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09 Jul 2012 Fleischman and Henkes
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In an interview on NPR, Paul Fleischman talked about how his father did research for his historical fiction. That’s how the Fleischman family came to keep chickens, Paul said. It sounded like my kind of book.
Father and son, Sid and Paul Fleischman are two of my favorite authors. My classes perform from Paul’s Joyful Noise every year, and Seedfolk is one of my best tools for teaching characterization. I have an entire shelf reserved for the elder Fleischman, but I didn’t have the chicken book, Humbug Mountain. It’s out of print. Lucky for me, my excellent library has it. Humbug Mountain has Sid’s trademark humor, quirky characters, and adventure. What a treat!
While I was at the library, I picked up a book by another favorite author, Kevin Henkes. Return to Sender is Henkes first novel, and it’s less simply written than his later books. For example, when he describes the main character’s front porch, Henkes says, “Ivy leaves, like musical notes, sang their way up and down and around the railings.”
While kids may not appreciate the poetry as much as I do, the story is pure Henkes. Two treats in one library visit!
It’s important to keep up with new authors and to buy new books so authors can afford to keep writing. But sometimes, we need to go back and see where the masters started. I hope your library, like mine, yields its share of old treasure.

28 May 2012 Home of the Brave

I grew up in rural southeastern Oklahoma, but I traveled widely…by reading every book about other cultures and distant places I could find. Because my father was a minister, my life choice for travel was to become a missionary. But who am I to tell other people how to live?
My life took a different direction, and I hope the students I taught to love books are grateful. Wait, maybe I did become a missionary!
Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” To help your young person understand people from other cultures, I could like to recommend a book:
Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave will break your heart with its eloquence. This novel in verse follows Kek, an African refugee, to cold Minnesota, as he misses what remains of his family and his homeland despite the war that rages there.

13 May 2012 Freaky Fast Frankie Joe

Freaky Fast Frankie Joe is Lutricia Clifton’s first novel, and I can’t wait for more from her. In fact, I’m adding this middle grade novel to my Recommended List for Children’s Writers. Its characters are as richly drawn and likeable as those in Clementine, and its subject matter is relevant—the parent/child relationship, what makes a family, the value of friends, responsibility—and it does it all without preaching or descending into preciousness.

13 May 2012 Focal Point

I used to think I couldn’t focus, but now I know it’s just that I try to focus on too many things. So, this past year, I narrowed my writing focus to two things. Okay, three–I’m completing a YA novel, I write a weekly column for Drumright Gusher and Oklahoma Observer, and I’m a poet–I jot lines at dinner, at school, and in line at the store.

I didn’t stop reading quality literature for young people, however.  I read, at least for a few minutes, almost every night. My reading material is a mix of youth lit and nonfiction books about farming, politics, and economics.  See, more of that focus.

Because I’ve never quit reading quality children’s literature, the focus of my blog, I’ve decided to change my blogging habits. I can address books I believe worthy of comment in a few lines. Starting now.

It’s good to be back.

28 Feb 2011 Picture Book Marathon
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I’ve been missing in action for the past two months. Even my family was looking for me. If they had just looked behind my laptop, they would have found me.
January is always a busy month in Oklahoma. I use the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) writing contest as a deadline to polish my poetry, a picture book, and a middle grade or young adult novel. I put together the first ten pages of my latest manuscript, along with a synopsis for longer works, for a critique offered by our Regional SCBWI chapter. And this year, when I had met those deadlines, I signed up for the picture book marathon. The goal of the marathon is to write and/or illustrate 26 picture book drafts in the 28 days of February.
Congratulate me. I just finished my 26th rough draft. And I do mean rough! I learned a valuable lesson, too. I need to start my tickler (idea) file for next year’s marathon tomorrow. If I have eleven months to brainstorm, next February will go much more smoothly.
And I will be back for the marathon next year. The exercise made me realize once again that writing short doesn’t mean writing easy. In poetry and in picture books, every word counts. Every scene must carry its full weight. On top of that, the author must make the work meaningful or beautiful or outrageous enough that readers want to read it again and again. It’s hard work. It’s my work.
I’ll be here next week with another book review. Hint: It’s Newbery and Caldecott time.  And for my long-suffering family, look for dinner to be hot and home-cooked again.

17 Dec 2010 Gentle Books for Gentle and Not-So-Gentle Kids
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My favorite books run the gamut from gentle (Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers) to brutal (House of the Scorpion, Unwind). One type comforts; the other makes me think. If it’s comfort you or your beginning reader craves, might I suggest the Bed and Biscuit series by Joan Carris? I’m eagerly awaiting the third book now. Yep, even bought it in hardback.

Welcome to the Bed and Biscuit takes place in a vet’s office. The narrator is an intelligent mini-pig aptly named Ernest. His best friends are a Vietnamese mynah who likes to answer the veterinary office phone and a cat who looks after the widowed doctor.

The human characters are comfortable, too, but this book’s biggest draw is the author’s genuine affection for animals.  Animal lovers will feel right at home at the Bed and Biscuit.

08 Nov 2010 Unnecessary Good
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This is NaNoWriMo, so I’m a little busy; however, I wanted to share this quote with you from What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb: “What if necessary evil had an opposite? This is what it would be. This unnecessary good.”

You will have to read the book, a sweet coming-of-age story, to find out what Mo, who has lived her whole life on Fox Street, means.  Just know that I believe we should all look after each other the way the people on Fox Street do.  And, please, join me in adopting a new purpose: unnecessary good.

11 Oct 2010 Three Books I Couldn’t Put Down
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Have you ever picked up a book just for a look only to find yourself still reading a couple hours later? I have, and the feeling I get from a book like that stays with me. Maybe that’s the key to a story you can’t put down–feeling.
Often these grab-me-by-the-heart books are slim and spare, but not always. Sometimes they are written for adults, but most serve an any-age audience from elementary to ancient. Here are three books that grabbed me:
A signed copy of Michael Bishop’s Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana came in the mail one afternoon. Before I even got to the rest of my mail, I had finished reading this novel and was sitting, stunned by the emotional impact. Like a lot of good science fiction, it had real social value, but that didn’t slow it down. My copy of Apartheid… has disappeared, so I just ordered another. Twenty years later, post-Nelson Mandela, I’m curious how it will feel this time.
Red-Dirt Jessie, by my friend Anna Myers, impacted me in a different way. Normally, I don’t do tear-jerkers, but I didn’t let a few tears slow me down. I was crying for joy by the satisfying end, and every time I see a “blessed gift” I think of this book.
Like Red-Dirt Jessie, Melodie Bowsher’s My Lost and Found Life sucked me in from line one. Strange, since the protagonist wasn’t all that likeable at the beginning of the story. Her change felt so real that, by the end, I was cheering her on. Even the ending, which I should have guessed but didn’t, was exactly right.

What are some books you couldn’t put down? I’d like to know.

26 Sep 2010 Revisiting Nancy Drew
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I’m breaking my promise to write only positive reviews.

I grew up on Nancy Drew.  I loved Nancy Drew.  I didn’t realize there was anything wrong with Nancy’s attitude toward certain people until I bought a facsimile copy of The Secret of the Old Clock, originally published in 1930.  I finished the book with a sick feeling.

In this first book in the series, a rather unpleasant family stands to inherit the fortune of a distant relative.  The author, Edward Stratemeyer writing as Carolyn Keene, makes it clear that the family took care of the aging relative only to get their greedy hands on his money.  Nancy is sure there is another will, and the adventure in this book revolves around her search for the will.  She lies, cheats, and steals to get her hands on the will, but it’s all for a good cause, eh!

There are things to like about Nancy.  She’s responsible and capable.  She’s also mean-spirited.  When the bad buy gets his comeuppance, she fairly gloats.  The good guys get rewarded, the bad guys get punished, and there is no sympathy at all for the latter.

To be fair, the original Nancy Drew mysteries were rewritten–condensed and modernized–in  1959.  But that doesn’t alter the message the first book sent, that there are good folk and bad folk, and it is up to the good folk to teach the bad folk a lesson.

A good story doesn’t need a moral.  In fact, writers will attract more readers if they steer away from simplistic moralizing.  But a writer’s attitudes will leak into the story line, and we must be careful that we don’t send the wrong message to the kids who read our books.   In almost every human there is both good and bad in varying degrees.  For almost every action there is a catalyst, something in a person’s past or present that makes him or her act in a certain way.  When we write without sympathy for the villains in our books, and when we set up our heroine as both judge and jury, we are teaching moral values that should be left untaught.

10 Sep 2010 The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
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The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex was assigned reading for a Joni Sensel writing workshop.  I love science fiction, but with its made-up title, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own.  Am I glad it was assigned!

Timely and timeless, the book pokes fun at today’s conventions and at history’s less dazzling events.  It examines relationships and power, but it keeps you reading with a screwball adventure and the cast of characters.  This is another tale that makes you cast aside your doubts for the sake of the ride.

When the Boov take Earth after trashing their own planet, they move humans to Florida to “Human Preserves-gifts of land that will be for humans forever.”  Forever only lasts until the Boov discover oranges, but not as a food source.

The narrator is twelve-year-old Gratuity Tucci.  When her mother goes missing she decides to drive to Florida with her Mom’s cat, Pig.  At a closed convenience store, while she’s picking up NutriZone Extreme FitnessPlus Blaster Bars for the road, she also picks up a Boov who calls himself J.Lo.  The multi-species trio set out to save the world with stops in Carolina; Happy Mouse Kingdom; and Roswell, New Mexico. 

Smekday is laugh-out-loud funny and will appeal to a wide range of readers, from upper elementary students to very mature ones, like myself.  The True Meaning of Smekday has everything it needs to become a cult classic.  Maybe it already is.