Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading: Reverse Psych on Reluctant Readers

Welcome to my first ever Feeding the Flashlight Skyped author interview!  In it, Tommy Greenwald discusses how frustration with his own reluctant reader sons inspired him to create a middle school boy determined to avoid reading– ever.  Can a book about hating reading actually lure reluctant readers to, well, read?  Absolutely– I’ve seen it happen with the Charlie Joe Jackson.  Hear Tommy talk all about his wildly funny, wildly popular series and how it came to be.  I also include some of the books’ pitch-perfect illustrations, by J.P. Coovert.

Yay! I’m a Cybils Judge!

The Cybils Award is a book award given by a coalition of children’s and teen’s book bloggers, and about the coolest thing that happened to me last month is that I was selected to be a middle grade judge. Me!  Yippee!  To be welcomed into this group of uber-bloggers is a real honor.  I mean, listen to this quote from their website:

The Cybils have only two criteria: literary merit and kid appeal. We don’t think those two values have to collide. There are books we want kids to read and books kids can’t resist. Somewhere in the middle, they meet. 

 That’s exactly the same criteria I use when blogging here!  *Pause for elated sigh*  I spend so much time reading and discussing children’s books with my students, school community, my husband (a grade five teacher), and my daughter (a fifth grader), I am thrilled to join a group of fellow-minded bloggers who command a national audience. I feel like this:

Read more about Cybils here.  Want to nominate a book?  Click here. (You have until Oct.15.) Want to see the list of books already nominated?  Click here.

As a Round 2 Panelist, I don’t really start my role until after the big list becomes a short list (January 1), but the fun has begun!

Rapid Fire Thursday: Boy Book Picks

They can’t put it down. Dan Gutman’s THE GENIUS FILES

I know it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but hey, it’s summer.  I compiled several covers here intended to entice boys in summer mode to pick up a great read.  This is no small feat!   (Why do I hear the voice of Richard Attenborough from PLANET EARTH… “And here, we have a glimpse of the rarest sort:  Settled beneath the shade of a large tree, we see an eight-year-old human male engaged in the act of reading a book…”)  May many of these– or just one– snag your boy.

The Deliciousness of a Summertime Adventure

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

A bullfrog.  A nosy neighbor.  An incredible secret.

Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.

Is this not a contender for Best Opening Line in a Children’s Book Ever?  It makes me want to invent the award.  I love watching kids’ faces when I read it to them.  First, their eyebrows pinch together in question, then, they look at their classmates and the giggling erupts.  Thus the journey into a wonderful middle grade book begins– because, really, nobody’s stopping there.

Barbara O’Connor takes us to the south, to a place with barn lofts and creaky porches, ponds with bullfrogs, and  summer nights that smell like “pine and grass and honeysuckle.”  It’s a place that lacks the buzz of technology but is full of sounds– musical sounds that conjure memories of summers gone by for adult readers like you and me.  The ploink of rocks dropping into water, the chug chug of sprinklers, the songs of crickets, and then, one night when the train rolls by, a mysterious thud.  “A crack of wood, and a tumble tumble tumble sound.”

What fell off the train?  We wonder with Owen.  Where is it?  The suspended success of his search nearly kills readers, and they can’t stop reading until they find out just what made the thud.  Yes, I’m talking about delayed gratification– something on the brink of extinction.  O’Connor gets twenty-first century children to experience it.  It’s delicious!

Don’t even think I’m telling you what Owen finds.

I will say that it’s the eponymous secret, a secret thing.  For a boy like Owen– a boy who works for a month to catch the biggest bullfrog in his pond and then uses it to scare his grandfather’s cranky nurse– it’s a secret thing so fantastic that he is compelled to risk his friendship with the guys. If he’s going to get the thing to work, he’ll need to enlist Viola.  Viola is nosy.  She’s a know-it-all.  She’s a girl.  But she’s got what it takes to get the secret thing up and running.  A clandestine partnership ensues.  Can they pull off their plot without being discovered by grown-ups?  Are they breaking the law?  Are they risking their lives?  It’s all just dangerous enough to keep the tension high for 168 pages and close with a satisfying “r-u-u-u-m-m-m of the bullfrogs down in the pond.”

O’Connor is one of those rare writers who uses just enough words to spin a great story, create rich characters, and build images that rattle around your brain long after you’ve finished reading.  But not one word more.  Themes of friendship, tolerance, honesty, and respect for wild animals sneak their way into the story like water bugs through lily pads, but there is no moralizing here.  If the fantastic secret is a gift to Owen, this book is a fantastic gift to kids gaining mastery over longer books.  Reading ability aside it’s a great read for any 8-12-year-old.  I also highly recommend it as a read aloud.

To see the numerous kudos Barbara O’Connor received for the book, and to check out her other works, visit her site http://www.barboconnor.com/.

Blogs, Boggs, Blueberries, and Frogs

We painted to music to "uncork" our muses. (I kinda think they were already out of the bottle.)

A Writing Retreat is a heavenly thing.  This weekend, I co-hosted with my two dear writing friends, Julie Kingsley and Meg Wilson, the first annual SCBWI Blueberry Fields Writing Retreat.  Longing for time with other children’s writers and capitalizing on the fact we live on the coast of Maine, we started planning a weekend of writing, laughing, eating, swimming, hot tubbing, and blueberry picking a few months ago.  It turned out better than our wildest dreams.  Ten women, a lot of wildlife, and  more than a touch of good ju-ju in the air.  Many have blogged about it already.  Check them out.  Liz, Kim, and Julie capture it well.

http://www.lizgouletdubois.com/blog/?p=1810

http://kimsavage.me/2011/08/08/first-annual-blueberry-fields-retreat/

http://julietruekingsley.com/

Silly, serious, psychic, splendiferous.   I am now full of inspiration and determination to make it all happen again next August.

Sunday was drizzly, adding that atmosphere writers love. Meg provided Boggs and boots for all.

I do have one story from the weekend that is uniquely mine to tell, and that is the story of the man-frog in Meg’s pool.

World's Biggest Bullfrog, dubbed Farius, after the man-frog villain in my book.

Just take a look at that sucker.  Behold the beef on those forearms.  He’s the size of a cantaloupe.  A flipping CANTALOUPE.  I have some experience with frogs.  In the early 90s, I nannied a boy named Stephen, and we spent many a summer day frogging on a pond in lower Fairfield County, Connecticut.  Upon moving to Maine, where, in general, all wildlife is on a bigger scale, I began looking for frogs with my kids on their grammy’s pond in Nequassett, near Bath.  This one here is by far the biggest frog I’ve ever seen. A frog the size of my face.  And don’t think that fact was lost on me in the moments described below.

It happened like this.  It’s early Sunday morning, and not all the soul sisters are awake yet, so I decide to take a hot tub before breakfast.  It’s drizzly, but how often can I take a hot tub before breakfast?  As I step awkwardly into the steamy water, something catches my eye, perched on the stairs of the pool several yards away.  A big maple leaf, I wonder?  No worries.  I sink into hot tub and sip my dark roast coffee. By this time Monday morning I’ll be back to my bottomless pile of laundry.  I close my eyes.

I luxuriate among the hot water jets for a long spell, until I hear the soft commotion of plates and conversation coming from the kitchen.  I force myself to leave the bubbles and cross the patio to retrieve my towel.  That’s when I realize we have something to rival The Creature from the Black Lagoon on the pool steps.

No tough chick response from me, let me assure you. Instead, girly screams and a few trucker swears break the morning quiet as I alert the group to our intruder.  “Save it, save it!” I hear from the kitchen.  Oh, sure, save it, you say, inside eating your warm cinnamon rolls and slurping your organic blueberry smoothies.  How the BLEEP am I going to catch that monster?

But here’s the thing.  The villain in my middle grade fantasy novel, SPARK, is a giant man-frog named Farius.  Is it some kind of sign?  Even though Farius is a villain in my story, I don’t want this froggy to fall victim to pool chemicals. It might mean the death of hope for my novel– not to mention the death of one of the biggest frogs of all time.  So, I grab the pool skimmer and tiptoe to the steps where Farius sits, Zen-like in his calmness.

One of the ways Farius fights off his enemies in my book is by thumping them with his powerful frog legs.  Have you looked at frog legs up close?  They look like a person’s.  No joke.  A green person’s.  They have  femurs.  Femurs with quads.  And  knees.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to find words to describe green man-frog legs recently.  And here I am, face to face with a frog whose drumsticks are substantial enough to grace a Thanksgiving plate. It’s all kind of surreal.

When I sweep the net toward his backside, he explodes toward the deep end.  From above, he looks like a green version of Michael Phelps.  Big shoulders, no ass, and completely hydrodynamic.  The chase is on.

That fox spied on us all weekend-- I'm sure he saw my stealth operation. (click to enlarge)

Dang nabbit, he’s fast.  An amphibious torpedo, for crying out loud.  I run to the deep end, he swims to the opposite side of the pool.  I dash around to the other side, he crosses back.  I sneak around the shallow end, out of his field of vision, I think, and drop the skimmer in an inch from his butt.  He catapults himself to the pool floor, twelve feet down.  I push the skimmer as far down as it will go, but, alas, it’s only about nine feet long.  Defeated, I lay the skimmer aside and retreat to the kitchen.

I try to enjoy my cinnamon roll and the conversation, but I can’t stop thinking about Farius.  I can’t let him die in there!  Every minute or two I peek out at the pool to see if he’s re-emerged. Finally, I see him bobbing along the surface near the diving board.  I bolt out the door and tiptoe to the skimmer.  He sees me, of course.  His eyes are globes– he’s got panoramic vision.  Some sprinting and Olympic level swimming ensues, but at the shallow end…After a lot of woo-wooing, a photo op, and a victory lap around the pool area, Farius was released into the wild.  I saved the frog, which must mean publication is imminent, right?

Well, only the Tarot cards know the answer to that question.  But, if you normally come to my blog for book suggestions, I won’t disappoint.  One of my favorite summer reads, which will appeal to boys especially, is Barbara O’Connor’s THE FANTASTIC SECRET OF OWEN JESTER, which features a big bullfrog with a red, heart-shaped birthmark on its head.  I’ll give it the description it well deserves next post.  Meanwhile, thanks to the ladies, especially our lovely and brilliant mentor, Mary Lee Donovan, for making the debut Blueberry Fields a smashing success..

A perfect combination of suspense, rivalry, and long summer days.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda: Read it you must.

There are directions for folding Origami Yoda at the end of the book. Took me a few tries, but behold!

Yes, I made that Yoda finger puppet myself.  And, yes, you can, too.  Really!

While I understand that you, presumably a grown-up, may have no desire to do so, I can assure you that anyone between the ages of 8-12 is in on making Origami Yoda.  So in.  They are also so in to reading Tom Angleberger’s book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, a comic romp through the absurd and profound that is middle school.  You know how sometimes the fact that a blockbuster movie is a blockbuster somehow cheapens it?  Well, this book is a bestseller.  Let’s say my expectations for its literary value were moderate. Let’s also say I knew my summer book club boys wouldn’t care a lick (or should I say, an i-yoda?) about literary value.  Just the cover and the title by themselves are a no-brainer for a teacher like me, trying to hook a bunch of pre-adolescents on the brink of middle school themselves.  If the book was a little scant on substance, so be it.

How can anyone resist this?

And then, I read it.  I was anticipating it would be hilarious, and it is.  I knew the format would be engaging, like the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series, and indeed that is true, also. There are funny, kid-like doodles on all the pages, and each page looks like a crumpled paper that has done time in a backpack. What was less predictable was the  great characterization.  And even less predictable, it has depth.  It has depth!  The fact is that at its heart, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda raises radical questions for kids.  Is that nerdy loner you all think is a total loser really smarter than anyone in school?  No, smarter is the wrong word.  Smart in and of itself doesn’t hold much cache in middle school. Is that kid wiser?  Is it possible that that kid is not oblivious to middle school norms, but rather quite aware and simply doesn’t care?  In other words, is it possible that middle school norms are bull poop?

Whoa.

The narrator, named Tommy, outlines the mystery gripping his circle of friends at vdms:  Is Dwight’s origami finger puppet of Yoda magically spouting words of wisdom, or is it just Dwight?  Dwight, resident goober of the sixth grade, seems incapable of the kind of psychic, Zen-like advice given by Origami Yoda.  This is a guy who generally appears to self-sabotage any chance of winning respect among his peers.  He uses his straw to eat hamburgers.  He wears a vomit green sweater vest with an orange reindeer on it.  He spends a lot of time standing in a hole he dug in his backyard. Yet, when Dwight’s finger puppet of Yoda gives advice, in a rather pathetic imitation of  Yoda’s voice, it’s spot on, causing Tommy and his friends to ponder their presuppositions about Dwight.  Tommy has particular urgency in getting to the bottom of it all, as he needs some advice about his love interest Sara, and nothing less than his dignity is riding on whether or not Origami Yoda is for real.  Hence, Tommy tells us, he has assembled a “case file” of first-hand accounts, gathered from classmates who have benefitted from Origami Yoda’s advice, so as to weigh out the evidence.

What follows is a series of scenarios in which Angleberger expertly captures all that is embarrassing, funny, silly, honest, and guarded about that unique time in life known as sixth grade.  In Origami Yoda and the Embarrassing Stain, Kellen spills water on his pants so it looks like he’s peed his pants seconds before he has to enter his homeroom.  Yoda’s advice:  All of pants you must wet. Tommy splashes water over the rest of his pants, thus avoiding total humiliation (enduring the discomfort is no sweat by comparison).  Quavando, plagued by his school-wide nickname “Cheeto Hog” because of an unfortunate choice he made in a vending machine incident, is told by Origami Yoda, Cheetos for everyone you must buy.  Indeed, it works.  Origami Yoda also correctly predicts who will get kicked off American Idol even though Dwight doesn’t watch TV.

My readers flip-flopped their opinions with each “case,” weighing the evidence and formulating their own theories.  There’s a part in most of us, I suspect, that wants Origami Yoda to be magic.  But then, there’s another part that wants Dwight to be a genius, too.  In the end, Harvey, the cynical tough guy throughout, is hung out to dry.  Dwight wins the girl.  So does Tommy!  And he’s learned to accept Dwight for who he is, in all his eccentric glory.  True, the mystery about Origami Yoda remains unresolved.  My book clubbers are so glad!  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be need for the sequel, which comes out this fall:  Darth Paper Strikes Back.

Uh-oh. He looks a little more complicated.

I wonder if I’ll be able to make the Origami Darth Paper.

Get Ahead of the Curve! This Lunch Lady Will Be Played By Amy Poehler.

To get in the mood for this post, watch the author’s quick promo for his series.

What crime fighter packs a spork cell phone, fish stick nunchucks, and taco-vision night goggles?  Why, Lunch Lady, of course– “Serving justice and serving lunch!” In this six-book series, Lunch Lady can handle any danger– and we’re not talking runny sloppy joes here.  Fishy characters around Thompson Brook School have no idea what they’re up against. She knows martial arts, she scales buildings, she carries whisk whackers and is not afraid to use them.   James Bond has Q, and Lunch Lady has Betty, another cafeteria worker with a double life.  Betty develops excellent gadgets like hamburger headphones and fancy ketchup packet lasers in their super secret lab housed in the school Boiler Room.  When confronted with shocking revelations, Lunch Lady will exclaim things like, “Green beans!” or “Oh, my tater tots!”  What’s not to love about Lunch Lady?  I ask you.

Krosoczka grounds readers with a healthy dose of the familiar through the characters called “the Breakfast Bunch”– three kids who eat in the cafeteria every morning.  Through them, everyday topics like soccer tryouts and bullies are mixed in with preposterous plots such a cyborg substitute taking over the school. What does their lunch lady do when she isn’t slinging Salisbury steak? the Breakfast Bunch wonders.  With a little sniffing around, Hector, Terrence, and Dee discover their lunch lady’s time off is action-packed.  Lunch Lady and Betty frequently rely on the kids to seal the deal on crime, which is a departure from the classic, untouchable superhero, like say, Batman.  I like how these books empower kids in that way.

Heads up, parents and teachers of reluctant readers!  There’s a lot being written about the value of graphic novels for developing readers out of non-readers these days.  The preponderance of current wisdom says, YES!  Give kids graphic novels to encourage literacy (make sure they’re age appropriate, of course).  Series like Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady get kids in books.  The librarian where I teach says she can’t keep them on the shelves. Hooray for the Lunch Lady!  Apparently, Amy Poehler agrees. She’s has an interest in the series, and plans to star in the upcoming movie.  I bet that makes real life lunch ladies everywhere smile.

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