Author Archive

11 Oct 2017 Until There Is Time Travel
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There is more than one good reason to read Joshua and the Biggest Fish by Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith (illustrations by Dorothy Shaw). The first? It’s a good story. That should be enough, but the teacher in me loves that there is more.

Joshua and the Biggest Fish is the story of a Muscogee Creek boy who is tired of being called cepane (chee-BAH-nee), little boy. During a traditional food gathering event, he sets out to prove that he is no longer a child. The tale, set in 1920 on the banks of the Deep Fork River in Oklahoma, is based on real events.

It’s important that young people become acquainted with history and culture, and not just their own. Since we can’t travel back in time…yet…what better way to learn history than with a good story?

Students also like to pick up words in other languages. We spent one school year learning Choctaw vocabulary. We built a Choctaw word wall, practiced with a native speaker on a Choctaw Nation website, and showed off our skills every chance we got.

Joshua and the Biggest Fish introduces Muscogee Creek words, including pronunciation. A quick online search brings up some additional resources, some sponsored by the tribe. The book also contains a section of photographs from the Oklahoma Historical Society.

I recommend this book for all the reasons above.

08 Sep 2017 Clancy Knows What He Likes
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I’ve been a Una Belle Townsend fan since I read Grady’s in the Silo back in 2003. I’ve bought her books for family members and I’ve used them in the classroom.

Last year, the boys in my fourth grade Reading Lab made a year-long project out of Townsend’s Toby and the Secret Code. Our word wall always contained a mix of English and Spanish words. After we read Toby, a story with reference to the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I, our multi-lingual wall also included Choctaw words.

Townsend’s latest picture book may be my favorite yet. Clancy is one of those rare stories that doesn’t have one scene too many. It starts where it should and ends on just the right word.

Clancy is a charming goat who likes the taste of wood even if he doesn’t care much for nails. Sorry, but I’m not giving away any more of the story. You’ll have to read it for yourself, then you’ll want to find a classroom of second graders with whom to share it.

I bet they laugh as heartily as you do.

02 Sep 2017 Too Many Irons
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My dishes are always done. I do a load or two of laundry almost every day. I’m not a neat freak. Indeed, I’m far from it; I share my space with a man, two dogs, and two cats. What I am is a writer. It is easier to wash dishes or sort clothes than it is to tackle a problem I’ve encountered in a story.

It’s hard for me to start writing. It is even harder to stop once I get going. The hardest thing, though, is sticking with one project.

As the author of six, seven, I’m not sure how many unpublished novels, I know that it is essential to visit the novel every day to maintain the thread. This is just as important when you’re revising.

I set aside time each day to revise. Then a poem happens. Or I have an insight that requires the rough draft of an essay. Then, when it is time to get back to the revision, I find that I’m out of time. Ha! It’s happening right now.

My teachers called me hyperactive. My mother said I had too many irons in the fire. I never did find out if they were clothes-pressing irons or branding irons. I could stop to do some research to find the source of that saying, but…my revision!

I love the book I’m working on. I don’t know why I get distracted. Writer friends, do any of you get stymied by your next great idea?

11 Aug 2017 Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down
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I ended up in the emergency room this week doubled over in pain. That’s not figurative language. I was doubled over. It took a few days for the doctor to get me through, but I used my time wisely. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was reading. I read two middle grade novels.

Let’s talk about the book I liked.

Woof: A Bowser and Birdie Mystery by Spencer Quinn will make you giggle while providing some edge-of-the-seat action. The narrator is Bowser, a mixed-breed mutt with a good nose. And even if his off-side narration sometimes goes on a little long, you stick with him.

Set in the Louisiana bayou country, there’s a missing piece of taxidermy, some WWII history, and a puzzle to solve. Birdie is a brave and resourceful girl, but she couldn’t get by without Bowser’s nose and loyalty.

I’ve already bought the next book in the series.

Now, let’s talk about the book I didn’t. I won’t tell you it’s name, but it involves a pretty, mean girl and her used-to-be-friend. Why talk about it at all if I can’t recommend it? Because of what I learned as a writer by reading it to the end.

1. Your antagonist can’t be unrelentingly mean. She (or he) must have some redeeming value, and not just a sad reason for them being what they are.
2. The activities and tone must jive with the setting of the book, both time and place. Both the protagonist and her nemesis were expected to do the family ironing. It takes place in the present. Do people still iron their sheets?
3. The author does a good job of showing the relationship between the protagonist and her grandmother. But when she, inevitably, loses her beloved grandmother, the funeral scene goes on for much too long. Too much time was spent on details that didn’t matter.
4. The author explained things that most readers already know.
5. The ends all tied up to neatly, except one. Who won the talent show?
6. The song titles listed in the book seemed like an odd assortment. Songs can date a book, but they can also date an author. Don’t just use your favorite old tunes. You’re writing this for kids, not for their parents.

The writing was literate, and the plot wasn’t stupid. A few revisions might have made this a book I could name in the review. Hey, there’s a lesson right there.

01 Jun 2017 96 Years Ago in Tulsa
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If you want to know more about the pogrom* that took place May 31 & June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, these four books would be a place to start:

Rilla Askew, Fire in Beulah
Buck Colbert Franklin, My Life and an Era
Jennifer Latham, Dreamland Burning
Anna Myers, Tulsa Burning

Three of these are fiction. As a reading teacher, I’ve seen evidence that historical fiction gives readers a way to connect with events that a simple recounting might not. But there are several excellent nonfiction books on the subject, as well.

*Pogrom is a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” Historically, the term refers to violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire and in other countries.”  –United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Buck Colbert Franklin suggested that pogrom was more appropriate than riot to describe the destruction of the Greenwood District in Tulsa in 1921.–smithsonianmag.com

25 May 2017 A Box of Crystal Kite Winners
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I live in the woods, at least an hour from the nearest bookstore and the library system for which, as an out-of-towner, I buy yearly access. Instead of trips to the city, I look forward to a three-mile trek to the post office.

The box that came in the mail this week contained half a dozen Crystal Kite Award winners, first run books published in the past year by members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Two books on the list I already owned and had shared with my Reading Lab students…and with a couple of second grade classes to whom I read every chance I get.

One, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks and Colin Bootman, was also the winner of an NAACP Award. This is a must-share book, the story of a smart, brave African American who changed the world for the better. Tiny Stitches will appeal to students in upper elementary through high school and beyond. The storytelling is superb, as are Bootman’s illustrations.

Space Boy and the Space Pirate by Dian Curtis Regan and Robert Neubecker is the second Space Boy book. I hope there are more. The books are fun, and the kids appreciate the message about the power of imagination, not to mention tips on getting along with a pesky sister. I shared both Space Boy books with my second grade friends. They loved them as much as I did, and they got the clues and the humor.

Schools out now. I have the summer, my box of books, and plenty of coffee. Life is good!

02 Apr 2017 Sharing the Love
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Last Friday, while having an eye exam, I discussed my favorite Suzanne Collins series with the optometrist. His ten-year-old son and I share an appreciation for Gregor, the Overlander and for the Underland Chronicles. As the doctor talked enthusiastically about his son and books, I was reminded that it is at least partly due to reading parents and shared experiences that make his family and mine avid readers.

What kinds of books do you love?

What books do you discuss and share with family?

Are you a family of readers?

05 Mar 2017 What If Reading Were Forbidden?
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Edwidge Danticat delivered the keynote address at the Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York in 2016. She spoke of “…how in Haiti she sees kids who desperately want to read but don’t have any books, and in the United States she sees kids who have plenty of books but who don’t want to read” (Jennifer De Leon, Poets and Writers).

I see this, too. It’s almost a badge of honor for some of my students, particularly boys, to say, “I don’t like to read.”

Perhaps we should share with our privileged public school students the stories of young people who will risk almost anything to have what they take for granted.

When I taught middle school and high school English, I read aloud Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen every year. Imagine being whipped for learning the letters. Even worse punishment was meted out for teaching slaves to read. Now, imagine escaping to freedom only to return to teach.

I have found two fine picture books that will introduce younger students to this dark period. Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret, is written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome.

How could teachers illustrate the pit schools where slaves learned in secret? Shoebox projects? A class terrarium that includes a stem-covered pit?

I follow the Ransome book with Steamboat School, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Ron Husband.

James hates learning by candlelight in a dark basement until even that is taken away by an 1847 Missouri law. Steamboat School is based on the real life’s work of John Berry Meachum. Students will recognize how something gains value when it is taken away.

06 Feb 2017 How Things Used to Be
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How do you explain Jim Crow to elementary students? Gwendolyn Hook’s If You Were a Kid during the Civil Rights Movement might be a good place to start.

I grew up in an area called Little Dixie. Most of my neighbors were descendants either of the Choctaws who were force marched to Indian Territory in the 1830s or of the European immigrants who came shortly after to mine coal or hide from the law. I had no idea what segregation was or that we lived in a segregated society.

Kids only know what they know. And unless we introduce them to other worlds…through books, museums, or travel…it is all they’ll ever know.

I was in college in the 70s before I had black friends. When I read the 1977 Newbery Medal winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, it was like a smack upside the head. Black schools got the worn out textbooks that the white schools no longer wanted?

A few decades ago, I wrote a column, “The Oklahoma of My Youth,” for Singles Free Press. I interviewed my friend, Minnie Woodard. Her mother taught in the black school in Chandler during the day and cooked for white families in the evening.

Minnie, herself, was in high school when Chandler schools were integrated. A scrappy basketball star, she traveled on the bus with the team. But when the team stopped to eat on the way home from an away game, she couldn’t go into the restaurant with the white players. The restaurant would take her money, but she had to eat on the bus.

Minnie shared her story with me. I shared her story with my readers. If we can’t live it, we have to read it.

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…”

As far as I know, none of us can travel back in time. Fortunately, there are books and stories, both fiction and nonfiction, that can introduce us, young and old, to times and cultures other than our own.

27 Jan 2017 Reading Local
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I bought two baby gifts this week. For any baby shower, I give books, local books, books written by friends. This time the new mothers, both former students of mine, received copies of Your Alien by Tammi Sauer and Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison.

Your Alien is a sweet story, told in second person, about friendship and family.  This is one of my favorites from picture book superstar Tammi Sauer.

The sequel, Your Alien Returns, appeared in 2016. It’s as good as the first alien visitation.

Extraordinary Jane is, well, extraordinary. Harrison is not only a writer who can tell a complete and beautiful story in less than a hundred words, but her illustrations are lovely.

The board book isn’t as stunning as the original hardcover, but babies need books they can carry around…and chew on, if they wish. This story is one children will want to hear again and again, one they need to hear.

I often read aloud to my current students. Like the baby gifts, many of the books they hear are written by people I know.

You sure know a lot of writers, one of my kiddos said.

Well, yes, if you belong to SCBWI, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, you do know a lot of writers. In Oklahoma, make that a lot of successful writers.  And illustrators.

Check out the work of Sauer and Harrison for yourself. And stay tuned. I plan to introduce you to more of my friends.