Monday, December 19, 2016

Not for the Fun of It

I have the honor of writing the last blog post for 2016.  We will return with new posts on January 16, 2017.

To wrap up our blog posts for the year, my colleagues have posted excellent lists of wonderful books they’ve read this year.

Now it is my turn.  But to be honest, I’ve read nothing purely for the fun of it this year.   I’ve been writing a nonfiction book about George Washington’s enslaved people.  So this entire year, I’ve read mountains of research material on the subject.  I’ve studied books, articles, and unpublished manuscripts on George Washington, on slavery at Mount Vernon, and on slavery in general. 

As you can imagine this topic has been a heavy one-and an important one.  Within all that research, I’ve read many things I’ve enjoyed-but they aren’t all books.  Mount Vernon is one of my favorite places and their web site is amazing.  Even though I’ve been there many times, while writing my book, I’ve used the virtual tour and look at certain rooms again.  I’ll look and read through their online collections for hundreds of artifacts.  I’ve also read through many papers both published and unpublished written by Mount Vernon’s historian Mary V. Thompson.  And I’ve poured over print outs from the Mount Vernon slavery database overseen by Molly Kerr.  I’ve read countless first person accounts of visitors to Mount Vernon who mention specific enslaved people there.   

I confess there are times when I wonder if the books I write are worth the thousands of hours I invest in them.   Would fiction be more fun to write?  Would fiction be less restrictive to write?  Would fiction be more lucrative to write?  Maybe.  But I still hang on to the belief that the sort of research and books I do are important.   

Carla Killough McClafferty


to our giveaway winner:  

Carl S.  

Friday, December 16, 2016

A List of Good Book Lists from 2016 Plus a Few Other Books I Enjoyed

I love the year-end lists of good books that are appearing all over the Internet now. Every year, I pore over them, trying to memorize intriguing titles, noticing which books appear on several lists, and adding as many as I can to my teetering reading pile. Today, I continue our own Teaching Authors series on the books we've enjoyed from 2016.

Esther, Mary Ann, and Bobbi have already posted their favorites. I've agreed with many of their recommendations, but I won't repeat them here. Instead, I'll post a few titles that I haven't seen on other people's lists, at least not yet. Because there's never enough room on the lists for all the good books.

First, some of the lists I've been using to order books for my reading pile:

19 books to help children find hope and strength in stressful times: A librarian’s list from Karen MacPherson, the children’s and teen services coordinator for the Takoma Park, MD, library

Holiday Gift Guide: Here's Some Great Latino Books for Kids, Teens by MONICA OLIVERA

The Best Children’s Books of 2016 BY MARIA POPOVA (Brainpickings)

The best kid's books to give this year from Minnesota Public Radio News by Holly Weinkauf, owner of the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul and a former children's librarian, and Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Best books of 2016 to give -- and receive: Children's and middle-grade favorites by Tracy Mumford, MPR News Staff

Best books of 2016 to give -- and receive: Young adult favorites by Tracy Mumford

Best Picture Books of 2016 from The Huffington Post

Best Informational Books for Older Readers of 2016 from the Chicago Public Library

31 Days, 31 Lists: Day Four – 2016 Great Picture Book Readalouds by Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal (Be sure to see the links to more lists at the end of the article.)

The Best Middle Grade Books of 2016 from Entertainment Weekly

Next, a few of the many books I've enjoyed in addition to those on the lists, with their library summaries:

writing book: The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control - and Live to Tell the Tale by Alice Mattison. A targeted and insightful guide to the stages of writing fiction and memoir without falling into common traps, while wisely navigating the writing life, from an award-winning author and longtime teacher.

picture book: Wonderfall by Michael Hall. Follows the story of a single tree through the changing of the seasons from fall to winter, as people, animals, and vehicles pass in front of the tree, celebrating holidays, playing in the leaves, and building nests. Includes blended words.

poetry: Every Day Birds by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Young readers are fascinated with birds in their world. Every Day Birds helps children identify and learn about common birds. After reading Every Day Birds, families can look out their windows with curiosity--recognizing birds and nests and celebrating the beauty of these creatures!

middle grade: Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LaFleur. Sofarende is at war and the army is paying families well to recruit children, so if twelve-year-old Mathilde or her best friend Megs is chosen, they hope to help their families but fear they will be separated forever.

young adult: Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King. A talented 16-year-old artist slowly discovers the history of domestic violence behind why her brother left the family years earlier and why she suddenly cannot make art.

Have fun browsing! Have fun creating your own reading pile! Have fun reading!

Today is the last day to enter our current Teaching Authors Book Giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the new verse novel by Jeannine Atkins, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, which certainly belongs on a Best Books list. Good luck!

Tabatha Yeatts has today's Poetry Friday Roundup at The Opposite of Indifference. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Monday, December 12, 2016

Two Men and One Grand Experiment

Recently I wrote about how now, more than ever, our stories are important. As a writer of American historical fiction and American historical fantasy, I know our history is full of amazing stories. Reading these stories enlarges our understanding of the human experience. It helps us make sense of the present.

“Understanding our history informs our understanding of how we move forward into our future.” (Emma D. Dryden) 

Two of my favorite reads this year were Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (the inspiration for the Broadway play) and David McCullough’s John Adams. What better reads to learn about how politics work! No two men were more contrary in life and character than Adams and Hamilton.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” (Adams) 

Adams grew up in a “tidy” New England village. He was born into a well-respected family who could trace their lineage to the first Pilgrims. He was well-educated with a passion for the law. He craved “Honour” and was zealous in his pursuit for independence. He had a keen sense of fairplay. In fact, he became the defense lawyer for the British soldiers who fired upon civilians in what became known as the Boston Massacre. He was diplomatic, although sometimes he could be thin-skinned when he perceived criticism. When this happened, he depended upon his wife, the incomparable Abigail Adams, for clarity. Their marriage remains one of the most enduring love stories in American history.

“It's not tyranny we desire; it's a just, limited, federal government.” (Hamilton)

Born on the island of Nevis in the Leeward Islands (of the Caribbean), Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a woman who, according to local island myth, was mulatto. He grew up in a “…a tropical hellhole of dissipated whites and fractious slaves…” The shame of his birth dogged him all of his life, but it also may have influenced his "enlightened" ideas about abolitionism. Orphaned at an early age, he was taken into the care of a wealthy merchant, and eventually sponsored to attend King’s College in New York City, where he too developed a passion for law.  Although married and father to eight children, he enjoyed many affairs. He was brilliant, outspoken and ambitious. He was also arrogant with the confidence and temper to match. An aristocrat at heart, he had little patience for the "common man."

“There are seasons in every country when noise and impudence pass current for worth; and in popular commotions especially, the clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism.” (Hamilton)

Hamilton’s feud with Adams was the stuff of legend (as was his feud with Thomas Jefferson and, of course, with Aaron Burr. We remember how that one turned out, right?) When Adams was running for a second term as president, Hamilton published a pamphlet weeks before the election, titled “Letter…Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams.” For 45 pages, he lamented on Adams’ incompetency as president, passing it around to the electors, a system he helped create. (Does this sound familiar or what?) Adams didn’t win the election.

Adams and Hamilton had a complicated and contentious relationship. But it was the coming together of these two brilliant minds that created such a grand experiment.

“All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and wellborn, the other the mass of the people…The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.” (Hamilton)

“Because power corrupts, society's demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.” (Adams)

What do you think?

Bobbi Miller

Friday, December 9, 2016

These Are Few of My Favorite 2016 Books

 2016 came with my own personal ear worm, a song from the Stephen Sondheim's Follies. On a tiny, dusty stage in a corner of brain, Elaine Stritch sang, "I'm Still Here."

Good times and bum times I've seen them all
And, my dear, I'm still here.

This has not been a year of fun and frivolity for anyone, and my reading seems to reflect that. When I looked at my end-of-the-year favorites I thought (in true Baby Boomer stye) "Wow.  Heavy man!"

Half of them have WWII themes. There seemed to be lots of WWII books published this year. This puzzled me, until I realized (this week!) that it's the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.  (Duh). Most of them have death at the heart of the story. As usual, my picks are a mishmash of non-fiction, middle-grade and YA fiction and a graphic novel.  My usual eclectic mishmash.

I'm a big fan of graphic novels, especially those of Raina Telgemeier. Her previous books always make me giggle, because this author/artist turns middle-school misery into something manageable for the young reader, without ever condescending or trivializing their issues.

Her latest book, Ghosts, has it's light-hearted moments--along with magical realism--in what sounds at first like a bummer of a book. Middle-schooler Catrina's family moves to coastal Northern California, leaving Catrina one unhappy camper. The move however, is for her little sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. The cool, salty sea air will make it easier for Maya to breathe.
Maya takes to her new town right away, especially when the boy-next-door tells them the secret of Bahia de la Luna...ghosts in habit the town. Meeting a ghost appeals to Maya; Catrina, not so much. The story culminates at a Day of the Dead a way I did not see coming until the final pages. Ghosts is humorous in spots, but over-all a positive, life-affirming book.
 I've read an awful lot of WWII historical fiction but Alan Gratz's Project 1065, has a POV I'd never considered. Thirteen-year-old Michael O'Shaunessesy's parents work for the Irish Consulate in WWII Berlin. Michael does his best to fit in with his schoolmates, including joining the Hitler Youth. But Michael has a secret; although Ireland is a neutral country, his parents are Allied spies, and use their son to gather intelligence. For Michael, his every move involves a life or death situation. He participates in book burning and bullying, despising himself for it, yet knowing that it's crucial to his gaining access to information for the Allies. When Michael learns of a new super secret Nazi weapon, his life becomes even more complicated. He must prove his loyalty to the Hitler Youth, even if it means risking everything dear to him, including his own life.

Monica Hesse's Girl in the Blue Coat set in WWII Netherlands, and like Project 1065, is a mystery, and features a reluctant hero(ine). Hanneke is older than Michael, although her age is never specified. After her fiancĂ© is killed in the German invasion, Hanneke turns to the black market, both to support her parents and as a personal spit-in-the-eye to the Nazis. Suddenly, one of her customers asks her help in finding "an item" not on Hanneke's usual trade list.  The woman wants Hanneke to find a missing Jewish teenager she had been hiding. I like a book with a lot of twists and turns and surprising (but logical) endings. Although they are nothing alike, Girl in a Blue Coat has elements of some of my favorite recent books, Gone Girl, Girl on the Train and Code Name Verity.  Definitely for older teens.

The last title in my WWII fiction binge is Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Again, this one centers around a true event I've never heard of, the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a transport ship, evacuating German military and citizens as the Red Army advance on Prussia. Narrated by three teen characters, whose paths unite, and fates intertwine, together, they make their way through battle scarred Germany, seeking salvation promised by the Wilhelm Gustloff. Septeys' research on this all-but-forgotten event is meticulous. I was in the heart and soul of each other narrators, every step of the way, as desperate to learn their fates as they were.  Upper middle grade/YA.

On to the non-fiction, and guess what? My favorites are biographies of hero/martyrs of WWII.

No one better than Russell Freedman when it comes to non-fiction. I make a point to read everything with his name on the cover. We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler centers on a small circle of university friends who dare to print and distribute pamphlets condemning Hitler and Nazism. Led by siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, their story illuminates the power of courageous individuals. whose efforts, at first glance, would seem to be futile. Eventually, their message that freedom from tyranny is worth dying for, takes root. I first came across the The White Rose story 40 years ago as a young librarian. I am so happy that Freedman has written their story for young adults, a story every bit as relevant as it was in 1943.

Patricia McCormick's YA novels Sold, Cut and Purple Heart are so immediate, it is hard to believe they are fiction. The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero is her first venture into the equally gritty world of non-fiction. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister in Nazi Germany, who I first learned about in (where else?) Lutheran Sunday School. He was referred to as a "Lutheran marytr" but no one ever bother to explain to the 6th grade class what he had done to merit execution by the Nazis and ensuing martyrdom. His life was more complex than I could've imagined. Born to wealth, and trained as a concert pianist, Bonhoeffer renounced "worldly pursuits" to become a Lutheran pastor. The death of a brother in WWI transformed Bonhoeffer into a pacifist. But with the rise of Hitler, what could a Christian pacifist do in the face of pure evil? Again, like the Scholls' story, this emphasizes the "power of one."

Switching to another time in history, It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas covers serious subjects, in just the way you might expect a middle schooler to do. New kid Zomorod Yousefzadeh tries to makeover her Iranian person, to fit into The Brady Bunch world of 1970's Southern California. Action number one; is to rename herself "Cindy". Her assimilation seems to be progressing, even if her parents seem determined to stick with the "old Iranian ways." Then disaster strikes. Iran takes over the American embassy inTehran, holding its employees hostage. Suddenly, "Cindy" is not just the weird foreign kid...she and her family are now considered "The Enemy." With Cindy narrating, we feel her pain and joy as she navigates between her two worlds.
If you've read Cammie McGovern's YA novels, you know she never pulls her punches. She is just as hard hitting in her first middle-grade novel, Just My Luck.

Fourth grade is just not turning out the way Bennie Barrows had hoped.  His best friend has moved away and Bennie hasn't found a new BFF.  He's a terrible bike rider, even though his autistic older brother can do bike tricks.  Worst of all, Bennie fears he may be responsible for a terrible accident that sends his father to the hospital with serious and perhaps permanent injuries. Benny deals with his problems by trying to be helpful to others...but even this doesn't seem to help. Benny feels as if he is a walking pile of bad luck...until he discovers differently. What I loved about this book is that it's not about "fixing" life, but coping with what "is", something I don't often see in middle grade works.

I leave you with one more work of outstanding contemporary middle grade fiction, Mrs. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson. Mrs. Bixby is the best kind of teacher, the one who makes coming to school worthwhile. When buddies Topher, Brand and Steve learn Mrs. Bixby will not be able to finish the school year, they band together (told from each boy's POV) to give her the last day they think she deserves. You will think you know where this story is heading...but you won't. I guarantee it.

One of the joys of being the second person to post on this topic is that Esther and I had some of the same "best books" on our list. The ones that both of us agreed belong on a "bests" list are:
The Best Man by Richard Peck; Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet;  The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon.

Back on that small, dusty stage in my head, Elaine Stritch is belting out her big finish...

I got through all of last year, and I'm here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I'm here
Look who's here, I'm still here

Yeah! Come on, 2017!

P.S. Don't forget to enter our current book giveaway.

Monday, December 5, 2016

My Heart-full, Hope-full, True and Honest Favorite Books of 2016

Today’s post begins our annual TeachingAuthors series in which my fellow bloggers and I share our favorite book(s) of the year – children’s and otherwise.

My Shelf of Favorites boasts books of varying formats, genres and audience appeal.
Each, in some way, re-sounded in my reader’s and/or writer’s heart, filled me with hope and spoke to my humanity in true and honest ways.  Some brought tears; some brought laughter; one or two left me fist-pumping! All modeled superb craft in storytelling.
As this crazy-crazy year began winding down, and I kept wondering “what condition my condition was in,” I became enormously thankful for these noteworthy books and the authors who created them.
The Reader in me, the Writer, the Teacher, the Human Being – we all want you to know and love these books too.
Read the flap copy I’ve shared and you’ll understand why.

THE  JOURNEY by Francesca Sanna, Flying Eye Books               “What is it like to have to leave everything behind and travel many miles to somewhere unfamiliar and strange? A mother and her two children set out on such a journey, one filled with fear of the unknown, but also great hope.  Based on her own interactions with people forced to seek a new home, and told from the perspective of a young child, Francesca Sanna has created a beautiful and sensitive book that is full of significance for our time.”

WE ARE GROWING! By Laurie Keller, Hyperion, An Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! Book
“Walt and his friends are growing up fast!  Everyone is the something-est.  But…what about Walt?  He is not the tallest, or the curliest, or the silliest.  He is not the anything-est.”

THE POET’S DOG, Patricia MacLachlan, Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins
In a fierce winter storm
Nickel and Flora are brave
But afraid
A dog finds them
Speaks words
And brings them to shelter
The Poet’s cabin
Has light and food
And love
But where is the Poet?
Teddy will tell the story
Of how words make poems
And connect those who hear
Each other”

RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, Kate DiCamillo, Candlewick
“Have you ever in your life come to
realize that everything, absolutely
everything, depends on you?
Raymie Clarke has a plan.
Two days ago, her father left home with a dental hygienist.  If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home.
a rich story of three girls, one summer and a friendship that changed their lives.”

THE  BEST MAN, Richard Peck, Dial
“Archer Magill has spent a lively five years of grade school with one
eye out in search of grown-up role models.  Three of the best are his
grandpa, the great architect; his dad, the great vintage car customizer;
and his uncle Paul, who is just plain great.  These are the three he wants to be. Then along comes a fourth – Mr. McLeod, a teacher, in fact, the first male teacher in the history of the school.  Then one of them wants to marry another one. In pages that ripple with laughter, there’s a teardrop here and there. and more than a few insights about the bewildering world of adults, made by a boy on his way to being the best man he can be.”

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR, Nicola Yoon, Delacorte,  
The story of a girl, a boy, and the universe.
Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts.  Not fate. Not destiny.  Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him.
Daniel:  I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ expectations. Never the poet.  Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that.
The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment.  A million futures lie before us.  Which one will come true?

SOMEWRITER!, Melissa Sweet, HMH                                                 
“I feel that a writer has an obligation to transmit, as best he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world.” – E.B. White
“Like my grandfather, Melissa Sweet has somehow kept that child-like sense of wonder at the world and (thankfully) found an avenue to share it with the rest of us...Here, in these pages, you will find the grandfather I remember so well…Now, thanks to Melissa Sweet, you can know him too.” – Martha White

HUNGRY HEART, Jennifer Weiner, Atria Books
“Jennifer Weiner is many things: a bestselling author, a Twitter
phenomenon, and an ‘unlikely feminist enforcer.’ She’s also a mom,
a daughter and a sister, a former rower and current clumsy yogini, a
wife, a friend, a realityTV devotee.  In her first essay collection,
she takes the raw stuff of her life and spins it into a collection of tales
of modern-day womanhood as uproariously funny and moving as the
best of Nora Epheron and Tina Fey.”


Here’s to a heart-full, hope-full 2017!

With true and honest thanks to our Readers for their support.

Esther Hershenhorn

Congratulations, Danielle H., winner of the Sandy Brehl 2-book giveaway!

Don’t forget to enter our Book Giveaway of Jeannine Atkins’ FINDING WONDERS – THREE GIRLS WHO CHANGED SCIENCE!