooks
and illustrated by Chris Raschka, 2002

With energetic illustrations and bold, poetic text, this book is a celebration of boyhood.  My six-year-old Ben and I read this book through several times, enjoying the beat of the words, as well as their meaning.  What a wonderful book for boys and their parents!


I've read several middle grade books about boys this month. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Invention of Hugo Cabret,
written and illustrated by Brian Selznik, 2007

Twelve-year-old Hugo Cabret is an orphan, living in a Paris train station in 1931.  A thief who secretly keeps the station's clocks running after his uncle -- the official clock keeper -- disappears, Hugo is eventually caught stealing a small wind-up toy.  The shopkeeper who catches him puts Hugo to work, to pay off his debts.  Meanwhile, Hugo and the shopkeeper's young goddaughter, Isabelle, discover clues to a mystery from the past.  The pair begin to piece them together, unraveling long-kept secrets in the process.

My friend Ben (not to be confused with my son Ben) recommended this book to me.  I really didn't know anything about it, except for the fact that a movie based on the book had been out in the theaters last year.  When I found it on the shelf of the library, I was a little surprised by how thick it was.  Being a fast reader, thick books don't intimidate me at all -- but I did think it seemed a bit long for most middle grade readers.  Back at home, when I opened the book for the first time, I discovered that the story isn't nearly as long as it looks -- most of its pages are illustrations, not text.  I read the story through once, then decided it would make a great bedtime book. I read it again, this time aloud to Ben.  (My son, not my friend!)

Both of us were captivated by Selznick's story and illustrations, eager to find out what Hugo would do next.  A week after we'd finished the book, we had a chance to watch the 2011 film, "Hugo".  Though it differs from the book in several ways, the movie is also entertaining and worthwhile. Ben (my son and my friend, actually) and I recommend them both!


City of Orphans,
written by Avi
and illustrated by Greg Ruth, 2011
New York City in 1893 is a dangerous place.  Thirteen-year-old Maks, a Danish immigrant and newsboy,  escapes from the Plug Ugly Gang with the help of Willa, a street urchin.   The two are then drawn into a sinister mystery, becoming amateur detectives when Maks's innocent older sister is thrown in jail for stealing.

Avi immerses his readers into the past, vividly describing 19th century life in the big city.  I enjoyed the historical perspective, the intriguing mystery, and the colorful characters making up this story.


Danny, the Champion of the World,
written by Roald Dahl
and illustrated by Quentin Blake, 1975
Danny has the best father in the world.  The two of them live in an old gypsy caravan next to their gas station, and are content with their simple life together.  Then, when Danny turns 9, he discovers his father's one vice, a love of poaching. Father and son have always done everything together, and soon Danny is helping devise a plan to poach pheasants from the land of crotchety old Victor Hazell, a wealthy man whom no one likes.  If they can pull it off, Danny truly will be the champion of the world!

Dahl is known for his funny, zany stories, and this is one of them.  In addition to humor, this story also features a tender, heart-warming father-son relationship.  Filled with lively writing and Blake's distinctive illustrations, this book will delight kids and adults alike.


Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key,
written by Jack Gantos, 1998
Abandoned by his parents at a young age, Joey Pigza has been raised by his emotionally abusive grandmother.  Now that he's a 5th grader, the mother he doesn't even remember has returned to take care of Joey. As if those weren't enough problems for a child to deal with, Joey also has attention-deficit disorder (ADD)... but not the meds to control it.  He is a good kid, but his days at school tend to be one disaster after another.  Will Joey get the help he so desperately needs?

No one in my family has ADD, but many years ago I worked with several ADD kids, so I feel I have at least a little bit of first-hand knowledge about the disorder.   While reading this book, it seemed like I had crawled right into the head of a boy with ADD.  I thought that Gantos's depiction of Joey was true-to-life.  When he is wound up and "wired", Joey's thoughts race and bounce all over the place.  When some medication starts working, Joey is able to slow down and think things through.  Gantos's narration reflects that.

Though the book deals with some serious topics, there is also plenty of humor -- and compassion -- included.  I was impressed with this story and am eager to read the rest of the books in the series: Joey Pigza Loses Control, What Would Joey Pigza Do?, and I Am Not Joey Pigza.


Seriously, Norman!,
written by Chris Raschka, 2011
When Norman Normann does not score very high on an important entrance exam, his worried parents decide to get him a tutor.  Balthazar Birdsong turns out to be a very unusual tutor indeed.  Studying the dictionary as instructed, Norman keeps running across words that connect oddly to events in his life.  As Balthazar urges Norman and his friends (Leonard, Anna, and Emma) to observe and explore the world around them, the Quadrumvirate find themselves on a wild quest to save Norman's father and his karma.

Despite the title, this book is anything but serious!  I spotted it on a shelf at the library; the author's name caught my eye.  Raschka is an accomplished artist, and I've enjoyed many of the books he's illustrated, including Be Boy Buzz (shown at the top of this post) and some wonderful poetry collections.  Reading the inside cover, I learned that this was Raschka's first novel.  I decided to check it out, and I am so glad that I did!  Filled with word play, laugh out loud moments, and a crazy adventure, this book surprised and enchanted me.


Over the last few weeks, I've also read a few good young adult/adult books featuring boys:

Then Again, Maybe I Won't,
written by Judy Blume, 1971
When his inventor father finally sells an invention for a lot of money, everything changes for 13-year-old Tony Miglione. His family moves to a wealthy neighborhood on Long Island. Now Tony has to go to a new school and make new friends. On top of that, Tony is going through puberty, which means his body is growing and changing and doing strange things.

I first read this book when I was in 5th grade.  (In fact, the book in the photo above is the same copy that I read back then -- I received a whole set of Judy Blume books for Christmas that year, and I still have them.)  This was the first book I ever read that described a few of the things that happen to boys during puberty, and I learned some things I didn't know before.  I still remembered those parts of the story after all these years, but had forgotten the actual plot! Reading it again as an adult, I was more interested in how Tony deals with all the changes and the stress in his life.  I was reminded once again how good Blume is at portraying life from an adolescent's perspective.


written by Stephen Davies, 2011
Set in modern-day West Africa, this book tells the story of 15-year-old Jake and his younger sister Kas.  Children of a British ambassador, the two are kidnapped one evening -- supposedly by Yakuuba Sor, an outlaw and leader of a terrorist group.  But is their abductor really Yakuuba Sor? And is Sor really the dangerous criminal everyone thinks he is?  When the corrupt local government and British Intelligence get involved in the search for Jake, Kas, and Sor, the three decide to take matters into their own hands.

This thriller, filled with mystery and adventure, is fast-paced and action-packed.  I wasn't sure how well I would like the book when I first started it, but I was quickly drawn into the story.  I liked it (and the characters) more and more as it went on.  The author, Davies, is actually a missionary in West Africa.  I appreciated how vividly he described life and the culture in that part of the world, an area I know little about.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,
written by Mark Haddon, 2003
When an autistic 15-year-old, Christopher John Francis Boone, discovers his neighbor's dog impaled on a garden fork, he cradles the dog in his arms.  The dog's owner finds them this way and has Christopher arrested.  When his father arrives at the police station to explain the situation, Christopher is given a "caution" and is released from jail. Ignoring his father's advice to "stay out of other people's business", the boy is determined to find out who really killed the dog and launches his own investigation.

After hearing many adults recommending this novel, I read it for a book club I was in several years ago.  Everyone in the club, including me, loved it!  At the time, I thought of it as a story for adults, even though the main character is a teenager.  Then, recently, I was looking through a list of good books for young adults, and I came across this title.  I decided to reread it.  It was shelved in the adult section of our library, but I do think that it is appropriate for young adults, as well.  (I should note that it does contain many swear words.)  The story itself is moving, insightful, and often amusing.


Have you read any of the books that I shared today?  If so, what did you think?  What are some of your favorite books about boys?  I'd love to hear about them!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pink: A Haiku

Photo courtesy of Public-Domain-Image.com

Pink: A Haiku

A surge of sunlight
Shocks through stem and thistle hairs.
A punk pink hairdo.

~ Jane Yolen, 
Color Me a Rhyme

I love this poem and the image of a thistle with a punk hairdo!  I had never connected the two before reading Yolen's haiku sometime last year, but now that's the the first thing that comes to mind whenever I see a thistle in bloom....

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Minds alive on the shelves...

Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery
"These are not books, 
lumps of lifeless paper, 
but minds alive on the shelves.  
From each of them 
goes out its own voice... 
and just as the touch 
of a button on our set 
will fill the room with music, 
so by taking down 
one of these volumes 
and opening it, 
one can call into range 
the voice of a man
 far distant in time and space, 
and hear him speaking to us, 
mind to mind, heart to heart."  

~ Gilbert Highet

I love the idea of books being "minds alive on a shelf", coming to us from all over the world, from the past and the present. Books are not just paper and ink; they are words that call to us from the minds of their authors.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


In honor of my kids' first day of school, this week's word is erudite [er-yoo-dahyt], an adjective meaning "learned, scholarly, possessing great knowledge".

My daughter is quite erudite, for a high school student.

The erudite professor was also an entertaining speaker, 
and college students flocked to his lectures.

Her goal this semester was to become erudite.

How would you use erudite in a sentence?  What other interesting words can you think of that have to do with school or learning?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Circle of Sun

Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

A Circle of Sun

I'm dancing.
I'm leaping.
I'm skipping about.
I gallop.
I grin.
I giggle.
I shout.
I'm Earth's many colors.
I'm morning and night.
I'm honey on toast.
I'm funny.
I'm bright.
I'm swinging.
I'm singing.
I wiggle.
I run.
I'm a piece of the sky
In a circle of sun.

~ Rebecca Kai Dotlich

This is such a happy poem!  It makes me smile every time I read it. :)

Monday, August 20, 2012

The crickets sang...

From Hush, Hush, It's Sleepytime,
illustrated by Mel Crawford, 1968

An excerpt:

     The crickets sang in the grasses.  They sang the song of summer's ending, a sad, monotonous song. "Summer is over and gone," they sang.  "Over and gone, over and gone.  Summer is dying, dying."

     The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever.  Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year -- the days when summer is changing into fall -- the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.

~ from Charlotte's Web
written by E.B. White

Of course, the season of summer doesn't actually end for another month still, but I always think of it as being over when school starts back up again.  I love this passage from Charlotte's Web, and how White personifies the crickets when he writes of them warning everybody, spreading rumors, and singing sad songs.  Who knew the noise an insect makes could convey so much?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Turn the faucet on...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

"If you're going to be a writer, 
the first essential is just to write. 
Do not wait for an idea. 
Start writing something 
and the ideas will come. 
You have to 
turn the faucet on 
before the water starts to flow."     

~ Louis L'Amour

I need to remember this quote.  Too often I miss opportunities to write because I don't know what to write about.  I need to just turn that faucet on -- start writing something, anything, and soon those ideas will come flowing out.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cleaning House in My Brain

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

Cleaning House in My Brain

I'm cleaning house
In my brain,
Time again!

Shine windows,
Paint doors,
Vacuum rugs,
Polish floors.

Brush away
TV shows,
Picnics, beaches,
Free time goes.

Bring my memory
Back in gear,
Sweep the channels,
Crystal clear.

My brain is
An amazing tool,
And it's all ready for

~ Kalli Dakos

I don't know about you, but my kids are getting ready to head back to school in a few days.  I won't be starting school myself, but my schedule, too, will change.  My kids and I are saying goodbye to late nights and sleeping in, goodbye to lazy days and the freedom of summer.  We're gearing up for early mornings, homework in the afternoons, and the hustle and bustle of the typical school week.  We're buying new supplies for the classroom and new clothes to replace all the ones my kids have outgrown since last year.

In addition to the physical preparations for back-to-school time, students (and teachers) everywhere must ready their minds, as well.  As Dakos's poem suggests, it's time to sweep out those mental cobwebs and get those brains in shape for learning.

Wishing all the students and teachers out there a wonderful new school year! :)

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Tiny BookWyrm

Timothy, 18 months old, August 2012
I have been out of town this week, and didn't get around to writing a post for today like I'd planned... so I thought I'd just share this adorable photo of my godson, Timothy.  He and his big brother David are both young BookWyrms.  And apparently, Timothy really likes looking through his mommy's books! :)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Traveling to a poem...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

"Find your own voice
even if it takes hard work
and many hours.
Traveling to a poem
is a journey to be enjoyed." 

~ Michael Dugan,
 in Seeing the Blue Between

I love the idea of "traveling to a poem".  The joy is in the journey, not just the destination.  Writing a poem can be difficult and time-consuming, but as long as you're enjoying yourself along the way, it's all worth it!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

Every week I try to keep a look out for good words to feature here.  Sometimes they will jump out at me from a book I'm reading.  Sometimes I'll hear them in a conversation.  And sometimes I browse through Dictionary.com (or flip through an actual dictionary), to see what words catch my eye. That's what I was doing a few days ago when I spotted the word halcyon, and knew immediately that I wanted to use it this week.  Halcyon [hal-see-uhn] is an adjective meaning "peaceful, joyful, or carefree".

The first thing that popped into my head when my eyes focused on the word was a line from a song:

Because the people who love you are waiting,
and they'll wait just as long as need be.
When we look back and say those were halcyon days,
we're talking about jubilee.

~ Lyrics from "Jubilee",
written by Mary Chapin Carpenter

My second thought was that halcyon is a perfect word to describe summertime. :)

I love the halcyon months of summer, 
filled with time to do whatever my heart desires.

I sat in silence under the fuchsia sky 
watching the doe and her fawn drink from the still lake, 
a halcyon memory I will treasure forever.

How would you use the word halcyon?  What other words come to mind when you think of summertime?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sum of Summer

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

The Sum of Summer

The sum of summer
Is one billion bees
And six trillion leaves
On three billion trees
And four fillion flies
And five sillion fleas
And uncounted numbers
Of sweet memories.

~ Douglas Florian,

Is this a fun poem, or what? :)  I love the rhymes, the nonsense words, and the images.  Bugs, trees, memories -- yep, sounds like summer!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Until the ocean stood still...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

An excerpt:

     It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.

     A mile from shore a fishing boat chummed the water, and the word for Breakfast Flock flashed through the air, till a crowd of a thousand seagulls came to dodge and fight for bits of food.  It was another busy day beginning.

     But way off alone, out by himself beyond boat and shore, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was practicing.  A hundred feet in the sky he lowered his webbed feet, lifted his beak, and strained to hold a painful hard twisting curve through his wings.  The curve meant that he would fly slowly, and now he slowed until the wind was a whisper in his face, until the ocean stood still beneath him.

~ from Jonathan Livingston Seagull: A Story,
written by Richard Bach

I can see this scene vividly in my head: the sun sparkling on the water, the congregation of squawking gulls fighting over food, and then one lone, determined bird, reveling in the joy of flight.  Jonathan Gull reminds me to embrace life and all that it has to offer, to let my heart soar, and to dream big.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

First we dream...

Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

"Nothing happens unless 
first we dream."

~ Carl Sandburg

Dream first.  Dream big.  Then do everything in your power to make those dreams come true....

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Summer Mansion

Emmalie in the BWCA, Aug. 2010

A single mat
A pine tree
Makes a summer mansion.

~ Issa

Issa (1763-1828) was one of Japan's most famous and prolific poets, writing over 20,000 haiku in his lifetime.  I came across a book of his poetry in a box in my garage a few months ago.  It was with other books from my childhood, so I must've had it when I was growing up, but I don't remember reading it before.  

The poem above is one of my favorites from that book.  I spent so much time playing outside when I was little, much of it in or under trees.  I loved pretending that a cluster of trees (like the one in the photo above) was my house, complete with many rooms and a carpet of needles, leaves, or moss.  I can  easily see myself sitting beneath a pine tree, imagining a summer mansion around me....

Friday, August 10, 2012

Books for Back-to-School

Third and fourth grade students of LaMoille, IL, 1914
(My grandpa is the tallest boy standing in the back, and
my grandma is also in the back, 4th from the right.)

I can't believe it's back-to-school time already, can you?  My kids will be returning to class in about a week and a half. They will be in 11th, 8th, and 1st grade this year.  (Boy, do I feel old!)  My youngest, Ben, and I have been getting ourselves in a scholarly mood by reading some books we found at the library.  Here are the ones we enjoyed the most, starting with the picture books:

I Am Not Going to School Today!,
written by Robie H. Harris
and illustrated by Jan Ormerod, 2003

A little boy does not want to go to his first day of school -- he doesn't know anyone, he doesn't know where anything is, he doesn't know the rules.  It takes much convincing from his parents, but finally he agrees to give school a try, provided he can take his stuffed monkey Hank along.  During his first day, the boy makes a new friend (another boy who brought along his teddy bear).  His teacher shows the students where everything is and explains all the rules, too.  In the end, the boy (and Hank!) decide they like school, and are eager to go back the next day.

Many young children will be able to relate to the main character and his fears.  This gentle book will help ease those concerns.  I like the sweet illustrations and the reassuring tone of the story.


Little Rabbit Goes to School,
written and illustrated by Harry Horse, 2004

It's Little Rabbit's first day of school, and he takes his favorite toy, Charlie Horse, along with him.  Charlie Horse (or is it really Little Rabbit?) has a difficult time behaving in school, getting into all kinds of mischief.  The teacher seems to take it all in stride, though, and by the time Little Rabbit goes home for the day, he realizes that it's best if Charlie Horse stays home from now on.

When I read this to Ben, he kept pointing out that Charlie Horse couldn't misbehave all by himself, and that Little Rabbit must be "helping" him.  I don't know if younger readers would understand that, or be confused by it.  The message that these are not appropriate behaviors for school is clear, however, and the illustrations are delightful.


Eliza's Kindergarten Surprise,
written by Alice B. McGinty
and illustrated by Nancy Speir, 2007

It's Eliza's first day of Kindergarten, and she misses her mother.  She has the kiss that Mommy slid into her pocket, but the pocket still feels empty.  Throughout the day Eliza finds things that remind her of her mother -- buttons, shiny and blue, like her mother's shoes, golden yarn like her mother's hair, and more. She collects these items, eventually using them all to create a little doll that she can tuck into her pocket.  She can't wait to show her mother after school, and it turns out that Mommy has a surprise for Eliza, too!

This is a good book for children experiencing separation anxiety as they begin school.  It lets them know that they are not alone, and that there are ways to feel connected to a loved one even when they can't be together.


Eddie Gets Ready For School,
written and illustrated by David Milgrim, 2011

As the title suggests, Eddie gets himself ready for school, using a handy-dandy checklist.  Some of the items on the list may not be parent-approved, however!

Ben and I giggled throughout this book.  It is short on words, but the hilarious pictures tell the rest of the story.


Jack's Talent,
written and illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, 2007

On Jack's first day of school, Miss Lucinda asks her students to share their special talents with the class.  Alex is good at building sandcastles.  Kristin likes to sing for her friends. But Jack is worried.  He can't think of anything special that he can do.  Miss Lucinda can, though, and points out something that Jack is very good at, a skill that will definitely come in handy at school!

This cute story reinforces the idea that every person is unique and special, and has something to contribute.


Sammy Spider's First Day of School,
written by Sylvia A. Rouss
and illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn, 2009

Sammy the Spider wants to go to school, even though his mother insists that school is not for spiders.  He hides in Josh's backpack, and the two head off to the boy's Jewish school.  Josh's teacher, Miss Sarah, reads  a book about Noah's ark to the class, then talks with them about being kind to animals.  Meanwhile, Sammy is learning why school might not be the best place for spiders as he narrowly avoids all the children's feet and some blocks that come tumbling down.  When a child spots the spider on the floor, some of the kids are afraid.  They want to stomp on it, but Miss Sarah reminds the students about being kind to all creatures.  Josh carefully takes Sammy outside, but the spider sneaks back into Josh's backpack where he can wait safely to return home.

Ben and I liked the "be kind to animals" theme in this book, and also the vibrant illustrations.


The Wheels on the School Bus,
written by Mary-Alice Moore
and illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, 2006

In this book, Moore takes the well-known song "The Wheels on the Bus" and changes the lyrics to fit a school bus.  Not only are there students on this bus, but also teachers, the librarian, lunch ladies, the custodian, and more -- all on their way to school.  Sheet music for the song is provided at the end of the book.

Fun pictures and enthusiastic lyrics work together to create a sense of excitement for the school year to begin.  Ben loved singing along!


Dinosaur Starts School,
written by Pamela Duncan Edwards
and illustrated by Deborah Allwright, 2008

A young boy and his dinosaur head off to school for the first time.  Dinosaur is full of worries, but the boy reassures him and helps him through this new experience.  In the end, the two decide that school is fun, and can't wait to return the next day.

This book addresses many common fears children have when going to school for the first time, and offers good advice for handling new situations.  The colorful pictures of Dinosaur and his friend compliment the story perfectly.


Froggy Goes to School,
written by Jonathan London
and illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz, 1996

Froggy is nervous about his first day of school, and even dreams that he goes to school in only his underwear.  It's hard to sit still and pay attention to the teacher, but Froggy manages to make it through the day with only a few embarrassing moments.

My family and I are fans of all the Froggy books by London and Remkiewicz.  (There are at least 16 of them.)  I especially like all of the onomatopoeia that London uses (zip! zoop! zup! flop flop flop) and the silly situations that Froggy always finds himself in.  Ben and I just can't get through a Froggy book without laughing, and this one is no exception.


How Do Dinosaurs Go to School?,
written by Jane Yolen
and illustrated by Mark Teague, 2007

Do dinosaurs stomp and make a fuss when they go to school, interrupting the class and treating other students rudely?  Of course not.  Dinosaurs raise their hands when they want to talk, help their classmates, and tidy their desks, just like all good students should.

Ben and I enjoyed the antics of Teague's dinosaurs on every page (the mischief-makers and the well-behaved ones), as well as as Yolen's rhyming text.


Enrico Starts School,
written and illustrated by Charlotte Middleton, 2004

Enrico is good at lots of things, but when he goes to school for the first time, he isn't sure how to make friends.  His first day doesn't go so well, but then his younger brother suggests that Enrico just try being himself when he returns to school. It turns out to be good advice, and soon Enrico makes a new friend.

Ben and I especially liked the humor in this book, including the way that Middleton labels many of the objects in her illustrations.


Mr. Ouchy's First Day,
written by B. G. Hennessy
and illustrated by Paul Meisel, 2006

Students aren't the only ones who feel nervous on the first day of school.  It's Mr. Ouchy's first day as a teacher, and he is worried.  What if he can't remember the kids' names, or find the bathroom?  Mr. Ouchy and his class help each other through their first day together, and by the end of the day, they are all excited about the year ahead of them.

I like that, even though this story is told from the teacher's perspective, kids will be able to connect to it.  It shows (in an amusing way!) that teachers are people, too, with hopes and fears of their own.


Louise the Big Cheese
and the Back-to-School Smarty Pants,
written by Elise Primaera
and illustrated by Diane Goode, 2011

Louise Cheese is excited for school to start.  She's planning to get straight A's, which should be a cinch, and maybe she will even get to skip a grade or two.  But then she discovers that her new teacher, Mrs. Pearl, is strict and actually wants her students to work hard for their grades.  By October, Louise is sure she'll never get an A, and that she'll have to spend her whole life in second grade!  Then one day, there is a substitute teacher.  Miss Sprinkles is nice.  She lets the students do whatever they want, and she even gives Louise an A -- in fact, she gives everyone an A.  Louise begins to realize that Mrs. Pearl's high expectations might be a good thing....

Ben and I loved the expressive drawings in this book and all the funny exaggeration.  I also liked the message that when you work hard for something, you appreciate it more.


Ten Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break
if You Want to Survive the School Bus
written by John Grandits
and illustrated by Michael Allen Austin, 2011

Kyle has never ridden a school bus before, and he's nervous. He's heard about all the things that can happen on the school bus from his big brother James, things like kids making fun of other kids, pounding them, or stealing their lunches.  James gives Kyle a list of rules for surviving the bus ride, including advice like "never talk to big kids" and "never touch anyone's stuff".  The only problem is, it's nearly impossible to follow these rules to the letter.  As Kyle relies on his own common sense to get through his first day, he discovers that the bus really isn't so bad after all.  He even comes up with his own rule, which he shares with James.

Preschoolers and Kindergartners might be even more worried about getting on a bus after reading this book, but older kids will understand the irony and wit of Grandits's plot.  Even my two teenagers (who are school bus-riding experts) got a kick out of the story and Austin's illustrations.


The Secret Science Project That 
Almost Ate the School,
written by Judy Sierra
and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, 2006

In this rhyming story, a young girl wants to do a science project that no one will ever forget.  When she sends away for some mutant slime, she learns first hand what people mean when they say, "Be careful what you wish for!"

Gammell's colorful, splashy paintings are perfect for this entertaining tale of a science project gone wrong.  Ben and I loved reading through this, wondering how it would all turn out in the end.

In addition to the picture books above, I've also been reading some school-related poetry:

Hello School!: A Classroom Full of Poems,
written by Dee Lillegard
and illustrated by Don Carter, 2003

Thirty-eight brief, playful poems introduce young children to the world of a school.  I loved the three-dimensional artwork on every page and the images that Lillegard creates with her rhymes.


The Bug in Teacher's Coffee
and Other School Poems,
written by Kalli Dakos
and illustrated by Mike Reed, 1999

This is the first book of poetry that I've ever seen for beginning readers.  (I'm sure there are others, and you can bet I'll be keeping an eye out for them from now on!)  Kalli Dakos brings ordinary classroom objects to life in twenty-three short rhyming poems, with help from Reed's illustrations.


The Goof Who Invented Homework
and Other School Poems,
written by Kalli Dakos
and illustrated by Denise Brunkus, 1996

This collection of 36 poems leads readers through the school year, painting a picture of daily life in the classroom.  I like Dakos's lighthearted verses, as well as her insights into the education system.


Put Your Eyes Up Here
and Other School Poems,
written by Kalli Dakos
and illustrated by G. Brian Karas, 2003

Again Dakos delights her readers with wit and understanding.  Most of the poems in this book are narrated by a young student named Penny, who describes her days in the classroom with her unusual teacher, Mrs. Roys.


Countdown to Summer:
A Poem for Every Day of the School Year,
written by J. Patrick Lewis
and illustrated by Ethan Long, 2009

For those kids who are already looking forward to next year's summer vacation (and for anyone who enjoys fun poetry), this book offers a poem for each day of the school year. Many of the poems are not about school itself; instead they focus on the seasons, special holidays, and a variety of subjects that kids are interested in.  Some are serious, but most are very silly!


I also read two middle grade novels about school this week:

The Best School Year Ever,
written by Barbara Robinson, 1994
The six Herdman kids' outrageous behavior always ends in disaster for everyone around them.  They lie, steal, smoke cigars -- even bite other kids.  Now Miss Kemp has given her students a year-long project, to write down special compliments for every single person in class.  How will Beth and the rest of her classmates ever come up with something nice to say about Imogene Herdman?

This madcap tale is laugh-out-loud funny, and a treat for all ages!  It is actually the sequel to Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1972), which I have never read... but have now put at the top of my "to read" list.  I read this one to myself and thoroughly enjoyed it, laughing from beginning to end.  I'm sure Ben will love it, too -- it's going to be our next bedtime book.


NO Talking,
written by Andrew Clements
and illustrated by Mark Elliott, 2007
The fifth-graders at Lakewood Elementary are loud and disorderly.  Their teachers and principal try to teach them to be quiet and considerate of others, but nothing seems to work.  On top of that, the boys and the girls view each other with disdain.  One day, Dave Packer -- certified loudmouth -- decides to emulate Mahatma Gandhi, and tries going one whole day without talking.  It turns out to be easier than he thought it would be -- until Lynsey's jabbering at lunchtime aggravates him too much.  A heated argument between the two turns into a contest of silence for the whole class, boys against girls.  How will the teachers and principal react? And who will win?

I really loved this clever, thought-provoking story about the power of words and unspoken language.  I think it makes a great book for teachers to read aloud and discuss with their students.  Clements keeps the story interesting throughout, adding just the right amount of comedy in all the right places.


Have you read any of the books mentioned here?  If so, what did you think? What are some of your favorite books about school?  I always love to hear recommendations for new books to try!