Picture Books 1

Here're some picture books that are just awesome:

The Soldiers' Night Before Christmas (a big Golden Book) by Trish Holland and Christine Ford and illustrated by John Manders is a wonderful retelling of the classic poem; this version takes place on a base, where "Only sentries were stirring--they guarded the place" and "At the foot of each bunk sat a helmet and boot" to be "fill[ed] up with loot." The soldiers dream of "back home" and our narrator, one of the brave soldiers sleeps "with the letters my family had sent." In place of the more traditional, clad in red velvet suit and hat and shod in shiny black boots, we've got Sergeant McClaus, a cigar-chewing drill-sergeant looking gift-giver. But don't let the rough demeanor fool you; like the other Santa, he's a big old softy whose purpose it is to "Bring Christmas from home to the troops far away!" The story, related in the form of the original poem, is an homage to all soldiers serving, who have served, who will serve. The artwork is on the light-hearted and soft side, and very appealing to the eye. (Christine, we'll continue praying for you son and the countless others in the service to our Nation.)

Also by Trish Holland is Lasso the Moon (another Golden Book, illustrated by Valeria Petrone), a story about tiny cowpokes and wranglers "On the star-dusty trail." They sit by a campfire "In the Milky Way," and "sing / 'Yippee-ki-yi-ay!'" Having lassoed the moon, they set they sights on home where, after having corraled the moon and the stars, the young buckaroos head to bed. The rhythm of the poem is even and the story is good. The artwork by Petrone complements the story. Nice all the way around.

17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter): what a funny story Offill tells: the young narrator informs the reader what all she has done and how she is not allowed to do those things anymore: first, "I…staple my brother's hair to his pillow," then, when she's busted by her mom, she says, "I am not allowed to use the stapler any more." It gets even funnier because the girl is unnaturally occupied by beavers, writing a report and dedicating it to them, and close to the end of the book, she even wants to run away to live with them, toting a handsaw, we can imagine, to help with dam building. The artwork, a mix of line drawings filled with a sort of wash and cut-and-pasted-in photographs works really well. (The story behind how I came across this book: my family and I went to TLA last week, and when I took Lukas, my oldest at three and a half, to meet the RH staff manning the booth, AW told him he could pick out a couple of books for himself. He went for a board book of a toddler Grover learning how to tinkle and another title. Then AW asked if he wanted to pick out a book for his baby brother Mikah. What did he care? He had books, and he was already making eyes at CS, the Sticker Lady, his big-big girlfriend, so he pointed at this book without really knowing what he was choosing. He did a great job, and although Mikah can't appreciate Offill's book just yet, he will someday; besides, both Lukas and my night students sure enjoyed it.)

Finally, there's One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II written and illustrated by Lita Judge (which won't be out until June 2007). It's such a touching story of an American family who does what it can to help those left behind in the war-torn Europe. It is told through a young girl's eyes, presumably, Judge's mother's. What they do is collect foot/shoe size tracings, that eventaully number in the thousands, and enlist the help of neighbors near and far to supply folks in Germany and elsewhere with shoes. The story also documents how suffering most often goes well beyond the physical. In the end, One Thousand Tracings is an uplifting and positive story; it is, after all, a tale of healing. Honestly, I was in tears, both happy and sad. What a book that could be used to introduce or accompany a study of this era. And it's not just a book for children either.


Reading Life 5

So I finished Patron's Higher Power of Lucky, and not surprisingly I liked it. And go figure, I wasn't thrown off by the first mention of the word scrotum, nor by the second mention of it a couple of pages later. I was, however, thrown by the third mention of it, there near the end of the book, not because it's a term offensive in a sexual sense, but because I’m reading as a writer and as teacher of literature and writing. I fully understand that our hero, Lucky, is word-curious, and so if it was a recurring thing with her, that is, to look into the word again and again in an attempt to discover for herself its meaning, its nature, then I'd buy its final use (would that she would have instead heard Short Sammy use the word 'father,' 'cremated,' 'cremation,' 'remains,' or 'urn,' words that she does deal with over and over throughout the story, words that she's very curious about, words that carry both scientific and spiritual weight with her (she even calls herself a scientist and "a girl-speck looking for her Higher Power" (127))). As it is written, I would have to point this seeming weakness to a group of middle schoolers or college level folks. It makes no sense whatsoever to bring it up twice right at the beginning and then never again until the very end. The question, "Brigitte, what is a scrotum?" comes out of nowhere. I wasn't prepared for it. (I don’t mean that I wasn’t ready for it, I mean the author didn’t prepare me for it to resurface and to do so in this context.) And worse, Brigitte's answer is too clinical, almost as though she'd been preparing to answer this very question throughout the novel. And worse than that, Brigitte's next comment leaves me baffled: "You know if anyone ever hurt you I would rip their heart out." Lucky, or the narrator, says right prior to this, "For some reason," and the reason isn't even implied. If someone had indeed tried to hurt Lucky in any way, shape, or form at any time during the story, then the comment would be justified; as it is, I don't buy it. Another weakness, if you'll allow me (then I swear I'm going to praise the fire out of the book! and even recommend that the book not be banned anywhere): the story takes too long to get started. It's not until around page 40 that we are finally clued into what Lucky's desire is: to not lose Brigitte as her Guardian, and she becomes more than a ultra-witty character, she becomes sympathetic when we find that she has lost her mother and has no idea who her father is. If kids choose not to finish this book, it will most likely be for this reason.
So, it falls on our shoulders as teachers and librarians to encourage our young readers to keep going. Insist that it is part of the book's thematic and symbological structure. An overriding theme or image is that of threads tied into to knots, but not just any knots: like the "Ten-Strand Round Knot" Lincoln gives to Lucky one day, this book comes together beautifully: it is "a piece of jewelry, intricate and beautiful" (67). The knot, the work of art, doesn't become such when it is a bunch of individual strings; not until Lincoln (read Patron) begins to tie all these loose threads (read seemingly disjointed bits and pieces of narrative for those first 40 pages) together do we get this work of art, this award-winning novel. Booktalk it that way: admit upfront that there is cause for this apparent weakness, this disjointedness, this rambling at the outset of the novel; if our students know in advance that it is part of the author's intention to put a book together in this way, they will likely give you, and it, the benefit of the doubt. Like Jim Trelease kind of says in his The Read-Aloud Handbook, sometimes we, the educators, are the only ones reading aloud to them, or talking to them about books. Ours shouldn’t be simply to put books in their hands, not even the right books in their hands, but to talk these books up, to give students the language with which to speak about literature themselves. I would also have to mention the other weaknesses addressed above (not the just the word scrotum but the other flaws), not in order to get them to giggle or to blush or whatever, but to get them to start talking about books like readers, and maybe, dare I say, writers (but really, who needs the competition, right?). I'd compare this book to Steinbeck's Cannery Row for its wit, its meandering style. Short Sammy and the other 12ers would fit perfectly with the guys of the Palace Flophouse and Grill (excuse me if I got this reference wrong; it’s been so long that I’ve read it and don’t have a copy in fro). Both books, if you're not careful as a reader, appear to be about nothing, but they are both about huge events in people's lives. I'd say to students that sections of Patron’s writing are pure poetry, the language so beautiful, etc.
As to the censorship issues surrounding this book: Instead of using the same old same old (and tired) argument: Don't censor, you bunch of right-wingers/evangelicals/conservatives (I am a Christian and a social conservative myself, by the way); it's her right and the readers' to use the language and to read it; this word is tame versus what kids say on an everyday basis; you're violating my freedom of speech, or Patron's; it's a scientific term (in the case of this book, this argument doesn't hold water, in my opinion, because even though it is clinical, the word in the book refers to a dog's genitalia, not a boy's), etc.; we should, because we are all intelligent folk, those of us concerned with our young people's love for literature and their success and well-being, we should use the book itself to prove its own worthiness. We all know these people who will skim until they find "that" ugly word, or base their opinion on what they foolishly read in a silly rag like the NYT, or hear another skimmer talk about; but why aren't we informing them? Parents won't read the books necessarily; so we need to booktalk literature to them also. They're part of the community as well. Reach them, we reach the intended audience. But know this, that there are a great many very intelligent parents out there who are on the conservative side who will not only ban the book but burn it if we make it an "us versus them" thing. We are not ignorant, those of us who would rather our children not be exposed to stuff in certain settings/contexts/ways; I, as a parent, will not give up my right to talk to my sons about sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. I will do it, in my own way, in what I feel is the right time.

A slightly different version of this review first appeared on middle_school_lit@yahoogroups.com on 21 February 2007.


Reading Life 6

So, I got done with a couple of books, and both of them are top notch: the first is Chris Crutcher's first novel, Running Loose (visit CC's site at www.chriscrutcher.com). I've admitted to a few folks that I hadn't read any of Crutcher's work because, I, wrongheadedly, thought he wrote about sports, which is not a bad topic in and of itself, but if that's all it is (which is the wrongheaded part of my thinking) then it isn't worth reading. There's got to be more meat to a book than just baseball, or long distance running, or swimming, or wrestling. And I have to admit, in Crutcher's work there is quite a bit more than a treatment of sports. There are fully-developed characters (for goodness' sake, even Boomer, who easily could've been the flattest of stereotypes (what, with being nothing more than a overly-enthused jock who brags about relationships (imaginary) with girls, who takes out a Black kid named Washington during a game simply because as an opponent he is too good and too not White) turns more human by novel's end).
[On a side note, the first book of Crutcher's I read was Athletic Shorts, his collection of stories that takes on various of the characters he'd already dealt with in his novels (this, according to CC's introduction to the book, or my recollection of it), that also includes "A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune," a short story made into a fantastic film (which, if I'm honest, might be the real reason why I chose not to pick up any of Crutcher's work--he got a movie deal! And I haven't!). Anyway, the language and some of the themes are a bit on the more mature side, and so you'd have to go into this collection knowing that; in spite of that, this book is awesome!]
Back to Running Loose: Louie, after walking off the football field in response to the "hit" job on Washington, finally finds his place in sports: he runs the mile and the two-mile for his school's track team. The track coach advises him to do something, anything basically to deal with his recent tragedy. He'd fallen deeply in love with a girl he thought would never pay him any mind, then loses her. The lesson he learns is that with punks like the head coach and the principal (dishonorable men), one doesn't have to deal honorably. So as difficult as his life has been over the past year, Louie comes out of it the better man for it, a man, as Dakota says, who's gone through the fire and lived to tell about it.
The other book I've finished and loved is Night of the Howling Dogs by Graham Salisbury (www.grahamsalisbury.com), a guy I consider to be one of today's literary giants, and not just in the world of YA literature. This is one of the benefits of sharing the same editor, that I get ARCs (advanced reader's copies--also called uncorrected proofs or galley proofs) of stuff Random House is publishing in the coming months. One such book is Salisbury's. Known for his historical novels like the most recent Eyes of the Emperor, GS writes solid realistic fiction too (read his short story collection, Island Boyz for a taste of that). Howling Dogs, though, passes as both.
Very loosely based on true events, Howling Dogs is the story of boys becoming men after surviving a natural catastrophe--a volcano errupts in the middle of the night in the middle of a camping trip; "…the world fell apart" is how Dylan, our narrator, describes it. But there is depth to GS's characters: Dylan hungers for his father's attention, his best friend, Casey, is strong despite being on the smaller side, and Louie is the unlikeliest Boy Scout. GS introduces early on that Dylan shares "something personal" with Louie, a secret that goes back a ways. Louie openly shows disdain for Dylan, who is a haole, a "white guy or white punk." Then they are forced to put aside, at least for the moment, their ill feelings for one another to help save the others on the camping trip. At one point, a key moment in Dylan's life, he thinks "of Louie racing over the rocks to get help, and how when everyone was struggling to get to higher ground after the waves, he'd gone the other way," never mind the danger he was putting himself in. Troubling Dylan is whether he'd have acted so selflessly. Know this: scared as he is, he is brave, so much so that he's able to put aside the inane things of life, like insignificant skirmishes, and realizes that "When people share something terrifying like that, it joins them together and makes them a family." Of himself and Louie he can say, "We friends now."
(Night of the Howling Dogs is due out in August of 2007--Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children's Books)


Writing Life 3

Texas Library Association Rocked!

List of authors I met, hung out with, touched based with again, hounded for autographs: Diane Roberts, Matt de la Peña, E. Lockhart, Dana Reinhardt, Diane G. Bertrand, and so many more. I don't have the actual list in front of me so I don't want to misspell any names, and I'll add to this other list at a later time, with maybe some personal comments for each.

Also haning out with Adrienne, Tracy, Allison, and Katherine of Random House was the best, and I'm so looking forward to seeing them again in June at ALA in D.C. More on them later too. (I hope these storms that came up this weekend didn't keep them from getting home to rest.)

And, I got a chance to sit over dinner with Teri Lesesne last night, and people think she's cool as a result of her booktalks and being such a cool teacher; I know she's even cooler from getting to know her more and more every time we talk. She's got some stories.

And I'll get to the other awesome librarians I spoke with later. All in all, this was the best TLA conference ever.

On top of everything, I got to hang out with my parents (Lukas' and Mikah's 'Buelo and 'Buela), my great friends the Raymers and the Ramoses. And, better than all this, I got a chance to share a conference like this with my wife, Tina, and our boys.

More later.


Writing Life 2

As other writers often do, I find myself this week presenting at a conference, namely the Texas Library Association. Today, Wednesday (I know its technically Thursday, but I've yet to go to bed, and only then can I talk about tomorrow as today, or is it today as tomorrow? Whatever! It's late, so cut me some slack, please.)--so today, Wednesday, I got to meet a writer whose books I've been teaching a while, a writer I've always wanted to talk with face-to-face, Diane G. Bertrand (author of Trino's Choice (my personal favorite of hers), Trino's Time (a fine sequel), and so many other titles for the younger set, the slightly older crowd, and the more mature. These are definitely two titles every teacher (fifth through twelfth grades) should make part of his/her classroom library who's concerned about encouraging the reluctant reader (especially the boys; more especially boys with hard core choices in life to have to make) to take responsibility for one's own literacy life. The books are high interest, they're fast, they're solid. (I'd include librarians in this group of having to own at least one copy of each, but I'd be speaking to the choir; most, if not all already have them in their collections, know them well, and know who of their readers want/need to read them.)Anyway, when I figure out how to throw in audio onto this blog, I'll see about getting up on here a few of the words she had to say about these books, about writing, and other topics. She was kind enough to sign copies for me; I'm such a hog I got her to sign even the Spanish translations of these books.

I also hung out over some of the best tortilla soup with a great pal at Pico de Gallo, author/illustrator Xavier Garza, whose Creepy Creatures and Other Cucuys has made him a favorite of librarians and teachers. Today marked the third time I've recorded Xavi telling his story "La Lechuza Lady," and I swear, he never tells it the same way twice, much less thrice. Which, in my book, is a good thing. Both the story and the telling are still alive and breathing then. He also signed a copy of his latest picture book for me, Juan and the Chupacabras, a bilingual text. But my all time favorite of his is his first picture book, Lucha Libre: the Man in the Silver Mask: a blingual cuento (published by Cinco Puntos Press out of El Paso, and recently released in paper, so I see it going through the roof now that it's more kid-affordable; Lee and Bobby Byrd have done a great job of getting this book, that is, incidentally also illustrated by Xavi, out there and moving like it is).
The last person on the panel was Lila Guzman, author of a series of historical books about Spain's involvment in the American Revolution, each that centers on the life of a boy named Lorenzo.
But I haven't said anything about the audience: a room full of librarians, how can a guy go wrong? All I have to do is talk about books to them, and we're on the same level; although I almost spoke heresy to them. I suggested we get rid of any technology from our libraries that doesn't have anything to do with pushing/stressing books. Librarians are too cool.
I also met with a few of the Random House folks: A.H., A.W., and T.B. I scored an ARC of Spinelli's sequel to Stargirl. Can't wait to read it.


Reading Life 4

So today I was in the kitchen cleaning up, maybe putting away dishes from the washer, something like that. My son, Lukas, called my name two or three times, each time saying I needed to come look see his castle. I imagined he was talking about his having arranged the couch pillows in such a way that he imagined it like a castle. Incidentally, my wife and I are painting the boys' room in a castle theme, so my version of what he might have built wasn't too far-fetched. Anyway, each time I said, Sure, I'll be right there. Let me just get these dishes put away. He'd disappear to his room, and out of the corner of my eye I'd see he'd reappear, but I wasn't paying close attention. He'd say again, Dad, come see my castle. Finally I got done with my task and followed him into the living room where I saw what he was talking about. He'd built for himself a castle of books that he'd carried out in piecemeal bundles and stacked and stacked until he had a column--or a tower, no, better yet, turret, to go along with the flow--as tall as him. I said, Oh, that's cool, buddy, but I was thinking, Oh, no. More work for me. So I said next, Well, you've done a great job of building this castle, but let's get to work on putting the books back on the shelf. They were all picture books, a good chunk of them at the top were Golden Books (on a side note, my wife and I saw what Random House (?) is doing with the spines of the Golden Books now, and we don't like it--I only hope the change has nothing to do with being more ecologically friendly; I'm almost over that because we just can't enjoy a single thing without being criticized, mostly by folks who don't live right either, but that's another rant on another blog--forgive the soap boxish thing there). Get this--he looked up at me from where he sat at the base of his castle and said, Maybe not. I'm going to read them all. I said, Well, that's a lot of books. He pulled the first one off the top, opened it up on his lap, and said, They're all my favorites. We're talking close to 75 books easy, and every time I checked in on him, he was on another book, he'd flip through it, sometimes slowly, other times quickly, but he got through them all. Good for him! Silly me, though: I didn't get a picture.


Reading Life 3

One of the very coolest things I've seen on the road: no, not an accident fixing to happen due to a driver's choosing to focus on applying make-up, talking on a cel phone, or eating a greasy fast food breakfast instead of on his/her driving (which really wouldn't be cool). My wife and I were headed to a doctor's appointment, and at the 82nd and Slide intersection we came to a stop at the red light (which, by the way, Lukas, our three-year-old, seems to scoff at because he's constantly egging me on to "Go, go, go, Daddy. Just go." I don't. I abide by the law.). To our left, a mom (the driver of the mini-SUV) was holding up a board book version of one of Eric Carle's titles, holding it up for her child in the back seat to see, all the while reading it to the child. What an awesome way to pass the time at mandatory (and in Lubbock, sometimes unusually long) red lights. When it comes to reading to our children, every moment counts.

Also, I've asked one of my classes to write and illustrate a picture book, a project they also can take into their classrooms in the near future to use with their students, no matter the grade level. Students can write and illustrate a picture book in any of the varying disciplines, right? In math, science, history--the works. Anyway, my students handed their projects in last night after a few weeks of studying the genre, after workshopping them, etc. I was so excited I told them, jokingly perhaps (but who knew I was speaking prophetically at the time?), that I couldn't wait to get home to share them with Lukas. This way I wouldn't have to spend any money on new books for some time. Lo and behold, he loved them! I wasn't surprised. The quality of the work is high, but I was pleasantly surpised at how much he loved them. I thought he'd sit through me reading my students' work to him and say, "Thanks, Daddy, now can I go play in the mud?" or some such comment. Instead, he said last night, "I really like your new books, Daddy." And this morning, he asked if we could read my "really cool new books." What else can I do? I'm a dad who so wants his kids to be readers, so I pulled them out of my bag and read through a few more of them. Kudos to my students!


Reading Life 2

So I finally finished Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). At 550 pages, this historical novel seemed a daunting task when I first received a copy of it in the mail. You'll recall, I am a self-described slow-as-molasses reader, perhaps the slowest reader of all time. Anyhow, back to the book:

In the brief Prologue to The Book Thief, the narrator, Death, introduces himself ("I am all bluster-- / I am not violent. / I am not malicious. / I am a result."), the colors of this story (red, white, and black), and the book thief, Liesel Meminger, one of the survivors, among the few "left behind." Death then invites us, "If you feel like it, come with me"; furthermore, he asks us to listen to this story, and he'll "show us something."

Following, in part, is what the narrator shows us: Liesel and her younger brother are being transported to a foster home by their own mother, who is incapable of caring for them. We find out later Liesel's mother and father have been labeled Communists by the Nazi party, the mother must abandon her children in order to try and save their lives. En route, the boy dies, and graveside, Liesel begins her life-long book thievery, taking a book a gravedigger has dropped in the snow. The book? The Grave Digger's Handbook: A 12-Step Gide to Grave-Digging Success. Ironic is her inability to read, but she somehow feels the power of words withing the covers.

Eventually, the girl (whose dark brown eyes were "dangerous eyes"; "You didn't really want brown eyes in Germany around that time.") is dropped off at 33 Himmel Street in Molching just outside of Munich at the Hubermann's. Hans paints for a living, enjoys rolling his own smokes, and plays the accodion. During WWI, he cheated Death, and he cheats Death a second time during the Second World War. He is the one who stays up bedside with Liesel after she awakens from a recurring nightmare, every morning at 2. Rosa is built like a wardrobe, spews forth cursewords one right after another, manages to ruin soup even, and in her own way, loves her husband and her new daughter deeply and passionately, in spite of not showing any emotion except anger.

Living in a new town, in a new home, with strangers who ask her to call them Mama and Papa, is rough going at first. She meets Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens, the U.S. track and field Olympic champion, and a few other kids, both good and bad sorts. She plays soccer and joins a den of thieves. Because of Hans' life before 33 Himmel and promises he made to a fellow soldier, the Hubermans and Liesel take in a Jew who lives in basement for the longest of times, until he is forced to leave this haven filled with music, warmth, and stories.

Liesel learns some powerful lessons during her stay at 33 Himmel, among them that she loves Hans and Rosa sincerely, loves Max, the Jew beyond understanding, and regrets not having admitted her love for Rudy when it was still possible to do so.

In the end, Death states, "I am haunted by humans." What haunts me is this powerful work of art. Listen: you've got to get a copy and read this before you read anything else.