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!

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#nerdybookclub Review of See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

I’m so happy to be Nerdy today!

Nerdy Book Club

Before I won an ARC of See You at Harry’s (Candlewick, 2012) at a writing retreat last spring, I had never read a book by Jo Knowles.  Knowles is known for her fearless YA novels that deal with abuse (Lessons from a Dead Girl), teen pregnancy (Jumping Off Swings), and alcoholic mothers (Pearl), among other themes.  You aren’t going to plow through one of her books without some previously unknown heartstring getting strummed—and resonating for a long time—according to reviews.  But as an elementary school librarian, I mostly read middle grade material.  Still, I’d heard Jo present to crowds of writers, and met her, too.   In person, she struck me as someone preternaturally attuned to the hum of human nature.  I wanted to know how that translated into her work.

 

And now I know.

 

See You at Harry’s squeaks into the upper…

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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.

I love how this captures the importance of caring– good to remember as teachers, parents, and friends. Lynda Mullaly Hunt does this with her friends and may not know it!

Nerdy Book Club

A published author writing about herself as a child reader? Well, here’s some honest irony.

As a kid, I was a non-reader.

Having had no exposure to books prior to kindergarten, I started behind. I was placed in the lowest reading group and remained there until the middle of sixth grade.

Now, let me say that I may have been a bit of a conundrum to my teachers. When my turn came during reading group to answer a question, I rarely had an reply. (Because I’d have been playing “letter games” like putting words in alphabetical order rather than…you know…actually reading the sentences.) They’d smile as if to pat me on the head. My silence coupled with the fact that I was often a reserved, messy kid? Well, I suppose I seemed like a child whom they shouldn’t expect much from. I knew they thought I was dumb and, for…

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Please Mind the Gap

I’m always on the hunt for well done early middle grade books.   Perhaps you know a young lady or gentleman who fits the following criteria:

-S/he is between seven and nine years of age.

-S/he has a great sight word vocabulary and can attack longer words with reasonable success.

-S/he has conquered a few easy reader series, such as the Mudge books.

-And all this allows said child to focus more on comprehension so as to enjoy richer plots.

The beloved Henry and Mudge books usher many children into independently reading.

You know someone like this, right?  Well, if you’re an elementary librarian, you’re talking about a quarter of your clientele.  Do you feel my pain of trying to find books to match this reading level?  Good books?  Books that completely hook them and leave them jonesing for more?  Do you nod your head in agreement when I ask the heavens, why aren’t publishers putting out more of these books?  This is a great market!  These kids can plow through series at heart-stopping speed.  That means lots of sales, publishers!  And step on it, before we lose them all to apps and gaming forever, for crying out loud.

Breathe.

There is a developmental staircase in reading, and to go from Frog and Toad All Year to The Witches would be fun, but also would skip some steps. Go ahead and use the “sneak peek” at Amazon to note the difference in these two books.  Many more words per sentence and per page, more pages per chapter, a huge shift upward in vocabulary, and more complicated plotting.  The switch would be akin to throwing a kid into the English Channel as a reward for finishing the Guppy level at the YMCA.

Dahl’s “The Witches” is deliciously wicked and appeals to many early middle grade readers (7 to 9-year-olds), but the text is too challenging for many.

Of course, it’s not like children will drown if they jump to harder books.  No, the result is more troubling (speaking metaphorically, anyway).  When I mistakenly put a child into a book she isn’t ready for, I get, “Yeah, I didn’t like it.”  I know sometimes it may be just that.  But when a child says he didn’t like a universally beloved novel like Charlotte’s Web, really what you’re probably hearing is that he couldn’t decode the text at a rate that allowed him to fall into the story.  Can’t you see him edging towards his Mario Cart or iPad?

Research indicates that if students skip a step in reading development altogether, weaknesses show up in fluency and comprehension later, like in middle school, when the reading is often assigned and in text books.  So, I find I’ve become that prissy lady in glasses crying out (into the darkness), “No skipping stairs, please!  One step at a time!” When I do, I’m often trampled by a surge of third graders running for copies of Twilight.  And as parents, once our kids are reading, it’s hard not to push them towards harder and harder books.  Hey, a lot of the books for older kids are just more alluring.  Who doesn’t want to read Percy Jackson or Harry Potter over, well, I will let you fill in the blanks here.  Emotionally, kids are ready for rollicking fun adventure stories.

Besides, kids love skipping steps. There is nothing particularly glamorous about the taking of stairs one at a time, especially if the books at that level seem babyish.   I can rattle off the names of three second graders who snickered at me when I suggested they’d enjoy The Hunger Games even more a few years from now.  Second graders.

Kids’ reading develops best with a steady climb, with lots of reading at each level.  The tricky part is that it is equally important for children to feel excited about the book they’ve read.  Cool, even.  I suggest reading aloud the fancier books, while otherwise keeping them in books that will nourish their “nutritional” needs, if you will.

It’s a complex game.  So when I spot a chapter book well done, with the promise of snagging eight-year-olds who insist they just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you can be  very sure I’m sharing them with you.

Spread the word on this great new series, in the name of good nutrition!

The Trouble with Chickens, A J.J. Tully Mystery (Harper Collins/Balzer&Bray, 2011)

by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Kevin Cornell

ImageTully, a hard-bitten search and rescue dog accustomed to death-defying missions and living in an ongoing adrenalin rush, finds himself retired at a country farm house, surrounded by chickens.  The chickens call on Tully to help find and rescue a missing sibling.  The little chick has been kidnapped, it is believed, by Vince the Funnel, a spookily enigmatic indoor dog who wears a post-op cone around his neck.  Tully describes the mother chicken as having eyes “tiny and black, set so close together they practically touched.  I’d be surprised if the right eye could report back seeing anything other than the left eye.  Chickens make me nervous.”

Cronin describes the mood she creates as “film noire,” and Tully as Humphrey Bogart.  If you can recall some of those Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny in a trench coat, you get the tenor of the book.  Clipped dialog, mystery, and characters we aren’t sure we can trust are woven together with plenty of belly laughs and great illustrations.

Cronin’s book trailer says it all:

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.

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