Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why Fall May Be my Favorite Season

Tomatoes are ripe, the weather has cooled down, pockets of red and orange are emerging on the mountain outside my window--it's almost time for pumpkin pie.  And just in case you need more reasons to celebrate fall, let me give you three:

First, two of the best children's literature blogs are back in session.  At Heavy Medal,  Jonathan Hunt and Nina Lindsay look closely at Newbery contenders with ooh-I-wish-I-would-have-written-that posts.  Their commentary is smart and thoughtful, and the comments provide a great forum to join the discussion.  Calling Caldecott considers possible Caldecott contenders.  Check it out to discover titles you may have missed, look at some the year's best books in a new way, and add your own two cents to the discussion.

Second, the National Book Awards announcement yesterday of their longlist for Young People's Literature started--albeit unofficially--the awards season.  Finalists will be announced October 14th and the winners will be announced on November 18th.  Mark your calendars.  Meanwhile, I am just waiting to get my hands on a copy of The Thing About Jellyfish.

Finally, the Cybils Awards will begin accepting nominations October 1st.  Put together a list of books you would like to see recognized and get ready to nominate.  (Rules are found here. Nominate here.)

Tomato sandwiches, open windows, good books . . . happy fall.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

tara recommends The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schiltz

Laura Amy Schlitz is a talented writer and I am always excited to read her new books because of the unusual stories and well-developed characters.  I was hooked when I finished The Night Fairy and I continued to be impressed by Splendors and Glooms, as they invited me into unique new worlds with details I hadn't experienced before.  Her newest story, The Hired Girl, takes a more traditional twist and is set in the 1900's.  While the setting is more familiar, this Americana romance explores some interesting issues of religious diversity, family ties and class distinction, all while embracing the foibles and resilience of human nature.

14-year-old Joan has not had an easy life, a life made even more difficult with the death of her doting mother and the cold resentment of her father.  As the only woman on her father's farm, she is forced to leave school and become solely responsible for the cleaning, cooking, washing, gardening, mending and chicken tending.  Her life is basically one of servitude and she longs to fulfill her mother's dream for her and become a schoolteacher, a wish not likely to come true under the hatred of her father and the heavy drudgery of farm work.  She takes courage, however, after her father burns her beloved books and reveals all the ugly things he feels about her, and she runs away to become a hired girl.

A kind stranger takes her off the street and, after changing her name and lying about her age, she is given a job in the Rosenbach's home.  In this new household, she must work hard to please Malka, the old family housekeeper, and to learn all the strange new rules of a Jewish family.  She also must navigate her emerging feelings toward Mrs. Rosenbach, kind but often disapproving, Mr. Rosenbach, who takes her under his wing, and their three children.  The developing story shows her mettle, while also highlighting her youth and lack of relationship experience.

Written entirely in Joan's journal entries, each passage is incredibly detailed, so much so that when dialogue is presented it feels more like a traditional first person narrative.  The combination of styles works, but the length of almost 400 pages and lack of white space skews to an older audience.  Fans of historical romance will appreciate Joan's girlish fantasies and the compelling characters and attention to detail is engaging.

The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz
published by Candlewick Press
September 2015
recommended for ages 14 and up

Review copy received from publisher.

Friday, May 29, 2015

May Storytime Briefly 2015

I have conflicting feelings about the month of May.  First, I am counting down the days until school lets out.  I look forward to summer days with no homework, no school projects, and no bell schedule.  Summer is the time when I get to decide what to do with my children, and I love it.  On the other hand, it also the last month of storytime at school, and I know I will miss the students I have come to know this year.

I decided to wrap up the year with fables, folktales, and biographies.

Among all the biographical stories we read this year, there was not a single one about a woman, so we took a week to look at a couple of amazing women.  We read
  • Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and
  • The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry.

We talked about Aesop's Fables with the following stories:
  • "The Fox and the Crow" retold with puppets and
  • Mouse & Lion by Rand Burkert, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert.
We talked about flattery and about morals.  The students did a great job of articulating the lessons that could be learned from Mouse & Lion.

We finished the year with these folktales from Africa:
  • Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile by Won-Ldy Paye, illustrated by Margaret H. Lippert and
  • "The Girl who Loved Danger" told using Steve Light's story box.
I cannot recommend Steve Light's story boxes enough.  They making storytelling fun for kids and adults alike.  And I think it was the perfect way to end the year.

Monday, May 25, 2015

tara recommends Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes collected by Elizabeth Hammill

Nursery Rhyme books are scattered throughout my shelves.  I have several Mother Goose collections (including the essential Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose and Mother Goose's Storytime Nursery Rhymes by Axel Scheffler), Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Salley Mavor (one of my favorites), and several different versions of rhymes in the board book variety (including Tomie's Little Mother Goose).  I definitely did not think I needed any more collections to stock my personal library . . . but I was wrong.

Over the Hills and Far Away is a Treasury of Nursery Rhymes that breathes new diversity and life into the genre.  Collected by Elizabeth Hammill, it has the traditional rhymes that you would expect and look forward to, but as an added surprise, there is a healthy collection of lesser-known rhymes from all around the world.

One particularly enchanting page comes early in the book, and really showcases the genius of this creative collection.  I read it several times because I love how it compares, at a glance, the similarities and differences between cultures with one base rhyme.  Four different versions of "Little Miss Muffet" are set side-by-side on the page (English, Jamaican, American, Australian) and reading them together is just fun.

If you set the unique rhymes aside, this book is a must-have for the artwork alone.  With over 70 different artists contributing their talents, each page is a new style and a surprise, with artists including Mo Willems, Ashley Bryan, Jon Klassen, Jerry Pinkney, and many more.  There is certainly nothing boring or expected in these pages and the full color illustrations are simply beautiful.

This is a grown-up collection of nursery rhymes that will still entertain young readers with clapping rhymes, riddles, counting-out rhymes, traditional rhymes and distinct illustrations.  Even if you think you have seen it all, check this collection out and it is sure to find a space on your shelves.

Over the Hills and Far Away:  A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
collected by Elizabeth Hammill
illustrated by more than 70 celebrated artists
published by Candlewick Press
March 2015

Friday, May 15, 2015

Interview with Author Jen White

In today's post, debut author Jen White discusses her exciting new novel, Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave--a superbly-paced middle-grade adventure with memorable supporting characters and two unbelievably brave (and yet completely believable) sisters.

After her mom dies, Liberty's father shows up in a camper to take Liberty and her younger sister, Billie, for the summer.  At first, Liberty thinks things with her "gone-forever-but-now-he's-back-dad" might work out fine, but when he abandons the sisters at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, she realizes that they are on their own.  As the sisters try to get to safety, some of Liberty's twelve-year-old decisions are ill-advised, but her loyalty to Billie never wavers. 
Q:  Liberty and Billie have a wonderfully strong bond. Did you draw on personal experience to portray their relationship?

A:  I’m sure I did, although it wasn't a conscious decision.  I come from a large family and we are all close in age.  I have two sisters and two brothers.  I am the oldest, so the bossy, controlling part of Liberty I came by naturally.  I also have my own children.  Although, I do feel like Liberty and Billie are their own creations.  When I wrote them I wasn't thinking of a particular person or persons.  They came alive as I wrote and after I finished my first draft I felt like I had a really good handle on who they were and how they behaved.

Q:  Liberty and Billie cross paths with several interesting characters—do you have a favorite?

A:  In some ways they are all my favorites.  There’s a true emotional connection behind each character.  I would say I really loved Star Wars Kid (Roger) and didn't want his story to end.  I hope I can create some form of Roger again in my future writing.  I also loved Lavender Lady and Orson. They made me laugh and were a great duo to write.  And finally, I’d say, I loved Tattoo Guy.  I love him because upon first observation he seems intimidating and scary, but as the book progresses we get the whole picture of who he is (compassionate, funny, and smart).  In the beginning he is not who he seems.  In general, I think this is true of most people.  There is so much more to a person than what we see on the surface.  Deep down everyone has a story that we can relate to.

Q:  Your story presents mental illness with delicacy and candor. Was it difficult to achieve that balance?

A:  Thank you, I’m so happy to hear you say that.  I worked very hard on those scenes and wanted them to feel right.  I would say the moments with Liberty and Billie’s dad were my most difficult to write and I spent most of my time on those scenes trying to make them feel real.  People deal with mental illness daily— trying to cure it or contain it, as well as trying to accomplish everyday tasks such as how to: work, sleep, eat, take care of children, get an education, find someone to love, etc..  In many ways mental illness can feel like business-as-usual for the people who live with it or for people whose loved ones struggle, so I wanted, at times, what was going on with dad to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable to Liberty and Billie.  Obviously, in the book, their dad needs help.  The girls need to get over the dream of who they want him to be and come to terms with who he really is.  They also need to get to a place in the book where they recognize he is not behaving normally.  Sometimes mental illness isn't entirely obvious until, when suddenly, it is.

Q:  What is the hardest part of writing for you? What is the most rewarding?

A:  Right now I can pinpoint two hard parts.  First, forcing myself to create time to write can be difficult for me.  My family is still all at home, so there are many needs at my house.  I am one of the primary people who take care of those needs, so time is my enemy. There is a constant struggle between things that need my immediate attention and also my writing (which also needs my attention, but it doesn't always feel quite as urgent).  When I am not getting my writing time I turn very cranky.  At my house we have this game, Table Talk, that we play at dinnertime and one of the questions is: If you could be a super hero what quality would you have and why?  I always choose the ability to stop and start time.  My kids think that is the WORST super hero power ever.  But wouldn't that be awesome?  I dream of having all the time in the world.  Second, I think the hardest part in a manuscript is generally the middle…I would say around page 130 is where I start to slow down and feel stuck.  That’s because I don’t use an outline as I write.  I’m a seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, so the middle always gets difficult because I have to make important decisions that affect the ending.  I hate middles. The most rewarding part of writing is reading a scene you just wrote and think, wow!  I kind of like that.  In fact, I like it a lot.  That feeling is addictive.

Q:  This is your first published book. Were there any surprises along the journey from idea to publication?

A:  Yes, there were surprises.  I remember going to a marketing meeting at FSG/Macmillan after the book was first bought and someone asked, “Do you have any questions?”  And I sat there trying to think of an intelligent question when I finally said, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what I don’t know.”  Now, two years into the publishing process, I think I would have better questions.  Another surprise is once your manuscript is bought by a publishing house is takes a REALLY LONG time to hold that book in your hands.  It just does.  There’s no real way around it.  Also, I didn't realize how much I was going to need and rely on my agent who has turned out to be a really amazing person, so I lucked out there.  When I was making my agent choice, I didn't realize how important that relationship would be, and I have been pleasantly surprised.  The same is true for my editor.  I have learned so much from her.  It’s great to work with people who love my book almost more than I do.  The publishing world is really quite small and I think it’s important to surround yourself with great people, and in turn, be good to the people around you.

Thanks Jen, for taking the time to tell us a little about yourself and your book.  I'm looking forward to reading your next book, especially if you tell us more about Star Wars Kid's story.

You can read more about Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave and read the first chapter at Jen White Books.  Pick up a copy of your own when it comes out on June 9.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April Storytime Briefly 2015

In my neck of the woods, April was filled with the craziness of bunnies, blossoms, and snow.  This month's storytimes reflect that.

We started the month with books about rabbits.  We read
  • The Black Rabbit by Philippa Leathers;
  • Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, illustrated by G. Brian Karas; and
  • Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zacharia OHora.
Wolfie the Bunny was huge hit.  One boy, in particular, laughed at almost every page turn.  That's a keeper!

We read Native American folktales:
  • Rabbit's Snow Dance by James and Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman and
  • Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest by Gerald McDermott.
We had a spring snowstorm which seemed like the perfect time to share Rabbit's Snow Dance, and the Native American folktales dovetailed nicely with what the students were learning in class.
We talks about ocean animals by reading
  • "About the Teeth of Sharks" by John Ciardi;
  • Humphrey the Lost Whale by Wendy Tokuda, illustrated by Richard Hall; and
  • Trapped! A Whale's Rescue by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor.
I'm not sure the shark poem entirely fit with the whale theme, but I love sharing this poem during National Poetry Month.  The two books about whale rescue provided an interesting contrast, not just because the rescue methods were different, but because Humphrey trapped himself by swimming up the river, and the whale from Robert Burleigh's book was trapped by human-made nets.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March Storytime Briefly 2015

My parents' children--all eight of us--were born in different months, so when I was growing up, we each claimed our birthday month as our own.  And because I still feel a little like March is my month, I decided to share my favorite things.  I introduced the month by sharing
  • My Favorite Things by Oscar Hammerstein, music by Richard Rodgers, illustrated by James Warhola.
Then each week we talked about some of my favorite authors and illustrators, past and present.

My favorite poems to memorize when I was a kid were Shel Silverstein's.  Memorizing fourteen lines of light verse was a whole lot easier than memorizing William Shakespeare.  For storytime, we read/recited the following:

  • "Kidnapped!" by Shel Silverstein, from A Light in the Attic;
  • "Skin Stealer" by Shel Silverstein, from A Light in the Attic;
  • "Crocodile's Toothache" by Shel Silverstein from Where the Sidewalk Ends; and
  • "Sick" by Shel Silverstein, from Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Just as I was wrapping things up and heading out the door, I got a request to read "Boa Constrictor." Unfortunately, we were out of time--I'll have to find a way to incorporate that into an upcoming storytime.

When I was a second grader, my favorite book to take on road trips was an Encyclopedia Brown book.  Any Encyclopedia Brown book.  The episodic chapters make the books easy to set down and pick up again when your family makes frequent stops as mine did.  I introduced the students to Encyclopedia Brown, talked about what encyclopedias are, and read
  • "The Case of the Silver Fruit Bowl" from Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace by Donald J. Sobol.
Before reading the solution at the back of the book, I asked the students if they thought they could solve the case.  They are pretty observant third graders and had some great ideas.

We looked at Erin Stead's beautiful illustrations and discussed woodcuts, linocuts, and the process for making prints.  We read
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead;
  • And Then It's Spring by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead; and
  • If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Jon Agee's new book, It's Only Stanley, came out just in time to be included in my month of favorite things.  We talked about humor and read
  • It's Only Stanley by Jon Agee;
  • Little Santa by Jon Agee; and
  • Milo's Hat Trick by Jon Agee.
And I'll ask again what I always ask when I talk about Milo's Hat Trick: Why is this fantastic book out of print?  Bring it back.  Please.