Saturday, August 16, 2008

There Was a Man Who Loved a Rat and Other Vile Little Poems by Gerda Rovetch and illustrated by Lissa Rovetch

At the age of 83, Gerda Rovetch has published her first book in collaboration with her daughter. The poems are a short four lines each and resemble a limerick with their jaunty rhyme and humorous subject matters. Limericks were made popular by Edward Lear in the 19th Century and in later years were often associated with bawdy humor. Rovetch stays true to the spirit of Lear’s nonsense poems. Her characters find abandoned kidneys, stuff sardines down their pants, and attack people with lobsters. The illustrator’s art work complements the poems beautifully and is reminiscent of some of Edward Gorey’s illustrations. Gorey also illustrated for Lear and another great nonsense master, Hilaire Belloc. The original art was done on paper plates and the poems and illustrations are “served” opposite each other on round white circles with colorful backgrounds. I can imagine everyone from kindergarteners up enjoying these silly verses. Older students – and their teachers—might have fun trying to write them.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman, famous for his creepy and often scary tales, Coraline and The Wolves in the Wall, has created in his new novel something that is neither despite its chilling first chapter and spectral cast of characters. This is a story about the power of family -whatever form it comes in - and the potential of a child who is raised with love and a sense of duty. Nobody Owens (Bod) is adopted by a couple of ghosts after narrowly escaping death at the hands of the mysterious man who murdered the rest of his family. After much debate he is granted the Freedom of the Graveyard by its long dead inhabitants. His guardian Silas, neither dead nor alive, brings him food and ensures he is educated in the ways of the dead and the living. Of course, life for young Owens is not all plain sailing. There is the ghoul gate and the ancient force that waits in the oldest grave and the mysterious man who still searches for the boy he failed to kill. The story of an orphaned boy being hunted down by a secret society and protected by magic sounds familiar but while the story of Harry Potter resonates here, the sympathetic, flawed and ultimately very human character of Bod saves this from being merely a reshaping of Rowling’s epic tale. In fact, Gaiman's title is an homage to Kipling's The Jungle Book- a story with a similar theme. I can’t help thinking, however, that this novel should be the first in a series. There are too many questions unanswered. While I never really believed that Bod was ever in any real danger in the graveyard, a boy who sets off in to the world of the living with his “eyes and heart wide open” can only be headed for uncertainty.
FYI Coraline the movie is slated to be released in 2009. Click here for a sneak preview.
Neil Gaiman has a groovy website.

Poetry Friday

I love it when I find a new poet. I invariably do so through the New Yorker, Garrison Keillor or Poetry Friday! I found Matthew Dickman in the Aug. 11 New Yorker (the other poem, by John Ashbury, that week was incomprehensible to me). I was stunned after I read it. I love the way he mixes the cataclysmic with the mundane in the poem and the ending lines...You can read another of his poems Grief here. He's a relatively newcomer to the published poets field and his first full-length collection, All American Poem, won the 2008 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry.

Dickman hails from a white working class suburb of Portland, Oregon. An area he has written about in some of his poems. In November 2007 Major Jackson for the Boston Review described these poems as "melancholic portraits of impoverished white teenagers that dazzle me into the always painful, yet easily forgettable, awareness that many people suffer psychically under the knife of American prosperity. Outside the frame of these poems lurk the children of female-headed homes; parents who work two or more jobs; teenage moms who live in “Drug-Free Zones” and “Urban Renewal Zones,” unkempt neighborhoods whose parks are normally full of drugs; teen addicts slumping toward oblivion; and fathers for whom the closest thing to therapy is domestic abuse."

Dickman has an interesting story. He was a manny for a young boy whose father was dying of brain cancer, a story you can read about here at American Public Media: The Story. I found more of his poems (and advice to writers) on the website From the Fishouse: an audio archive of emerging poets.

Trouble by Matthew Dickman
Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills
to bed when she was thirty-six, and Marlon Brando’s daughter
hung in the Tahitian bedroom
of her mother’s house,
while Stanley Adams shot himself in the head. Sometimes
you can look at the clouds or the trees
and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.
The performance artist Kathy Change
set herself on fire while Bing Crosby’s sons shot themselves
out of the music industry forever.
I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears. The French
philosopher Gilles Deleuze jumped
from an apartment window into the world
and then out of it. Peg Entwistle, an actress with no lead
roles, leaped off the “H” in the HOLLYWOOD sign
when everything looked black and white
and David O. Selznick was king, circa 1932. Ernest Hemingway
put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum, Idaho
while his granddaughter, a model and actress, climbed the family tree
and overdosed on phenobarbital. My brother opened
thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body
until it wasn’t his body anymore. I like
the way geese sound above the river. I like
the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful.
Sarah Kane hanged herself, Harold Pinter
brought her roses when she was still alive,
and Louis Lingg, the German anarchist, lit a cap of dynamite
in his own mouth
though it took six hours for him
to die, 1887. Ludwig II of Bavaria drowned
and so did Hart Crane, John Berryman, and Virginia Woolf. If you are
travelling, you should always bring a book to read, especially
on a train. Andrew Martinez, the nude activist, died
in prison, naked, a bag
around his head, while in 1815 the Polish aristocrat and writer
Jan Potocki shot himself with a silver bullet.
Sara Teasdale swallowed a bottle of blues
after drawing a hot bath,
in which dozens of Roman senators opened their veins beneath the water.
Larry Walters became famous
for flying in a Sears patio chair and forty-five helium-filled
weather balloons. He reached an altitude of 16,000 feet
and then he landed. He was a man who flew.
He shot himself in the heart. In the morning I get out of bed, I brush
my teeth, I wash my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best.
I want to be good to myself.

Roundup is at Big A little a this week.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Benjamin Dove by Fridrik Erlings

Benjamin Dove is described as a "canonical treasure" in the author's native Iceland. It won the International Board on Books for Young People Award and has been made in to a feature length film available in the UK. It doesn't seem to have made much of a stir since its journey over the Atlantic last year.

It's an old fashioned story of friendship, jealousy, bullying and betrayal. There is pointless violence and ultimately a tragedy, but the story is human and so there is also forgiveness, understanding, and redemption. Benjamin, Jeff and Manny are three friends who play together on "the Ground", a sacred space protected from the town bullies by its unofficial yet unopposed guard Grandma Dell. Jeff is the kind of boy who sees everything as a competition and a chance to prove himself the fastest, strongest, or most skillful of the three. His inability to accept defeat often leads to violent outbursts that begin to wear on his two friends, particularly Manny, who is the youngest, and often bears the brunt of Jeff's frustration.
Enter Roland, a new boy in the neighborhood whose bedroom resembles a scene out of King Arthur's legend. Roland believes he is descended from Scottish kings and stands up to the two town bullies, putting himself in physical danger. However, it is Grandma Dell, not Roland's new friends, who comes to his rescue and she ends up paying a terrible price for her intervention.
The boys, led by Roland, create knightly personas for themselves and vow to avenge the wrong done to Grandma Dell. With the creation of The Order of the Red Dragon the stage is set for a battle of good against evil. Unfortunately, as in real life, the line between the two is not always easily discernible and seemingly righteous decisions or careless choices can have unexpected consequences.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Poetry Friday

Roundup is at The Well-Read Child today.
A rather sad poem. We've all, well maybe most of us, have at one time experienced that awful realization that our affection is not returned quite the way we thought or had fooled ourselves to believe it was. Collins put his finger right on that sore spot.
The Breather
by Billy Collins
Just as in the horror movies
when someone discovers that the phone calls
are coming from inside the house
so too, I realized
that our tender overlapping
has been taking place only inside me.
All that sweetness, the love and desire—
it's just been me dialing myself
then following the ringing to another room
to find no one on the line,
well, sometimes a little breathing
but more often than not, nothing.
To think that all this time—
which would include the boat rides,
the airport embraces, and all the drinks—
it's been only me and the two telephones,
the one on the wall in the kitchen
and the extension in the darkened guest room upstairs.

From Volume 192, Number 4, July/August 2008

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Fire Thief Trilogy by Terry Deary

British writer Deary is well know for his irreverent take on history in his Horrible Histories books - "history with all the "nasty" bits left in". He doesn't think much of the formal education system, "I wouldn't have schools at all," says the Sunderland author. "Nowadays people assume schools are essential, but they're finished; they cannot cope with the demands of the modern world, but they spend £50 billion a year failing." He describes his writing for page and stage as "educainment". "Whether it's writing books or theatre shows, that sums up what I've been doing, because first you have to engage people and a good way to educate them is to entertain them," he reasons.
Deary's approach to "educainment" is popular with the kids. He has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and completes a book, on average, every six weeks. He has even turned several of his Horrible Histories in to plays and is working on a TV series for the BBC.
I did enjoy the first in his trilogy The Fire Thief but I had to get past the irritating footnotes and addresses to the reader at the beginning of each chapter. Deary's cynicism starts to drag you down after a while too, but luckily it is a fast paced story with believable elements of danger and surprise as well as a good dose of humor. The story is based on the Greek myths centering around Prometheus, half god/half Titan, who has been chained to a rock for 200 years as punishment for giving fire to the human race. Each day he is devoured by a ferocious raptor,the Fury, and left for dead only to come alive again the next morning. Aided by his friend Hercules, Prometheus escapes his bonds but is immediately caught by Zeus. Zeus offers him a chance at salvation if he can find a human hero. So Prometheus' quest begins.
A faster and less dense read than the Lightning Thief I think this series would be good for reluctant readers who need to be plunged immediately in to the action of the plot. I believe it may have been the one book one of my reluctant readers actually read the whole way through last year.

Titles in the series: The Fire Thief, Flight of the Fire Thief, and The Fire Thief Fights Back

If you like the humorous style of Deary, you may want to check out Terry Pratchett's books.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Prolificness of Podcasts

I just discovered two new podcasts about children's books from NCTE that everybody else probably already knew about. If you are neophyte like me, check these out!!!
Chatting About Books (for younger readers) and Text Messages (for pre-teen and teen readers).
Of course, there is also the fabulous Just One More Book podcast.

Poetry Friday

Roundup is at A Year of Reading.

On returning from a six-week absence to my garden, I was greeted with the wild jungles of Borneo (my husband being completely useless anywhere past the back steps). So I have spent many a happy hour amongst the weeds - most of them taller and more stubborn than I -hacking away. I am fascinated by all the little creatures that live in my yard and will quite happily waste half an hour or so just watching one doing its thing. I try not to kill them unless they are eating something to death.

I don't think that I have ever consciously read any Roethke. Something about the name made me feel I wouldn't understand him. However, this poem is alive and squirming. Every word is a picture. I am a Roethke fan from now on.
Elvers are young transparent eels in post larval stage -FYI

The Minimal
by Theodore Roethke

I study the lives on a leaf: the little
Sleepers, numb nudgers in cold dimensions,
Beetles in caves, newts, stone-deaf fishes,
Lice tethered to long limp subterranean weeds,
Squirmers in bogs,
And bacterial creepers
Wriggling through wounds
Like elvers in ponds,
Their wan mouths kissing the warm sutures,
Cleaning and caressing,
Creeping and healing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Poetry Friday

The new Poet Laureate was announced yesterday and ignoramus that I am I had, of course, never heard of her. Thank goodness for What I have read so far I like very much- short and punchy. This poem speaks to me as I recently had to exercise patience and it wasn't so easy and was, indeed, wider than I had envisioned. Patience is something people have a hard time with. My nine-year-old has none and I am trying hard to teacher her the joys of delayed satisfaction. Needless to say, I have little patience for this process!!!


by Kay Ryan
Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time's fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn't be
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.
Round up is at Reading and Ruminating

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Non-Fiction Monday

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
by Georgina Howell

I could not put this book down once I got past the first few opening chapters. This woman was born at a time in England when women of her class were schooled to be wives, mothers and hostesses. Gertrude ended up unmarried, fiercely independent and a major player in middle-eastern politics during and after World War One. She helped give birth to the independent Arab nations of Iraq and Saudi Arabia after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire's control despite the British government's unwillingness to fulfill this promise. She spoke fluent Arabic and knew the political and social alliances of all the tribes in the area after having travelled extensively, often at great risk to her life.
This is also the story of a flesh and blood woman who is brought to her knees by a passion for a man she cannot marry and with whom she cannot give herself physically. Instead, she sets off on a desert voyage through what is now mostly modern-day Iraq that had meant the demise of most (male) travellers before her. This dangerous voyage is her homage to the man she cannot have. It is a defiant act of stubbornness and a breathtaking read!
This book is also a must read at this time as it explains the intricacies and complexities of tribal and religious alliances in the Middle East as well as the role of the West in the making of nations with which we now find ourselves inextricably connected.
This, obviously, is not a children's book, but I think her tale could be of interest to students and the accounts of her run-ins with Bedouin tribes could be read out loud. It certainly is an inspiring book for girls!
There is a complete online database of her photographs, letters, and diary entries at The Gertrude Bell Project.

Rating Children's Books

The question about limiting access or somehow flagging books in our classrooms that may not be appropriate for certain children often comes up in discussions between teachers and bloggers. Here is an article from the British newspaper The Guardian about the proposal to rate children's books by age appropriateness. This has already begun to happen in the UK but there is much opposition from children's authors.,,2290537,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=10

Friday, July 4, 2008

Poetry Friday

I'm back with an original inspired by my recent travels in South Carolina. I have missed Poetry Friday tremendously.

Spanish Moss
by Nicola Turner

There is no meaning
in the coming
and the going
of waves on the shore, they are automatic
But, the tern dives
with such precision
And the pelicans perform
breathtaking summeraults
My thoughts are weighed down by you
like lace curtains, or Spanish moss on live oaks
Beautiful in their mourning veils
filtering the sunlight

Round up is at

Friday, April 18, 2008

Poetry Friday

Writer2b featured a poem a few weeks ago that several of us puzzled over. This made me think about the importance of "interpretation" in poetry, and the reason for reading a poem. Last week she posted a poem about poetry, The Secret by Denise Levertov, which got me thinking even more. This week I am offering up a poem by Don Paterson, a Scottish poet. He seems to be speaking directly to my thoughts.

"I would say that the poem exists in a space somewhere between the reader and the author, and in a sense belongs to neither, and both." -Don Paterson

Poetry by Don Paterson

In the same way that the mindless diamond keeps
one spark of the planet's early fires
trapped forever in its net of ice,
it's not love's later heat that poetry holds,
but the atom of the love that drew it forth
from the silence: so if the bright coal of his love
begins to smoulder, the poet hears his voice
suddenly forced, like a bar-room singer's -- boastful
with his own huge feeling, or drowned by violins;
but if it yields a steadier light, he knows
the pure verse, when it finally comes, will sound
like a mountain spring, anonymous and serene.
Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water
sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.
Roundup is at The Well-Read Child

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Yeah! We have started poetry in 4th grade. We started with an "author study' of Douglas Florian, poet and illustrator. This proved to be a great hit. Florian doesn't use a lot of metaphor and simile; his poems are down to earth and short. As my students noted, some make you laugh, some make you sad, and some make you go "hmmm".

We turned to Joyce Sidman to go a little deeper. The class loved her mystery poems in Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow. I registered their enthusiasm for the guessing game (and the fact it really makes them pay attention to the words) and put up a poem each day without the title and asked "Who am I?"

For fun I've been reading Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky. They love it so much they almost stormed the classroom of another teacher on learning that it was locked in their classroom. No self-respecting teacher should be without this book. You don't need sub plans if you have Scranimals.

Today, we tackled Basho. My collaborating ELL teacher has a thing about haiku and brought this wonderful picture book to share with the class Grass Sandals : The Travels of Basho by Dawine Spivak and illustrated by Demi. This is a great introduction to the ultimate master of haiku. It tells of his travel by foot across Japan and how he was inspired to write his poems. It includes haikus by Basho and his successor Issa.

hibiscus flowers
munched up in the horse's mouth
eaten one by one

winking in the night
through holes in my paper wall-
moon and the Milky Way

Friday, April 11, 2008

Poetry Friday

I was looking for a poem about sunflowers because it is April 11, and we have a Winter Storm Warning in Minnesota (six months of winter and counting), and spring break is gone, and testing begins next week. Yesterday, as the sleet shot at my windscreen, and the windshield wipers worked overtime, I tried to describe a field of sunflowers in France to my daughter.
Anyway, as you will see, I did not find that poem this time (though some of you may be able to point me in the right direction). I was intrigued by this title. Mostly because doing laundry reminds me of my mother, who loves nothing better than to hang white cotton sheets out to dry on the line on a windy day. This may be a well known poem but it is my first encounter and I am warmed by it. So many beautiful images. But best of all, the last two lines describes what I would like to be able to do.
Roundup is at A Wrung Sponge

Doing Laundry on Sunday
by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

So this is the Sabbath, the stillness
in the garden, magnolia
bells drying damp petticoats

over the porch rail, while bicycle
wheels thrum and the full-breasted tulips
open their pink blouses

for the hands that pressed them first
as bulbs into the earth.
Bread, too, cools on the sill,

and finches scatter bees
by the Shell Station where a boy
in blue denim watches oil

spread in phosphorescent scarves
over the cement. He dips
his brush into a bucket and begins

to scrub, making slow circles
and stopping to splash water on the children
who, hours before it opens,

juggle bean bags outside Gantsy’s
Ice Cream Parlor,
while they wait for color to drench their tongues,

as I wait for water to bloom
behind me—white foam, as of magnolias,
as of green and yellow

birds bathing in leaves—wait,
as always, for the day, like bread, to rise
and, with movement

imperceptible, accomplish everything.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Poetry Friday

I am in Kentucky for Spring Break, so I thought a Wendell Berry poem would be appropriate. There are so many great lines, "Love someone who does not deserve it", "Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees", "Be joyful though you have considered all the facts".

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Roundup is at Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Power of the Series

My 8 year old is a series junky. Whenever I suggest a new title to her, the first question out of her mouth is, "Is it a series?" The second one is, "Does it involve animals and/or fairies?" If the answer is no, there is a high probability the book goes unread and she misses out on some fabulous fiction. She is currently reading books from five different series: Harry Potter, Warriors, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Rainbow Magic, The Fairytale Detectives and she's waiting impatiently for the new Percy Jackson and the Olympians fourth installment. On a recent trip to the bookstore she picked up book one in The Faerie Wars Chronicles. I read series too when I was younger but they never had the same staggering number of titles e.g. Dark is Rising, Chronicles of Narnia. Even the Potter series at seven books is a lightweight compared to the others. There are currently 63 titles in the Rainbow Magic series, 15 Warriors titles (plus guides and graphic novels), and title number 14 comes in October for the Guardians. The problem is that it takes my daughter about thirty minutes to read a Rainbow Magic book and a day for the Warriors and Guardians. So, obviously there is some compelling story telling going on there but is there much else? Mind you, I did learn that there is such a thing as burrowing owls when she read me a chapter.

I have noticed this trend with my sixth graders, too. We've got the Eragon Trilogy, Artemis Fowl, Maximum Ride, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Clique, Uglies Trilogy (which has a fourth book????), His Dark Materials Trilogy , Ranger's Apprentice, The Underland Chronicles, The Twilight Saga, The Looking Glass Wars, Charlie Bone, The Bartimaeus Trilogy and need I go on?

Serial success is so abundant that writers that already have one start others. James Patterson is following on the success of Maximum Ride with The Dangerous Days of Daniel X. The three ladies who write Warriors have a new series Seekers about bears. Other writers, flushed with success, suddenly find the fact that they originally declared their series a trilogy rather inconvenient, so they have to call the new books something else. Philip Pullman is writing a prequel to his series about young Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison called Once Upon a Time in the North and in 2003 he wrote a "stand alone novel" Lyra's Oxford. Pullman calls these "amuse-bouche—you know, those little French hors d’Ĺ“uvres served at the beginning of a meal to whet the appetite. Each one is a short story, really, intended to divert and entertain." He also plans to write more stand alone novels about Lyra the next is The Book of Dust.

Publishers also know they are on to a good thing. You can count down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the next book in your favorite series come out (see widget). Then there are the websites. Some of them are really fun. I found out what clan I would be in if I was a Warrior Cat, which house I'd be in at Hogwarts, and what my daemon would be if I lived in Lyra's world. I think that this topic will have to be a separate post.

It's hard when you come to the end of a book you love. You mope around for days and there's a big hole inside. Today's youth don't have to deal with that pain. There's always another book in the series, the trilogy turns out to be five books, or the characters turn up in another series. Even if they're not great literature (excluding Pullman of course), they've got kids hooked. Even with all the other distractions - I spent two hours on my daughter's Nintendo DS today trying to light a virtual fire with virtual twigs -they're reading!!!! I really think JK Rowling, much as I hate to admit it, started a mini-revolution. She's worth more than the Queen of England, and that is a revolution in itself.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Poetry Friday

This was read at my grandmother's funeral. My family comes from a northern shipbuilding town on the North Sea. Every weekend, every vacation was spent at the beach. I'm not talking lounging around in bikinis. Our beaches, though sometimes balmy, are usually windswept, lonely, and breathtaking. The water is freezing cold and the color of precious jewels. The sand is a million shades of gold and the air cleans your lungs and blows away petty human worries. The last time I spoke to my grandmother was at the beach. She died unexpectedly at seventy, having survived depression, an abusive husband, a controlling mother, and World War II. I still cannot read this without weeping.

I Must Go Down to the Sea by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

Round up is at

Friday, March 21, 2008

Falling from Grace by Gail Godwin

I got in to the bath with this book and emerged one and a half hours later wrinkled and cold. So, definitely a page turner. Two sisters, Annie and Grace, are spending the winter at the beach and their favorite game is a more complex version of hide and seek called tracking. The sisters get separated from their father and the weather and the tide turns on them. Annie makes it up the cliff to safety but Grace slips and disappears. Meanwhile, fourteen-year-old Kip gets caught in the storm too and finds the girls' backpack floating in the bay. He answers the girls' cell phone and becomes caught up in the frantic search, becoming a suspect himself as the days go by and no body is found. The same night a young boy disappears in to the churning seas and a drunk has-been rock star haunts the beach. Godwin spins a suspenseful tale that asks questions about what kind of people we trust. Godwin hails from Australia and is an editor of children's books. This is her first teen novel.

Poetry Friday

Roundup is at Wild Rose Reader this week.

It's been a week of poetry chez moi. I forced my sixth graders to memorize Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll (we originally read it as an exercise in parts of speech). They moaned and groaned and tried to find "brillig" in the dictionary. "What is a mome rath?" In the end they loved it and could be found reciting it to each other at recess. They want to memorize another one- with the stipulation that it make sense.
It is snowing again in Minnesota, and I feel like peonies will never flower this year. I love the juxtaposition of the images in this poem. I didn't expect the broken cake at the end.

Pink and White

Peonies are the only flower I care for
and when I saw them from the bus window
yesterday, tumbled and heavy along
a fence, fully exploded, nodding
at the ground, hanging their heads but not
yet spoiled, I remembered
a summer (maybe seven years
ago, or was it ten?) I wasn't sure
our love would come again
and here I am, almost

kissing the grass like that,
bursting and rich, cracked
all over like broken cake-
makes you cry but still sweet

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Living Life on the Edge (of my sofa)

I have been living dangerously this past week and experiencing some events I hope never happen. I know its so cliche, but I am once again reminded of why we read. Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville took me up a mountainside with a millennialist sect, hoping to be saved by God from the fire that would end the Earth. Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life as We Knew It raced me around a supermarket frantic and scared as the moon, knocked out of orbit, unleashed tsunamis and played havoc with power supplies. All that and conferences, too!

Armageddon Summer is supposed to be a love story among other things. Two teenagers, Marina and Jed, come together as they watch the world around them fall apart but not because of God's wrath. Rather, it is human nature - fear, doubt, selfishness, and self-righteousness- that sparks the tragedy on the mountainside and leaves twenty dead. For me, the romance seemed superfluous to what was really a fascinating journey in to the hearts and minds of a group of people desperate to believe in something that would wipe away the mess of their worldly existence so far. Marina's mother's marriage is falling apart and Jed's mother recently walked out on both him and his father. These disillusioned adults find something to trust and believe in in the form of Reverend Beeson and his Believers. "I stood by you all these years and believe me it hasn't been easy," Marina's mother writes to her husband. "But there's a hole inside me. I want to believe in something. Something bigger than me. Once it was you I believed in. That's a long time gone." Ironically, by giving themselves up to Beeson's Flock they abandon the people who need them and believe in them the most - their children. The end of the novel was quite a shock for me. The believers barricade themselves in to their mountain retreat using electric fences and guards with guns. As the appointed day approaches, panic stricken "outsiders" demand to enter the compound and the day of judgement ends with death and disillusionment for the Believers. I would have liked to see where the authors would have taken the story if simply nothing had happened on that day. No fire and brimstone; no saving or cleansing. What then?

Life as we Knew It is a slow burn. It begins with the catastrophic alteration of the moon's orbit and life never gets back to normal. Miranda and her family are spared the tsunamis of the coastal states and the earthquakes of the mid west, but they must struggle daily to survive as food, gas, oil, and water become increasingly sparse. Family and its survival become the number one priority. This is not a story of a community coming together in times of crisis. It is Darwin's theory of survival made real. Would this be the reality? I didn't love this book but I appreciated its honesty and simplicity.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Poetry Friday

Sorry, no Dylan. I'm going to put my neck out and give you an original poem. It's not quite Dylan, but there is a little protest in there. However, I can give you a list of my Dylan connections: I live in Minnesota; I have seen both Bob Dylan and his son play live (separately); my daughter is named Cate after Cate Blanchett, who played Bob Dylan; wind is my favorite element.
Roundup is at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup

I went to war and all I got was this lousy license plate

Driving home I see
The car before me has a license plate
And I wonder what could possibly
Make up for all that
No waiting on aisle five
Served first at the bar
The first snowdrop and the last leaf to turn
The comfortable chair and the unrestricted view
Tuscan summers
Peeled grapes
Meteor showers and lunar eclipses
Bread straight from the oven
Upgrades and special offers
The parking space closest to the door
Belgian chocolate
Uninterrupted sleep
Wireless Internet and a big ol’ flat screen TV
Unconditional love
Heck, I don’t know
How do you prove it at the DMV
Show them your emotional scars
I can’t even imagine

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A New Generation of Writers

My district long ago adopted writing and reading workshops championed by Lucy Caulkins and Katie Wood Ray. The cornerstone of the writing workshop is that it is grounded in personal experience. For the most part I am in total agreement with this philosophy. However, I cannot wholly commit to an idiology that would have quashed the following story arc as related to me by my 8 year old daughter:

Daughter: So, Jade is writing this story about a cat that is missing one leg.
Me: Really. How did the cat lose its leg?
Daughter: Well, it had this thing hung around its neck. You know, those things on the top of cans.
Me: Pause Ring pulls?
Daughter: No, you know, you use that thing and you take off the top of the can. What is that?
Me: Kinda' getting it but still thinking rationally You mean the cat has a can top hanging around its neck?
Daughter: Yeah, and it has jagged edges.
Me: Still trying to remain in the land of logic So who put it there? Its owner?
Daughter: No. The cat is a stray. It just liked the can top so wears it.
Me :Trying to imagine how a cat would punch a whole in the can lid, put it on a string and then tie a knot in it And...
Daughter: Well, the cat was walking and a car came by in the road and knocked the cat to the ground. The tin can top rolled over her body and chopped her leg off.
Me: Wow, really? That is a really interesting plot line.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Poetry Friday

Roundup today is at the simple and the ordinary.

Macneice was an Irish poet and contemporary of W.H. Auden.
"Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be 'objective' or clear-cut at the cost of honesty."

Prayer Before Birth by Louis Macneice

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me, with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me, on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me, my treason engendered by traitors beyond me, my life when they murder by means of my hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom and the beggar refuses my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with one face, a thing, and against all those who would dissipate my entirety, would blow me like thistledown hither and thither or hither and thither like water held in the hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch+

Maybe Pseudonymous Bosch was just shocked by my age, but it took a long time for me to be trusted by the UK website for The Name of This Book is Secret. I actually sat there and thought of all the reasons I might not be trusted as the little, blue, pulsating oblong at the bottom of the screen inched toward completion. I mean, I can be trusted, right? I didn't lie about my age. Has modern technology come so far that it can tell just by the way I type that I am actually totally useless at keeping a secret?
So it seems is the narrator of The Name of This Book is Secret. At first I thought it was all a bit gimmicky. The first chapter is Xed out completely and then you get a pep talk on how dangerous the book is and do you really want to venture forth blah, blah, blah. However, once there was actual plot, I was hooked. This reads a little like a Lemony Snicket book. Personally I find Snicket annoying, interrupting too much and trying overly hard to be clever. Bosch is less intrusive.
The plot is fast moving and not all that predictable. Cassandra, a survivalist and doomsayer (thus the name), often hangs out with her adopted (gay?) grandfathers in their antique shop. A real estate agent who specializes in clearing out and selling the houses of the recently deceased brings in a pile of junk from a magician's house. Needless to say the magician died in mysterious circumstances, and Cassandra soon finds herself mixed up in a dastardly plot to uncover a terrible secret that will, should Pseudonymous Bosh not be pulling our legs, change the reader's life forever.
I could relate to Cass. Her favorite weather condition is wind on a sunny day, as is mine. She is growing up without her father, who was struck by lightning. Mine wasn't struck by anything but probably could have benefited from an electrical charge or two. Max Ernst's (Cass' diminutive and verbose sidekick) parents are so divided that their house is split in two, with Max's bedroom straddling both sides. I found this a rather apt image for the way that many divorced parents insist on dividing their child equally between them, thereby making their child in need of therapy for most of their adult life. Bosch does a nice job of fleshing out his characters with these details and saves his book and its heroes from becoming Snicketesque.

Other reviews of The Name of this Book is Secret: Book Kid Reviews,, Seeing Indigo

Slice of Life Story Day 4

Please note I skipped day 3. As a woman who has always known her limitations, I hereby resign from the Slice of Life Challenge and admit defeat. I don't see the point of writing "blah" and I don't have the time to write "wow". I don't know how you all do it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Slice of Life Story Day 2

I decided to make Steak and Kidney Pie today without the kidney. I ate it often growing up in the UK but always skirted around the kidney. Now that I am 38, I am able to make the radical and almost heretical decision to leave the kidney out. No kidneys! I am making steak pie. So, I am a rather haphazard cook. I forgot to buy an onion and so spent a very frustrating twenty minutes trying to individualy peel sixteen button onions that I found ferreted away in my pantry. The green thing in the picture is an ingenious device that peels garlic. Button onions are also small and covered in layers of fine papery skin, so I thought it would work. Mmm hmmm. Feeling a little pressured ( I didn't bother to read the recipe beforehand and so discovered that I had left and hour and a half to make a pie that takes three), I totally forgot the leeks (which aren't in the original recipe, but did I mention that age has made me bold?). I know I should have washed the leeks thoroughly because of dirt and grit, but time was my enemy. After a frenzy of slicing, leeks with grit went in to the pot. Next came herbs. To my delight, I discovered that the thyme I had bought was still attached to the soil it was growing in. Super! I dashed outside and collected my potting materials from the shed. So now I am potting plants and cooking at the same time.
Next came the pastry, which was really the whole reason I decided to make this in the first place. I have fond memories of the delicious crust on my Nana's rabbit pies and, for some strange reason, my mother sent me my weight in shredded suet along with my last shipment of tea bags (but that's another story). The crust went pretty smoothly and before long I had a fairly normal looking steak pie in the oven. Hurrah. Now I just have to persuade the rest of my British-cusine-phobic family to eat it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Ferret Island by Richard W. Jennings

I think that Jennings and I may have the same sense of humor. He sounds like the inside of my head when he writes. However, I don't think that a story about giant ferrets has ever entered my conscious or subconscious mind, and in that sense, Jennings and I differ greatly.
This book is so weird that it is hard to describe. I fear that if I tell you it is about a runaway stranded on a sand island in the Mississippi who discovers a plot to destroy McDonalds by a one-eared famous writer and a hoard of giant ferrets, you will be put off. Unless you are a certain kind of 10-14 year old boy, who, I imagine, would be rivited.
So, yeah, that is what it is about. If you are happy to willingly suspend your disbelief, then you can sit back and enjoy the absurd adventures of a fourteen year old boy called William Alexander Madison Lee Cooper Finn. You can also learn a lot about ferrets. For example, if needed, a ferret can be worn. When ferrets steal Will's clothes (ferrets are mischevious), he has to quickly improvise.
"It's ironic, but "thinking fast" doesn't involve thinking at all...Perhaps this explains why, when Julia walked into the bedroom, she found me dressed in floppy tennis shoes and a weasel. The long furry Jim was draped around my neck like a feather boa, his tail clasped securely between his teeth. "

Slice of Life Story

There's been a bad smell following me around the house for several weeks, and it is always accompanied by the clitter clatter of nails on hardwood floors. My dog, Thisbe, needs a bath and I seem to have lost the battle of wills against my husband, meaning I am going to have to do it. So, I quietly tiptoe up to the bathroom and start the water. Thisbe is in her usual place on the upstairs sofa oblivious to the traumatic experience just around the corner. She starts to shake the minute I lift her. The shaking continues all through bath time. When wet, she resembles a drowned weasel and her eyes become brown pools of endless suffering and sorrow. Her tail, normally so perky, limply curls under her. Her once fluffy beard hangs like torn curtains.

Thisbe is not happy.

I lift her up and shake her a little to get rid of some of the water. She stares in to my eyes with a look of resigned humiliation. Et tu, brute?

Now comes the fun part. Once the bath is over, Thisbe and I perform a sort of modern dance with towels. She is bent on shaking herself to the point that my bathroom walls become covered in a thin layer of wet hair. I am determined that she will not. So begins our duet. Thisbe is a caped assassin, slipping through my legs and making for the door. I am the clumsy pursuer, pirouetting on wet linoleum.

Finally I judge it safe to release her, and Thisbe emerges from her cocoon of towels with a mischievous glint in her now sparkling eyes. All is forgiven. I am loved again. Game on. She hurtles down the stairs almost taking out my daughter who turns and follows, whooping with joy. Thisbe rounds the corner in to the dining room with the grace of a thoroughbred and dashes in to the kitchen, does a 180 degree turn in mid air and exits the kitchen, rocketing past me and leaps from one rug to another in her sprint to the living room. Three times she does this circuit, followed closely by my amused eight year old, who has been part of this running of the bulls since she could toddle.

Finally, Thisbe is ready for one on one combat. I crouch low and appease my sin by being gently nipped by the damp smelling hairball that is my dog. The hand to jaw fight could last for ever, so I signal my surrender by prostrating myself at her paws. Not yet satisfied that I have paid dearly enough for my betrayal, Thisbe turns her back to me. Scratch it and we'll call it quits.

Want to find out more about the Slice of Life Challenge? Head over to Two Writing Teachers.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Poetry Friday

Poetry Roundup is at Writing and Ruminating this week.

This is one of the most erotic poems I know and sends a shiver down my spine every time I read it.
Duffy is one of the most famous modern British poets and was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1955. The poem is dedicated to Judith Radstone, whose 2001 obituary described her as a "radical bibliophile devoted to the worlds of poetry and protest". The poem came from a conversation the two had about the tradition of ladies' maids wearing their misstresses pearls in order to improve their lustre.

Warming Her Pearls
for Judith Radstone

by Carol Ann Duffy

Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm then, until evening
when I'll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She's beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit's foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head...Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does...And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Butter Sculptures, Sexy Coral, and Ibsen

I don't normally write about goings on in my daily life, naturally assuming you would have no interest. However, today you will be subjected to a snapshot of my exciting life because it involves no gossip-obsessed preteens massacring the English language, and only my mother-in-law reads this any way. I must have done something deliciously good in a former life because today I got to be in the same room as four writers I adore. Two of the writers were headlining the 2008 Annual Hubb's Children's Literature Conference. The other two just happened to be there. I was standing in line to register and the person behind me was Joyce Sidman, author of many fabulous poetry books, including the Cybil award winner This is Just to Say. She was genuinely shocked that I recognized her. When I got in to the auditorium John Coy was there. He wrote one of my absolute favorite books, Two Old Potatoes and Me. First of all Jane Yolen gave a talk with her son, Adam Stemple, on collaborating. Despite the fact one of them lives in Minneapolis and the other in Scotland (sometimes), they have written several children's books together. Today they talked a lot about the process of writing Troll Bridge. They both had very different view points about how they arrived at the story of a boy-band being kidnapped by trolls in northern Minnesota. The story ended up being a mixture of Norwegian folklore and Minnesotan kitsch (see butter sculpture, which is only weird if you don't live in Minnesota or Iowa). This all had the feeling of deja-vu for me as I had spent three hours the previous evening watching Peer Gynt at the Guthrie (see troll, which is what you look like after sitting through three hours of Ibsen). The second author was Lisa Westberg Peters, author of one of my other favorite picture books, Our Family Tree. Today she talked about writing science poetry. She shared several of her poems from her collection of geological poems, Earthshake. During her talk, Peters put up an article about how coral reproduces during the full moon and challenged us to write a poem. Yolen, who is apparantly a workaholic, just whipped one up right there and then. I was in kidlit heaven (see bug, which is what you get when you google the image "kidlit heaven").

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Poetry Friday

I discovered Mary Oliver in the New Yorker. Why hadn't I heard of her? Her meticulous attention to the smallest things in nature spoke directly to me and, I don't know why, but she seemed "British" in this respect. She is for me an American Ted Hughes with the added advantage of being less obtuse. She is one of the few poets whose individual collections I have actually purchased. Right now, with the temperature at -11 with a -29 wind chill, I need to see roses and trumpet vines and the frantic beating of exotic wings.

Hummingbird Pauses at the Trumpet Vine
by Mary Oliver

Who doesn’t love
roses, and who
doesn’t love the lilies
of the black ponds

floating like flocks
of tiny swans, and of course, the flaming
trumpet vine

where the hummingbird comes
like a small green angel, to soak
his dark tongue
in happiness -

and who doesn’t want
to live with the brisk
motor of his heart

like a Schubert
and his eyes
working and working like those days of rapture,
by Van Gogh in Arles?

Look! for most of the world
is waiting
or remembering -
most of the world is time

when we’re not here,
not born yet, or died
-a slow fire
under the earth with all
our dumb wild blind cousins
who also
can’t even remember anymore
their own happiness

-Look! and then we will be
like the pale cool
stones, that last almost

Monday, February 18, 2008

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean has won just about every award for children's books there is except the Newbery. She was also given the honor of being selected to write the official sequel to Peter Pan, Peter Pan in Scarlet. This year she was awarded the Printz for The White Darkness, a book I almost gave up on after four chapters. I am so glad I didn't. In fact, after chapter five, the book never left my hands. I finished it in one sitting (it helped to be bed ridden with a cold at the time).
This is the story of an extremely plucky fourteen year old girl, Sym. She has an obsession with Antartica encouraged by her "uncle" Victor, who has plied her with books and documentaries on the "The Ice" since she was a child. Sym is particularly mesmerized by the story of the doomed 1910 British expedition of Captain Scott. This is not necessarily so outlandish. It is a well known story to British school children. Personally, while feeling sorry for the men who all perished in the attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, I have little admiration for their sacrifice. What was supposed to be first and foremost a scientific expedition became a pride-fueled race to plant a British flag on the frozen wastes before a rival Norwegian could claim the honor. Scott was accompanied by a man named Captain Laurence "Titus" Oates, who is attributed with the famous line, "I'm going just going outside and may be sometime," as he exited to his death. Oates was heralded as a hero; he was very ill and was slowing down the party, so he committed suicide in order that his teammates could go on without him.
Sym has taken the heroic figure of Oates and combined him with the handsome figure of the actor who portrayed him to create an imaginary friend who fills the emptiness in her heart left by her father's messy death and her own social awkwardness. Oates fills the pages of McCaughrean's book, too and it is a tribute to her skill as a writer that he is as real to us as he is to Sym. In fact, he and Sym end up being the only real characters in a novel full of people who are not who they say.
Uncle Victor, for me, was a phony the minute he stepped in to the story and the clumsy bait and switch of the first two chapters was what nearly had me giving up. Victor gives an innocent enough invitation to a free weekend in Paris to Sym and her mother, but mother discovers her passport is missing just as the train doors close, and Victor and Sym leave without her. In Paris, however, Victor is not interested in any of the usual sights and suggests they travel on, "I thought somewhere a bit farther afield. A jaunt. Now that we're here. What say?" His jaunt turns out to be a trip to Antartica on a package tour for the thrill-seeking rich--only Victor is seeking something more than a thrill and Sym is part of his delusional and dangerous plan. After Victor drugs the entire tour group, blows up an aeroplane, and steals an all-terrain vehicle, Sym finds herself heading on to the Ross Ice Shelf, "Did you know: Some of the ice is half a mile thick? Except where it isn't". In the vehicle with them is a Norweigen filmmaker and his son. Except that they aren't.
What follows is a series of life-threatening and breathtaking adventures. Once Victor starts the engine and heads out in to the unknown, there is no way you can put this book down until the ride is over two hundred and twenty pages later. McCaughrean leads us in to the cold, blinding beauty of Antartica and we experience through Sym's mesmerized gaze, "the immensity of wrinkled whiteness stretching east to the edge of forever".
Just FYI: There are a couple of veiled references to sex in the book. Sym wonders what it would have been like to make love to Oates and Sym is worried about one of her friends who claims to have met a thirty-year old man on the internet.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston

I have had a hard time coming up with an opening line for this review. Usually these lines come to me in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. However, despite the abundance of sleepless nights, no witty/poignant/shocking opening line has surfaced. I think that it is because this story is so rich and evokes so many reactions and questions that it is hard to settle on one angle. Set in small town Tennessee during the 1950s Jim Crow era*, this is the tale of a truly beautiful friendship between two boys of the same age but different skin colors. It’s a story that is part “Long Way from Chicago”, full of colorful stories of the goings on of the town's inhabitants, and part “To Kill a Mockingbird”, riddled with injustice, hate, and a painful loss of innocence.

Both boys, Malcolm who is black and David who is white, are idealistic and uncompromising in their love for one another. David in particular takes a long time to fully understand the unmaleable nature of the society he lives in and the mine field that he creates for himself and his best friend. David doesn’t hesitate to insist that Malcolm try out for the local all-white little league baseball team; it is a hard learning curve. "What's wrong?" David asks the crestfallen Malcolm. "Coach wouldn't let me try out. Told me, 'Git off this field, nigger.'" Malcolm had to learn early the realities that David can't accept, "Niggers don't get to do what white boys can," he said. "you knew that." "I didn't! Honest!" shouted David.

David's father barely tolerates his son playing with Malcolm but knows he cannot stop him; however, he instutes a "No-Nigger" rule and swares that he will kill Malcolm if he as much sets foot on their front porch, "He formed his words with such calm, I knew he'd planned this, cold as ice". When Malcolm is attacked by a group of men, David's father is among the crowd.

David's father can be cruel and calculating one minute and loving and understanding the next. You hate him, then think he’s charming all in the same paragraph. He is extremely complex and well written and then sometimes not quite believable. Needless to say, he’s based on a true person. The author, Tony Johnston, addresses the reader before the story begins:

Though some people may be offended by it, I do not apologize for the raw language used in this book. It is my father's language and reflects his way of thinking that has troubled me my whole life.
In a River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean wrote that he was "haunted by waters.' I am haunted by my father.

David's father will not have a person of color in his house but was raised by a black mammy, whom he adores. This is the one part of the story that I had a hard time with. Tinney, the mammy, arrives at David's front door and is brought in and even embraced by his father. I know that racism is never a simple thing. Blacks and whites grow up in the South together in small communitites and their relationships are often compex and puzzling, but the intense hatred for blacks the father expresses at other times is so venomous this one exception stands out. There are even veiled hints throughout the book that the father may actually be involved in the Klan.

This book would still be a good read, but a harder one, without the comic relief. The matriarch of the family, Gold Ma is no Grandma Dowdel; however, the scene where she insists on being carried in her bed to a wake is hilarious. There's also the mysterious Civil War arm that David and Malcolm hunt for and the wedding with The Great Toaster Shoot. In the end though, this novel is about choice. Choose to stay and accept the status quo or choose to leave in the hope that there is a better way. David, being white, has that choice. Malcolm does not.

I leave you with the dedication to the book which sums up the complexity of the issue:

For Daddy.
Some wounds never heal.*
Interesting aside: Tony Johnston is the author of many children's books including The Quilt Story, The Barn Owls, and The Worm Family.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Poetry Friday

I tried to find some information about the poet for this entry, but it seems that Naomi Lazard is a mystery. When googled, she turns up as a translator for Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a celebrated Pakistani Urdu poet. The first part encapsulates the frustration I feel when governement, states, or school districts suddenly decide they are going to get rid of what is working and try a new program.

In Answer to Your Query
by Naomi Lezard

We are sorry to inform you
the item you ordered
is no longer being produced.
It has not gone out of style
nor have people lost interest in it.
In fact, it has becomeone of our most desired products.
Its popularity is still growing.
Orders for it come in
at an ever increasing rate.
However, a top-level decision
has caused this product
to be discontinued forever.

Instead of the item you ordered
we are sending you something else.
It is not the same thing,
nor is it a reasonable facsimile.
It is what we have in stock,
the very best we can offer.

If you are not happy with this substitution
let us know as soon as possible.
As you can imagine
we already have quite an accumulation
of letters such as the one
you may or may not write.
To be totally fair
we respond to these complaints
as they come in.
Yours will be filed accordingly,
answered in its turn.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Entertainer and the Dybbuk by Sid Fleischmann

It has taken a long time for Fleischmann to write a Holocaust story--long enough for him to write more than sixty other books. I can understand his reluctance. I lived in Poland for almost a year a short train ride away from Auschwitz. I never visited. The train would stop there on the way to Krakow, and I would watch that notorious building glide slowly past the window as we neared the station. The ghosts of the Jewish dead are everywhere there. I felt the horror of it on my skin and in the air I breathed. I visited the Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter in Krakow where Schindler's List was filmed. I read Elie Wiesel with tears streaming down my cheeks. But to Auschwitz I could not go.
Fleischmann does not set his tale in the death camps or the crowded ghettos but in recently reopened entertainment halls found in the skeletal remains of post-war European cities. A second-rate ventriloquist finds himself possessed by a dybbuk, the spirit of a murdered Jewish child. The dybbuk makes the ventriloquist famous, becoming the voice of his wooden sidekick. As Europe tries to forget the war -"The war's history. Yesterday's newspapers" protests the ventriloquest - the dybbuk has unfinished business, "Not for me. I placed a want ad. Let me look at the audience". The dybbuk is using the ventriloquist's rise to fame as a vehicle to hunt down the SS officer who killed him.
Despite being a short book, The Entertainer is funny, tragic, and thought provoking. The dybbuk is a self-assured, witty, and intelligent boy who does not play the role of pathetic victim. He cries at night and calls the name of his murdered sister, but he hunts his prey with a shrewd and unrelenting determination. He is much stronger than the almost hapless Freddie he possesses.
Freddie learns more about the world and himself through his friendship with the dybbuk. He is "dimly aware" of the atrocities commited by the Nazis, but like many, Freddie cannot comprehend the extent "But so many?". He learns that the dead boy once saved his life but still cannot allow himself to be possessed by a Jew, "When I was growing up, I never saw a Jew. I thought they all wore horns and tails". When the dybbuk refuses to perform on Friday nights and Saturdays, people begin to think he is Jewish. His fiance is let down when he tells her he is not actually Jewish, "How disappointing! Polly exclaimed. Can you imagine me dragging a Jewish husband home to Alabama. Wow!". A Jew for her is an exotic being complete with charming accessories, "Don't you think we'll look heavenly under the canopy thing?". Freddie moves from being an uninformed anti-semitic to someone well versed in Jewish life. When he mets Polly's uncle, the well-known racist of the family, Freddie is surprised to find himself offended when the uncle refuses to shake hands.
Fleischmann was finally ready to write his story of the Holocaust when he discovered a way to incorporate the Jewish sense of humor through the dybbuk and thus a glimmer of hope. However, for me, it is Freddie's slow dawning of friendship, admiration and understanding for the dybbuk which allows Fleischmann to let in "the occasional shaft of sunlight" to yet another dark chapter of man's inhumanity to man.

A Resurrection of Magic Book 1: Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

One of my absolute favorite books of 2007. It was a finalist for the National Book Award but got beat by Sherman Alexie's equally-fantastic-in- another-way book. After I read it, I looked up Duey's other titles. She's known for the early chapter book series, The Unicorn's Secret (which I immediately went out and bought for some of my struggling 4th grade readers). I'm thinking this is a big step in another direction.
The story moves between two main characters, Sadima and Hahp, separated by generations but connected by their involvement with two wizards and the academy they create. This is no Harry Potter wanna be - trust me. Duey created a world in which apprentices master magic or die. Frightened and forgotten boys starve to death slowly in an underground maze, unable to conjur the food they need. Hahp has talent and manages to survive, but he must watch others consistently fail and grow thinner until they finally no longer appear for class. Sadima, generations earlier, becomes housekeeper to two young men who are attempting to bring back magic that was long ago outlawed and whose language exists only in the oral stories and songs of a few people. These two men, Somiss and Franklin, are the wizards who create the hellish academy where Hahp is trapped. The first is a sadistic fanatic who will stop at nothing to resurrect magic, the second is an idealist who thinks he can be the reason to his friend's extremism (think George Bush and Tony Blair). As the book progresses, and we realize that the apprentices really will be allowed to starve to death, it becomes clear that Franklin has failed in his mission to temper the cruelty of Somiss. In the earlier narrative, Sadima stays with the increasingly terrifying Somiss because of her growing love for Franklin. Both men are instructors at the academy Hahp attends but gentle Sadima is nowhere to be seen. The affection between Franklin and Sadima is the only warmth in a dark and disturbing narrative written with fierce restraint. In Sadima's final chapter she makes a chilling discovery that must surely destroy her faith in Franklin. Duey almost destroyed my sanity as I realized I would have to wait until she wrote the next book to see if I am right. I immediately insisted that some of my sixth graders read it so we could suffer together. We're still waiting.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Poetry Friday

This is one of my mother-in-law's favorite poems. She's a workaholic.

To be of use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museumsbut you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan

I should have brushed up on my Greek mythology before plunging in to this, but even with a vague memory of my reading of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the trilogy, The Lightning Thief. A sixth grade student introduced me to these mythical adventures, and now they’ve gone the rounds of all the discerning fantasy fans in the class. My third grade daughter hasn’t put it down since she picked it up.
Percy Jackson is a sixth grade student who has moved from to school to school. A victim of Attention Deficit Disorder and dyslexia, trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes. He’s trying hard to make it work at his latest school when his math teacher turns in to a shriveled hag with claws and yellow fangs and tries to kill him. Now, there are probably a few of my students who would like to claim the same has happened to them-but that’s another story. Percy must go on his own odyssey in order to find out who he is and why half the monsters of Ancient Greece are trying to kill him. Percy is a likeable character, and I appreciate the message that Percy’s problems at school are the result of his demi-divinity. Wouldn’t it be great if that were true ! There is a strong female heroine in the story too, Annabeth, daughter of Athena and a good person to have on your side on a trip to the Underworld.
You learn a lot about Greek mythology when you read this. However, I would recommend keeping some kind of reference book handy (or this great website The Theoi Project) as Riordan seasons the story with more gods and monsters than my mother-in-law puts salt on her cereal, and trust me, she uses a lot of salt.
Other titles in the trilogy : Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth (5/08)
Interesting aside : Riordan has been hired to develop a new series by Scholastic that will be they hope will be the successor to Harry Potter.
Click here to go to Riordan's blog.