Friday, December 19, 2014

2 Favorite Reads: One Classic, One New, & Links to Best Books of 2014

Today, in our last TeachingAuthors' post for 2014, I wrap up our series about our favorite reads of the year. In case you missed the earlier posts, Mary Ann kicked off the series by talking about a graphic novel she enjoyed, April shared a poetry title, Bobbi discussed a bounty of books, JoAnn shared not only favorite titles but also a description of her reading process, and Esther even included a couple of adult books on her list. After sharing my two favorites, I'll also provide links to several "Best of 2014" lists published by review journals. That should give you plenty of reading material to get through winter break!

This has been such a busy year that I probably wouldn't have read any books for pleasure if I wasn't a member of the "Not for Kids Only" (NFKO) Book Club sponsored by Anderson's Bookshop. Both my favorites of the year are books I read with the group.

My first is the classic, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, originally published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin and winner of the 1994 Newbery medal.

Our NFKO group read the book in preparation for seeing The Giver movie together as a group. Most of us had read the novel before, as I had back in 1997. While re-reading it this August, I was surprised by how little I remembered. I recalled the ending clearly, because I’d reread it several times to try to understand it. I also recalled that Jonas’s eyes were different, and how he’d first seen the color of an apple. But other than that, it was like reading the novel for the first time.

After my first reading in 1997, this is the response I wrote in my book-reading journal:
"This book was extremely well-written.  The futuristic world seemed so real it was frightening. Jonas made a great hero: intelligent, sensitive and brave, yet still uncertain and with his own fears.  . . . I can see why it won the Newbery."     
I'm a much more critical reader now than in 1997, and I was even more impressed with the novel this time. I was so enthralled with the story and with Jonas's world that I went on to read the other three books in the Quartet: Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. While they are all masterfully written, The Giver is still my favorite.

By the way, I didn't know what inspired Lois Lowry to originally write The Giver until I read this post on Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac. If you're not familiar with this classic novel, or haven't read it recently, I suggest you pick it up, especially if you've seen the movie. While I enjoyed seeing the world of The Giver brought to life so brilliantly in the movie, there are several significant differences between the movie and the book. I'm not sure all the changes were for the better.

The other favorite I'd like to share is Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff, published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2013.

This middle-grade novel is a fun re-imagining of the Rumpelstiltskin tale in which the title character turns out to be the story's hero. Here's an excerpt from the School Library Journal review that sums it up well:
"All the elements of the original story are here--the greedy miller, the somewhat dimwitted daughter, and Rump's magical ability to spin straw into gold--but Shurtliff fleshes out the boy's backstory, developing an appealing hero who is coping with the curse of his magical skills while searching for his true name and destiny. This captivating fantasy has action, emotional depth, and lots of humor."
I identified with the main character--initially known only as "Rump"--right away because, like him, I hated my name as a child. I was the only "Carmela" in my K-8 elementary school and even in my high school. I disliked having such an unusual name and I despised the "nicknames" the other kids gave me. Eventually, though, I grew to love my name, as "Rump" does by the end of the novel.

I happened to read Rump while I was preparing to teach a summer writing camp for ages 11-14. I decided to use it as an example for our class discussion on choosing character names. After I read the first chapter to the students, several of them went out to borrow or buy their own copies of the book to read the rest of the story. I know of no better recommendation for a children's novel!  

And now, as promised, here are links to some of the review journal lists of "Best Books of 2014" for children and teens:
Don't forget, today is Poetry Friday. When you're done checking out all these great lists, be sure to head over to this week's roundup by Buffy Silverman at Buffy's Blog.

Wishing you all a safe and happy holiday season!

Our blog posts will resume on Monday, January 5, 2015.
Until then, happy writing (and reading)!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Of Words and Spirit...

Words and spirit were the stuff of my favorite books this year,
beginning with Jen Bryant’s and Melissa Sweet’s already award-winning and multiply-starred picture book THE RIGHT WORD – ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS (Eerdmans Books, 2014).
This story of how Dr. Peter Roget came to create a Thesaurus has been lauded for its lyrical text and brilliantly-detailed reader-friendly illustrations. I laud it for its celebration and love of words, its accessible story-telling of a one-of-a-kind long-ago individual hell bent on listing each and every one, its brilliant use of synonyms and downright gorgeousness.  Just as every writer needs a Roget’s Thesaurus by his side, those of us who love words and good storytelling need THE RIGHT WORD on our bookshelf.
Peter Roget remarks in the story “how wonderful it was to find just the right word!”
My very sentiments.

Mark Repo’s THE BOOK OF AWAKENING (Conari Press, 2011) sits on my bedside table for daily reading.
I love its subtitle: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have.
A philosopher-poet and author, Repo wrote this book when “freshly on the other side of cancer.”
He chose to exchange his life of words, he wrote, for a life of spirit.
Each day’s entry offers a parable or a tradition, a quote or an insight, a poem or verse, followed by Repo’s beautifully-written comments and a related meditative exercise.
Admittedly I don’t always do the exercises but instead journal about the eye-opening, heart-opening truths.
Today’s December 15 entry opens with the truth, “The sun doesn’t stop shining because people are blind.”
Repo then offers examples from the lives of Goya and Melville and closes with these words:
“No one can really know what you are called to or what you are capable of but you.  Even if no one sees or understands, you are irreplaceable.”

Ariel Sabar’s MY FATHER’S PARADISE is a book of words and spirit.
Subtitled A SON’S SEARCH FOR HIS FAMILY’S PAST, journalist Sabar tells the story of his father Yona, a distinguished professor and author of the only dictionary of the language of Jesus, Aramaic.  Aramaic was the language Yona's Jewish family spoke in the remote Kurdish village of Zakho in northeast Iraq.  Mostly illiterate, Yona’s people lived harmoniously with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, considering themselves descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Part memoir, part history, part linguistic primer, part geography, at its core is the author’s story of reconnecting with a father he’d disparaged for his differentness.  As the book’s cover states, it is “a son’s epic journey back to his father’s lost homeland.”
The writing is superb, as in National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Autobiography, allowing me to live inside this so unfamiliar story, no matter the locale, no matter the time period. 
“I am the keeper of my family’s stories," Sabar wrote. "I am the guardian of its honor.  I am the defender of its traditions.  As the first-born son of a Kurdish father, these, they tell me, are my duties.  And yet even before my birth I resisted.”
Sabar’s page-turning telling had the writer in me breathless, not to mention, envious. 

Finally, I consider Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING  (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2014) a book of words and spirit too.
Recently named a National Book Award Winner, the novel in verse tells the story of Woodson’s childhood in the Jim Crow 60’s and 70’s and her longing to become a writer.
I read the book from cover to cover in one sitting, then promptly returned to the first page and began again.
Just the way Beverly Cleary took me back to West Philadelphia at age 9 with the mention of Ramona’s pink plastic raincoat, Jacqueline Woodson pierced my little girl’s longing to be a writer.

    "You’re a writer, Ms. Vivo says,
    her gray eyes bright behind
    thin wire frames.  Her smile bigger than anything
    so I smile back, happy to hear these words
    from a teacher’s mouth."

 May the above books gift you as they’ve gifted me this year.

 Merry! Happy! Cheers for the New Year!

 Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, December 12, 2014

Reading for Pleasure, Not Research

I read way too fast. I skim over details to find out What Happens. In the process, I sometimes miss important points. Plus I usually read at night. Because I’m tired, I often forget what I’ve read, and I have to go back a few pages the next night and reread to figure out what’s going on. I’m always trying to make myself Slow Down and Pay Attention. When I read a book I really enjoy, I start over at the beginning as soon as I reach the end. The second time through, I notice the language, the writing techniques, the way crucial details are revealed at just the right moments. I zip through a lot of books that way, and they tend to blur together in my mind. Because I’m always researching picture books and poetry, I read mostly young adult novels for pleasure. Here are three that stuck with me this year.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Although the plot involves several issues, the one I remember best is the relationship between the two brothers. I ached for the narrator. I cried at the end.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, another sibling relationship story. I read this on a plane, and I never read on planes. I could not put it down.

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire. I remember telling my husband that I could leave this one on my bedside table and reread it for the rest of my life. The writing is gorgeous, and the story is compelling, with plenty of food for thought.

Most of the poetry I’m reading these days is research for my Poet’s Workshop series for Crabtree Publishing. I’ve finished books 5 (Haiku) and 6 (Cinquains). Now I’m looking forward to moving on to Concrete Poems and List Poems. One more nonfiction series is lined up for another educational publisher in 2015. I'm looking forward to researching four more interesting topics!

Happy holidays, all!
JoAnn Early Macken

Monday, December 8, 2014

Books and Chocolate Chip Cookies

O my! How can I have just one favorite book with all the marvelous, marvelous treats that came out this year – and every year! I think books are like chocolate chip cookies: I can’t have just ONE!

Monica Kulling’s Great Idea Series is one of my favorite nonfiction series for young readers. The books showcase inventors, some more known than others, and how they were inspired to create their inventions that, in many ways, changed the course of history. Monica excels at taking a moment in history, oftentimes a forgotten moment, and fashioning a story that is both compelling and informative. Her poetic narrative makes the book the perfect read aloud. Her newest book is “Spic-And-Span: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen.”  This book follows the amazing story of Lillian Gilbreth, the inspiration for the matriarch in the movie and book, Cheaper By The Dozen.

I am a huge fan of western movies as well as classic western reads. Erin Johnson's (Laurie J. Edwards ) book,  “Grace and the Guiltless,”  is written in the same vein as Zane Gray’s classic westerns. In fact, I am reminded of Gray’s two books in particular, Riders of the Purple Sage and Wildfire. The detailed imagery of Tombstone, Arizona and the surrounding western desert sets the tone of the story.

 Christina Banach’s book, “Minty,” is a gripping, mystical story of love and loss, told from Minty’s point of view, reminiscent of one of my favorite movies, Ghost. An engrossing character-driven tale that combines unfailing heartbreak, perfectly timed humor, and an obsession of all things Roman.

Given current events, Yvonne Ventresca's new novel, “Pandemic,” is less
science fiction/dystopian and more of a harrowing prophecy. An outbreak of a strange new flu is spreading quickly with deadly results. Her parents out of town on business, Lil finds herself alone as tragedy strikes. The plot is fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing as she struggles to find hope and trust amidst a terrifying life and death ordeal.

Marcia Strykowski’s book, “Call Me Amy,”  is set in a quaint coastal town in Maine, in a coming-of-age story that presents a timeless tale of friendship, teamwork and community responsibility. This book reminds me in many ways of Hoot, the 2003 Newbery Honor by Carl Hiaasen. I’m currently reading its sequel, Amy’s Choice!

I also revisited Eric Kimmel’s “Moby Dick,”
A great, great read aloud! Can’t we just hear the booming baritone foreshadowing doom as Captain Ahab comes on deck! The sailors' fate is sealed as the Captain and the Pequod chase the great white, Moby Dick.  With the rhythm of a sea shanty, the narrative rises and falls and rises with the action, in tune with the lush, rich oil and pencil illustrations by Andrew Glass. And then, the great white whale, Moby Dick, rises out of the depths in a dynamic two-page spread. The Pequod faces its destiny and the narrator ends with a   warning, "The moral of this story is,/ as my sad tale has shown:/ Respect all creatures, great and small,/ and leave the whales alone!” Ahoy!

And finally -- but certainly not the last of my favorites -- Donna Marie Merritt’s “Her House”  is a splendid poetry collection, made all the more splendid by Wendell Minor’s cover art depicting seagulls at sunset, an open invitation for readers to take a walk along the beach to see life in a glorious new light.

Keep reading. It's one of the most marvelous adventures that anyone can have!"  -- Lloyd Alexander.

 Time for another chocolate chip cookie and a new adventure!  

 Bobbi Miller

Friday, December 5, 2014

15 Best Poetry Books of 2014...Pick 1!

Howdy Campers!

Yippee!--it's Poetry Friday!  (the link's at the end of this post ~)

Confession regarding the title of this post: I lied. Although there were many wonderful poetry books this year, I'm going to talk about just one.

You may already have read it...or read about it on Laura Purdie Salas' TeachingAuthors post in May.

You may already know that it's gotten starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal.

You may have heard that it's one of Publisher's Weekly's Best Picture Books of 2014, it's a School Library Journal Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, it's in the American Booksellers Association Best Books for Children Catalog, and it's on lists predicting the 2015 Caldecott for illustrator Melissa Sweet.

Of course I'm talking about
selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

In this beautiful collection, master anthologist Paul B. Janeczko has organized 36 very short gems around the four seasons, illuminated by Melissa Sweet's both sophisticated and whimsical illustrations.  Wow.

My father was a farmer and an artist. When he sketched my mother playing piano, his goal was to use as few lines as possible to tell that moment of my mother, the light from the window, that sonata.  

In the same way, these poems show moments...and so much more in a few short lines.

Here's one of my favorites from this sterling anthology:


When I was ten, one summer night,
The baby stars that leapt
Among the trees like dimes of light,
I cupped, and capped, and kept.

Another of my favorites is the always amazing Joyce Sidman’s “A Happy Meeting,” which describes what happens when rain meets dirt (first, “soft, cinnamon kisses,” then, “marriage: mud”). 

And...surprise! I am honored that one of my poems is included in this collection:


Sandpipers run with
their needle beaks digging--they're
hemming the ocean.
April Halprin Wayland

and look who just popped in to wave hello...
poet and anthologist Paul B. Janeczko and illustrator Melissa Sweet!

for hosting Poetry Friday today!

posted with affection by April Halprin Wayland in honor of
my mother, who loved both words and music ~

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

More "Gratitudes" from our Readers

Even though today is Wednesday, this isn't a Wednesday Writing Workout post. (We'll be back with more workouts in January.) I just wanted to share a quick update regarding our Three Weeks of Thanks-Giving challenge. This year was the first time we ran a book giveaway in conjunction with our series of posts expressing our gratitude. Last Friday, when I posted my wrap-up linking to posts by other bloggers who joined in our challenge, I didn't realize that a number of our readers had shared their "gratitudes" in their giveaway contest entries. It wasn't until I reviewed all the entries this past Monday that I saw them. Their gratitude was so uplifting I had to share them with you.

When asked to "Tell us three things you're grateful for," here's what they said:
  • Family, children's books, great blogs to follow!
  • I'm grateful for my family, my awesome poetry friends, and for my wonderful life.  Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if it all is real.
  • I am grateful for my family, friends and God for my life. 
  • Health, loved ones and faith top the list today!
  • My job, my friends, and my family
  • Wonderful family, immediate and extended, fabulous friends from way back and from recently, and writing for the sake of writing. Thankful, happy, humbled.
  • I'm thankful for: the cornucopia of rich SCBWI IL and beyond authors and Illustrators sharing their skills and knowledge with us; my family that perpetually allows me to pour myself into my writing and art; and nature that is a constant well of inspiration for all that I create! 
  • Thankful for family and thankful for the snow
  • I'm grateful for 1. my hubby, 2. currently having no obstacle, be it physical, mental, emotional, or practical, to enjoying every simple joy in life that I could wish for, and 3. having no obstacles (except for my own inefficiencies) to exercising creativity in many ways every day.
  • I am filled with gratitude for my loving home and family, more than five years of being cancer free, and my opportunities to make a difference. 
  • I am grateful for: A wonderful network of writers through SCBWI. My two challenging, supportive writers groups: one in Illinois and one in Virginia. My family, who provide inspiration, encouragement, ideas, and yes--distractions.
  • I'm grateful for health, happiness and heaps of good books to read--and WRITE!
WE'RE grateful so many of our readers took time to share their "gratitudes" with us! 

Congratulations to our giveaway winner, Margaret Simon, who blogs at Reflections on the TecheShe shared her lovely "Thanku to Roux" along with a student Thanku in her November 8 post.

Thanks again to everyone who participated.
Happy writing!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Our Favorite Books: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

     December 1.  The year is winding down.  While to some December means end-of-the-year holidays and cold weather, to me it means the arrival of  "Best of the Year" booklists.  I pore over them the way I used to study the old Sears Christmas catalogs, agreeing with some selections, shaking my head over others and marking those still to be read. The Teaching Authors don't think the reviewers at Publisher's Weekly and School Library Journal should have all the fun.  In the next couple of weeks we will be discussing our own favorites reads of 2014, whether they were published this year or not.

     In fact, my favorite read of the year, the graphic novel Drama by Raina Telgemeier, was published in 2012. Telgemeier also published this year, Sisters, which is every bit as good as Drama.  However, Drama first caught my eye because it is about a subject close to my heart...a middle school drama club.  Having been a middle school (and high school) drama club director for many years, I wanted to see how close the book came to my own experience.

     Telegemeier not only nailed the excitement of producing drama on stage, but all the little "dramas" that go on every day in middle school.  Callie, the main character, can't sing or act well enough to perform on stage in the school musical, but she loves theater so much she is thrilled to design and build the sets. The characters are not the school "cool" kids but the "stage rats," kids besotted by the world of theater.  One detail that the author captured perfectly is the ability of these junior actors to accept each other unconditionally.  Nothing really mattered except whether or not a person could perform their assigned task, onstage or off.

     Telgemeier is also the author of Smile, a graphic novel of living though orthodontia. Smile is geared for an elementary audience getting their first braces. Drama is most definitely for an older reader, sixth grade and up.  My review for Drama?  Standing ovation, all the way!

posted by Mary Ann Rodman