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11 Dec 2017 A Two-Novel Week!
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This was a good week, with only minor distractions. I not only wrote every day, but I managed to find quiet time to read two of the middle grade novels on my tottering stack.

First, Teddy Mars: Almost an Outlaw by Molly B. Burnham.

I picked up the first Teddy Mars novel, Almost a World Record Breaker, when it won the Sid Fleischman Award for humor from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I loved it so much, I decided to read it aloud to my fourth-grade Reading Lab boys. They loved it so much, they said I should invite the Reading Lab girls next door to join them. Almost an Outlaw, the third book in the series, lives up to expectations. Find you a reading spot where it’s okay to laugh out loud.

Second, Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson.

I had expectations here, too, because I’m a fan of Lawson’s The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher.

How would I classify Nooks and Crannies?

It takes place in the early 1900s in England, during the reign of King Edward, so we can call it historical fiction.

The wealthy can afford electricity and motorcars, and the house where most of the story takes place has clever hidden passages. This gives the book a steampunk feel even though it’s a half dozen years into the 20th Century.

It is definitely a mystery, well plotted and fast paced, but it has such quotable lines. I see no reason that good genre fiction can’t be literary fiction, as well.

The main character, despite her Dickensian life is smart and good. If you love a good mystery, settle in and read.

I heartily recommend both books for your own middle grade stacks. And if you don’t have a middle grade stack, I suggest you start one.

22 Nov 2017 Lauren Tarshis on the American Revolution
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If you’ve read any I Survived books, you know before you start that the main character will suffer and that he or she will survive. It’s predictable, and that suits most upper elementary readers. What’s not predictable is how much you will enjoy reading a novel with a not-really-all-that-predicable ending, how passionately you will root for characters that feel like real people, and how much you will learn.

The latest offering from the series author, Lauren Tarshis, covers the Battle of Brooklyn, aka the Battle of Long Island. I won’t tell you how the battle turns out. I recommend that you read the book. Once you’ve read it for yourself, read it again with a kid and discuss its weighty questions.

I intend to find a fourth grade class with whom I can share the story.

Ms. Tarshis suggests you read the following books, as well:
The Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Fighting Ground by Avi
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
The Keeping Room by Anna Myers
Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

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.