Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom From A-Z

Alphabet books are a slippery slope.  Anyone who's every played The Alphabet Game in the car knows how difficult it is to find certain letters and alphabet books often fall into the trap of either making up some cutesy nonsense word to cover a letter or reaching too far to find a word that fits with the theme.

This alphabet book about Ben Franklin's life doesn't do that.  Each letter (including x) is represented by something real from Franklin's life...that is spelled correctly - hooray!

I learned quite a bit about good old Ben as I read this book.  For instance, did you know that he:
  • started Philadelphia's first library, hospital, and public college?
  • invented a musical instrument called the armonica?
  • was dipped in cold water three times a day when he was a baby?  This is called "hardening off" and apparently it was a common practice in colonial American because people believed it kept infants healthy - yikes.
  • took an "air bath" every day?  Yep, he believed spending part of each day naked was essential to good health.

Schroeder has crafted a clever biography in a format that young readers will enjoy.  Each page also contains bits of wisdom from Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, opening up opportunities for discussion about a variety of topics - money sense, relationships, health, history, science and much more.

Great way to introduce the biography genre or just to learn about an American icon.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Author Kate DiCamillo

I love author events!  Tonight I got to hear Kate diCamillo speak thanks to Eagle Harbor Book Co. and Kitsap Regional Library.  

She started out by reading the first few pages of Because of Winn-Dixie, then opened the floor to questions.

Here are some of the stories she shared:

She came upon the idea for Flora & Ulysses because she had two situations nagging at her - one was her mother's vacuum.  Before her mother passed away, she was obsessed with making sure her vacuum would be taken care of and Kate promised to make sure that happened.  She ended up putting it in the garage because it made her too sad to see it all the time.  The other niggling incident was seeing a squirrel dying on her porch.  She panicked and called her best friend and asked her what to do.  "Do you have a shovel?"  Her friend said she'd be right over with a tee shirt and they would take care of the poor dying thing.  Kate says she moved away from the squirrel during the conversation, hoping it wouldn't hear the plan, but she is sure that it did because when she returned to the porch it was gone :)

One of the pieces of the Mercy Watson character fell into place when she got a brand new car, a Mini, and she was so excited.  A friend asked for a ride to the airport and got into her car with a piece of liberally-buttered toast, and as she ate and talked, greasy toast crumbs flew all over Kate's new car.  She asked her to wait till she got out of the car to finish her toast, but instead got a lecture about the wonders of toast.  After she "got rid of her," she realized that the missing piece of the pig's personality was a love of liberally-buttered toast.

A young lady asked her why she chose the color red for the sacrificial thread in The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread.  Kate said that she didn't realize the significance of red when she wrote that.  She told us about her first school visit:  the teacher told her class that they would be discussing the themes of her book with Ms. diCamillo.  She was thinking, "My book has themes? I wonder what they are?""  Luckily the teacher knew what they were and when she returned to her car, she wrote them down and on her next school visit, she walked in and said, "Ok kids, today we're going to talk about the themes of my book."  She said that often writers pull things into their writing without even realizing that they are significant.

One of my colleagues asked her to say something about the editing process.  She said, "The editing process is EVERYTHING!"  Kate edits her own work 6-7 times before sending it to her editor, who then sends her 6-7 pages of single-spaced "suggestions" for changes.  After she sulks and mutters for a while, she digs in and makes the changes and is never sorry she did.  The book always ends up being richer, better than she could have imagined.

Two comments I particularly enjoyed:  First, Kate reminded us that reading is a privilege. Then, she said she is the luckiest person in the world because she gets letters all the time from children who tell her they didn't like to read until they read her books.

Kate was wonderfully gracious, she stayed until every book was signed and every picture was taken.  We were second-to-last in line and she was just as friendly to us as she was to the first people in line.  My compliments to the event staff - they kept the line moving at a fast pace without anyone feeling short-changed.

If you haven't read one of her books yet, start with Because of Winn-Dixie.  Today.

Bingo Brown

Continuing on my nostalgia tour, let me introduce you to Bingo Brown.  Award-winning author Betsy Byars, who has penned more than 60 children's books since 1962, including The Summer of the Swans, brought Bingo into my life in the early 90's.

She tells his story in a 4-part series: The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown, Bingo Brown and the Language of Love, Bingo Brown, Gypsy Lover, and Bingo Brown's Guide to Romance.  All are available in Kindle editions as well as through third party sellers through Amazon.  Each book can stand alone, but I recommend reading them all in order.  They're quick and entertaining, perfect for read aloud time with your own children or a classroom of 3rd-6th graders.

Let's talk about first things first - how does a kid get a name like Bingo? Well, his real name is Harrison, but only his grandmother is allowed to call him that. :)  His parents began calling him Bingo because that is what the doctor said when he entered the world.  Bingo is sure that the doctor says that every time he delivers a baby and feels like his moniker, and perhaps his very self, is unremarkable.

Byars deftly addresses his nickname in the third book, as the family gathers at the hospital for the birth of his new sibling. Bingo has a brief conversation with a nurse who says she was also in the room when he was born.  He asks her if the doctor says, "Bingo!" each time he delivers a child.  She says she can't remember him saying it any other time and  I could almost hear Bingo's sigh of relief as he lets go of the feeling that he is just another face in the crowd, or delivery room, as the case may be.  The whole exchange is so brief, such a seemingly insignificant incident in the series, but speaks volumes of the angst that tweens carry around with them as they try to find their place in the world.

While the titles correctly suggest that sixth grader Bingo is struggling to understand the opposite sex, each book also contains subplots dedicated to other challenges pre-teens often face:  a new sibling, bullies, teachers who betray their students' trust, friends moving away, and believing yourself to be in love with more than one person at the same time.

Byars is an expert at creating sympathetic characters and believable dialogue.  While some adults may not appreciate her lighter touch regarding more serious issues, such as the motorcycle accident, I found her treatment to be perfect for her target audience.

Today's readers may have a tough time understanding Bingo's world with it's land-lines, long-distance charges, and snail mail, but they will easily identify with his panic over participating in "mixed-sex conversations" on the phone, coping with wild crushes, idolizing a cool, young teacher, and figuring out familial relationships.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Seeing Cinderella

Remember what it was like to be in middle school?  All ankles, knees, elbows and nose, hoping no one will notice whatever it is that you think is wrong with you that day,  figuring out what your "thing" is, trying to balance multiple classes and teacher expectations, avoiding the bullies, and wanting to be safe at home, while simultaneously not wanting to be under your parents' thumbs?  Good times.

This little gem captures all of those feelings perfectly.  Seeing Cinderella chronicles the first half of Callie's sixth grade year.  The day before school starts. her mom takes her to the optometrist for a check up because she is having headaches.  Callie is determined not to wear glasses and has memorized the vision screening chart in a vain attempt to trick the doctor.

He's not fooled and the reader should pick up on the fact that he is no ordinary optometrist when he gives her an eye exam that includes a bizarre version of the Rorschach test and asks questions about making friends, sounding more like a psychologist than an optometrist.  As she prepares to leave, he tells her that the frames she has selected are backordered and gives her an incredibly ugly pair of glasses to use in the meantime, advising her to use them wisely.

Callie soon discovers that when she is wearing the glasses, she can see what people are thinking (in text form) as well as their wishes and past experiences (in video form).  This gift proves helpful as she figures out who her real friends are, which boy likes her and is worth liking back, and what is going on with her separated parents.  

I expected that the glasses would be used in mischievous ways far more often than they would be used as a tool for introspection, but author Jenny Lundquist doesn't want the message to be lost. Callie's voice is clear and true throughout the story as she learns some tough lessons and finds a way to be herself, happily.

The chapter subtitles are clever, the characters are true-to-life, and Lundquist demonstrates an understanding of a middle schooler's innermost struggles and a delightful ability to articulate them.  Once you've read Seeing Cinderella, be sure to explore her other novels.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sleeping Ugly

This book makes me laugh!  Jane Yolen is a gifted storyteller and is perhaps best-known for the touching Owl Moon, so it surprised me to read such a witty, even sarcastic, fracture of Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Ugly begins by introducing us to Princess Miserella - a spoiled, snotty, completely beautiful princess.  She gets lost while out on a walk and, finding an old woman napping under a tree, rudely wakens her and demands to be guided home.  It doesn't quite work out as she planned and they end up at Plain Jane's ramshackle cottage deep in the woods.

Miserella refuses to rein in her boorish behavior and the old woman, who is a fairy in disguise, tires of listening to her and, in a fit of frustration, casts a sleeping spell on her, which affects all three women since her ferocity breaks the wand.

They slumber through hundreds of year until Prince JoJo "who was the youngest son of a youngest son and so had no gold or jewels or property to speak of..." enters the cottage and decides to practice his kiss on the old woman first, then Jane, and in a moment of clarity, decides against kissing the gorgeous Miserella because "JoJo knew that kind of princess.  He had three cousins just like her;  Pretty on the outside.  Ugly within."

He and Jane marry, have children and add a granny flat to the cottage for their friend the old woman/fairy.  They never wake up Miserella who often serves as a coat rack for their guests.

Humorous, clever, completely fractured fairy tale.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Heist Society

The Heist Society is another series for tweens and teens by Ally Carter.  I found this series to be more engaging for an adult than the Gallagher Girls series, or maybe I just prefer theft to spying ;)

The story lines are fast-paced, with plenty of twist, turns and tight squeezes.  Kat's continual struggle between wanting to "go straight" and wanting to be loyal to her family is interesting, a con-within-the-con is the rule rather than the exception, and isn't it always fun to watch a smart, strong young female who can do anything she sets her mind to, flounder through boy-girl interactions?  As long as that female isn't your very ownself, right?

Here's a brief synopsis of each book:

In the first book, The Heist Society, we meet Katarina Bishop, our strong, smart protagonist.  Kat comes from a long line of art thieves.  To get out of the family business, she enrolls in an exclusive boarding school, but when she gets kicked out, she goes back to her old ways in order to recover (read: steal from the world's most secure museum) some paintings stolen during World War II, return them to the families of the original owners, and save her father.

The second book, Uncommon Criminals, focuses on Kat being asked to steal Cleopatra's Emerald and return it to it's rightful owner.  Unfortunately, the emerald is cursed and none of the crew's usual strategies are working.  Lots of globetrotting, suspenseful fun.

Perfect Scoundrels, the third installment in the series, turns our attention to Hale and the company he inherits from his grandmother.  When it looks like the will was altered as part of an elaborate plan to steal the company fortune, Kat and crew have their hands full fighting not only for the company, but for Hale.  This book gives us glimpses into Hale's family and life that have only been hinted at in the previous two books. If you've read the first two books, you definitely want to get to know Hale, as evidenced by the collective squeal let out by the crowd at the author event I attended when Carter merely mentioned his name.

Carter creates teen art thieves worth rooting for, while injecting some lessons in art, geography and history.  If you enjoy Carter's work, there is a crossover novella: Double Crossed;  A Spies and Thieves Story that is unofficially called HS 2.5 and GG 5.5.  I told you, Carter loves her fans!  Click the link to get it free for your Kindle now!

Ally Carter has a knack for writing characters and stories that tweens and teens can't get enough of - keep your eye on her.  Her newest book, All Fall Down, was released today along with a short prequel  to that book - click on the link to get the Kindle version FREE.

Gallagher Girls

A few years ago, my daughter Kim invited me to attend an author visit at the Provo Library.  Wanting to spend time with her, I agreed, though I had never heard of the author or her books.

If you get a chance to attend an Ally Carter event, do it - she is engaging, fun, and clearly appreciates her readers.  The signing I attended was well-organized and relaxed, but every author has to be tired after speaking for an hour or so and then sitting for at least as long to sign books and meet fans.  She was incredibly gracious, happy to answer questions, and her young fans felt her love for the GG world she created.

When we entered the ballroom, there were rows of young women wearing sunglasses.  It was evening and we were indoors, so I was curious.  My daughter then explained the premise of the Gallagher Girls.

The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women seems like any other all-girls boarding school to the unsuspecting public, but the young women attending the academy are receiving a curriculum guaranteed to produce some of the world's best spies.

Cammie Morgan and her friends, like Harry Potter and his cohort, constantly find that real-life mysteries are interfering with their educational goals. Each girl already has a code name, many of them have a spy pedigree as well. And then there's Zach - a handsome young man from the Blackthorne Institute for Troubled Young Men.

The six books in the series follow Cammie, Bex, Liz, and Macey as they destroy the villainous Circle of Cavan, piece by piece.

Ally Carter has created a world that young adventure seekers will enjoy entering for a while.  As an adult, the story became predictable after a while and I began skimming rather than absorbing.  But young readers will undoubtedly enjoy every moment of the action.  The girls are gutsy, smart, and just rebellious enough to keep them in constant danger.  The romances take a firm backseat to the spying, which should be refreshing to parents.

Carter's website is worth visiting.  It's reader-friendly and includes deleted "scenes" that GG devotees will devour.  She has a long list of answers to FAQs, previews to her new series, and many other features that clearly demonstrate her gratitude to her fans as well as her understanding of how easy it is to become obsessed with characters, a story, and an author.

If you know a tween or early teen whose love of reading is lagging - try these books.  Have her read them all - in order!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Four Puppies

Doesn't that golden spine take you back?

Since my move, I haven't been able to unpack my classroom library, so there are 30 or so boxes of books stacked in my bedroom and the guest room.  I root around in them when I need one for a lesson at school or want to write a post for this blog.  What should be a five minute job usually ends up being a 30, 45, or 60 minute job as I get lost in remembering not only the characters and plots of the stories, but when I first read each one and how I felt about it.

When I came across this gem, it took me WAY back to my own childhood.  I loved this story almost as much as I loved sitting with my dad while he read to me.

Four adorable puppies learn about the seasons from the "friendly red squirrel in the hickory tree." As each season arrives, the puppies cry and lament all of the seasonal elements they had been enjoying - racing across the grass and chasing butterflies in the summer, scuffing in the fallen leaves in the autumn, sliding down snow banks in the winter - until the squirrel points out all of the wonderful qualities of the incoming season.  I think that reading this book gave me my first understanding of the cyclical nature of the seasons - "It's like a wheel turning round and round."

One of my favorite things about the squirrel's soliloquy at the beginning of each season is his use of the phrase silly-billies.  "'You silly-billies - there's nothing to cry about,' said the friendly red squirrel in the hickory tree."  My parents and grandparents used the term silly-billy often when I was a child and it makes me smile whenever I hear it.

Author Anne Heathers uses repetition to create a feeling of familiarity with the reader, allowing a young reader to gain confidence in his/her ability to predict, but she puts just enough of a twist on it each season so as not to become tedious.  She hits the highlights of each season through the eyes of puppies growing into dogs, emphasizing their own growth in comparison to the porch steps and what is being served for dinner.

The illustrations, by Liliam Obligado, an author in her own right, are absolutely charming.  Everything is friendly and bright and life-like.  She also illustrates one of my son Michael's childhood favorites, The Golden Egg Book.