Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Diversity Panel Highlights and Things To Come

Our diversity panel consisted of two parts: we began with reviews of books for ages Pre-K through teen that were presented by Hannah Peacock and Kelsey Psaute, both librarians at Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester. Hannah introduced the picture book Red, by Michael Hall, noting that there are 1.4 million transgender people in the U.S. and the suicide attempts for them are at 41%. Alas, the call to make all kids feel comfortable in their own skin is tantamount. Hannah finished up her reviews with the YA memoir Being Jazz, by Jazz Jennings. Hannah says Jazz knew she was transgender at age 2, and that Jazz is one of the lucky ones, with a strong family support system that enables her to be a positive spokesperson and ally for other transgender kids.

Kelsey mostly reviewed young adult fiction, including Shadowshaper, by Daniel Jose Older, in which the ethnically diverse character doesn't have to be "strong all the time" and The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle, a book about "not coping" in which the narrator happens to be gay. Kelsey discussed the value of having both "issues books" and books that "happen to have diverse characters" in them. See the complete list of the books Hannah and Kelsey reviewed here.

Will Alexander, whose most recent book is Nomad, and is currently serving on the National Book Award Committee for Children’s Literature and Kekla Magoon, author of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher nominee Shadows of Sherwood and its just published sequel Rebellion of Thieves joined the conversation for the second hour to discuss their viewpoints on diversity in children’s literature.

They began by discussing their own approaches to writing, with Will leaning more toward non-realist storytelling. “Kids are all perched on the verge of transformation. Some things we can’t fully express unless we come at it sideways. That’s what non-realist modes of story-telling – magic, fantasy and metaphor - allows. Plus, aliens! Fun! And, hey, let’s talk about immigration!”

Kekla opts for more realistic storytelling saying many writers have a tendency to write about what is needed by readers (such as the LGBTQ trend) but also what the writer needs to think about herself. She posed this writer’s dilemma: “Do I become a writer who can fill that need or do I just do what I do and hope people come along?” Will countered that a writer shouldn’t write something because he feels a need that a subject be covered. A writer can also be part of the conversation by reading diverse books and being an ally by championing others' work rather than being a megaphone for a cause.

The conversation quickly turned to the publishing industry after it was pointed out that diverse books are being written, they just aren’t necessarily being published. Will said that we need filters when editing books, but we also need to look at the filters we've been traditionally using. Kekla finds that even if people are well-intentioned they aren’t drawn to what they aren’t connected to: “Publishers say they want diverse content but they don’t connect with diverse stories”. Will agreed, but spoke to the industry’s efforts to bring in more young and diverse people, cautioning “this is a very long game", and that it will take decades for today’s interns to be in powerful positions in publishing. An audience member wondered, almost jokingly, if it would take someone like James Patterson using racially diverse characters to convince publishing that diverse characters sell.

Days after our diversity panel I was scrolling through Facebook and found this interesting blog post on Literary Hub by Marlon James titled "Why I'm Done Talking About Diversity". Some not so radical food for thought, because sometimes even the most well-intentioned white book people have a hard time getting things right.

Next Up in the Children's Room:
Friday, November 4, 9:30 - 11:30 am
Words Come Alive!
Dive into Red Clover books with activities from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts' signature Words Come Alive! program.  Jump into the shoes of characters, travel to exciting settings and connect literacy learning to kinesthetic creativity. Led by Flynn Center artist teacher Karen Sharpwolf. This is a special opportunity to learn more about the multi-disciplinary program that the Flynn Center offers to Vermont students and educators.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Louisiana Book Drive Details

“Our rooms are bare- not even everyone has a while/chalk board. We’re having to bring in items from home to improvise an environment as normal as possible. Students don’t have any reading materials for when they finish their work or when they come into class. We also do not have a library at this location, so reading books is considered a luxury as of now.”   ~Lindsey Kelley, 4th grade teacher at St. Amant Primary School in St. Amant, Louisiana
Bear Pond Books, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library and several Central Vermont area schools are joining efforts to help rebuild the St. Amant Primary School library and classroom collections after the recent flooding due to heavy rainstorms around Baton Rouge.

Dates: Monday, Sept 19 through Sunday, October 2nd

Drop-Off sites: Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Kellogg-Hubbard Library, East Montpelier Elementary School, River Rock School in Montpelier

What is needed: NEW or LIKE-NEW books for grades Pre-K through 5, both fiction and most especially non-fiction. Hardcovers are preferred.

Bear Pond Books wants to make it easy for you to donate a NEW book to this effort. We will be offering a 20% discount on all books donated to this cause during the book drive when you order on our website. Please note "book drive" in the comments when placing your order and we will adjust your total to reflect the discount.

Educators who would like to get involved:
  • If your school or classroom would like to collect books for this drive, please contact Jane at the email address below.
  • To make more connections with Baton Rouge area schools, see author Kate Messner's blog for a longer list of schools in need, including their contact info.
  • See author Tamara Ellis Smith's Another Kind Of Hurricane project to explore other ways to connect your classroom to those in need and to "to turn empathy into the power to help".
  • If this window of time does not work for your school, Phoenix Books in Essex, Vt. will be hosting a book drive in November. Contact them for more info.
For more information about this book drive, or a more detailed list of content areas that teachers at St. Amant are seeking replacement books for,  please contact Jane Knight at Bear Pond Books:

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Oh, Fall! (sigh)

It's that time of year when we are busy fitting all the pieces into our fall schedule puzzle, and most of you are attempting to find a steady routine in your busy days. It is a time filled with anticipation, inspiration, exhaustion and inward focus. We in the Children's Room hope we can provide a piece of the inspiration puzzle for you with the announcement of our fall Educator's Events schedule

There may be late additions to this line-up, so check back often!
Here goes:

Friday, October 14, 9:30 - 11:30 am
Materials Review- Diversifying and Representing
(A panel of rock stars)
We welcome Kelsey Psaute and Hannah Peacock from the Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester to review books that represent diverse perspectives of ethnicity, race, gender and sexual orientation. During the second hour authors Kekla Magoon and Will Alexander will speak to their experiences in schools and the publishing world, and will address the ongoing call to provide more windows for our predominantly white communities in Vermont.
Will Alexander's Nomad,  new in paperback, is the sequel to Ambassador, a science fiction adventure
for middle graders

Kekla Magoon's newest installment in the Dorothy Canfield Fisher nominated series Robyn Hoodlum
will be published in October.

Friday, November 4, 9:30 - 11:30 am
Words Come Alive!
Dive into Red Clover books with activities from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts' signature Words Come Alive! program.  Jump into the shoes of characters, travel to exciting settings and connect literacy learning to kinesthetic creativity. Led by Flynn Center artist teacher Karen Sharpwolf. This is a special opportunity to learn more about the multi-disciplinary program that the Flynn Center offers to Vermont students and educators.

We are also in the planning stages to host a book drive for an Elementary school in St. Amant, Louisiana.Bear Pond Books, Kellogg-Hubbard Library and Central Vermont area schools will be accepting book donations of NEW or LIKE NEW books to help them rebuild their collections.
From Monday, September 19th through Sunday October 2nd, we will be taking donations of NEW and LIKE-NEW books for grades Pre-K through 5. Bear Pond will pick-up all donations and take care of getting the books to Louisiana. I will be sending additional information in the next week. If you are interested in joining this effort email

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Poetry with VT Poet Laureate Chard DeNiord

Each April, PoemCity, Montpelier's celebration of National Poetry Month, reminds us how very alive and well poetry is in Vermont. Fittingly, for our April educator event (the last of the spring series) Chard deNiord, Poet Laureate of Vermont, joined us in the Children's Room for a presentation focused on getting students engaged with poetry.

Chard deNiord answers questions from the audience.

Chard offered three possible titles for his talk—"Amazing Sense of Disparate Things," "Panning the Unconscious," and "The Rainbow and the Grebe: The Unconscious and the Imagination"—all of which are different ways of thinking about the topic around which the event revolved. Chard guided audience members through a Mad-Libs style poetry exercise entitled "Testimonial," inspired by and borrowing from former US Poet Laureate Rota Dove's poem by the same name. In this exercise, students choose their own words and phrases to fill in the poem's blanks. The poem, which is rooted in natural imagery, is punctuated by headlines that define its stanzas; while Chard provided a handout of headlines plucked from newspapers (included, along with the exercise, as a PDF below), he noted that it was also fine to craft original headlines.

The exercise "Testimonial" is designed for high school students, however teachers can easily adapt it for middle school and even younger students. Chard read through the poem, asking audience members to fill in their copies with their own word choices as he read, after which several audience members shared their completed poems aloud with the larger group. Attendees' poems contained wonderful and varied opening phrases such as "Back when the world was divided between lava and snow" and "Back when the world was divided between tomato soup and ice cream" and contained lyrics from Bessie Smith and Bob Dylan.

Attendees compose their poems.
This particular exercise is an excellent vehicle for considering the difference between the unconscious and the imagination, as it asks students to employ both. Citing Alan Ginsburg’s motto "first thought, best thought," Chard encouraged audience members to move through the exercise quickly, and to do so as well when using it in the classroom, as this really allows the unconscious to emerge. "Testimonial" also works well for getting students to think about the act of reading poetry versus the act of writing poetry, as it asks students to be both reader and writer. (And, it occurred to me as I thought more about the exercise after the event, how you approach the act of choosing words to fill in the poem’s blanks—by either reading through the poem and selecting words to fit as you go, or simply filling in each blank before reading through the poem—affects the final product.) 

Some of our favorite poetry for young readers.
Chard recommended two books by Kenneth Koch for educators who want to introduce poetry writing to young children: Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Kids to Write Poetry and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children. Another exercise he likes that educators can adapt for writers of all ages is Ruth Stone's poetry game, in which preselected words are put in a hat and students create poems by pulling out words and arranging them together. Former Poet Laureate of Vermont Sydney Lea was in attendance, and he and Chard discussed the merits of asking students to focus on a poem's language and what it does, rather than what the poem means. Other practical poetry work to use in schools that Chard discussed includes getting involved in the Poetry Out Loud program, through which students select and read poems aloud in the classroom (librarians can also incorporate this into a library activity), and which sponsors an annual national poetry recitation competition; asking students to identify poems that relate to their experiences; and developing found poetry exercises, in which students choose lines from everyday sources including (but certainly not limited to) advertisements, songs, and television shows. Teachers can encourage students in grades 7-12 to enter their own poems in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which offer scholarship and publication opportunities.

Chard's most recent book of poems, Interstate, as well as his previous titles, are available from Bear Pond. 

Further reading and resources on teaching poetry:


Our Educator Events will return in the fall; stay tuned for the 2016-17 program! If you have an idea for an event—be it a speaker or a topic—please email Jane at

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Spring Materials Review Notes

Trying to impart our love for 37 books in 1 1/2 hours is much, much harder than you'd think. Last Friday veteran Bear Ponder Carrie Fitz, U-32 Librarian Meg Allison and Jane Knight (the latter two are Dorothy Canfield Fisher committee members) burned the adrenaline trying to make sure each book got equal play time. The books that were highlighted were books that did not get chosen for the 2016-2017 Dorothy Canfield Fisher List-- some books weren't eligible because their authors were not from the U.S. or Canada. But many others were eligible and well-liked by the Canfield Fisher committee, yet still did not find their place on the list. 

Often times there are two or more books in contention for a slot on the list that have similar themes and so only one is chosen to represent that theme. Other potential nominees, like Boy In the Black Suit (by Jason Reynolds) or Paper Hearts (by Meg Wiviott) simply feel a touch too old for the list. 

We started off the morning with a round-up of wonderful books by Vermont authors that were published last year. (Those books are noted as such on the book list in the 'notes' section). Both non-fiction and fiction were covered, and instead of killing your eyesight with a tediously long review of each book, we are making the book list available to view with notes. 

A few of our participants shared their memorable titles of 2015-2016, which included Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, a middle grade selection for lovers of Mr. Lemoncello. The Epic series by Brandon Sanderson was also highly touted for its high-action appeal to middle school and high school (boys especially) students who love Rick Riordan or The Maze Runner series and are ready for something more complex. 

The new 2016-2017 Canfield Fisher books were also prominently displayed and we lightly touched upon each by genre and specific kid appeal. 

If you missed this Materials Review, we host one each season and they are super fun and (we think) worth your Friday morning. 

For a peek into past Materials Review Sessions:

And a couple handy lists to of notable books being published in 2016:

Notable Children's Books of 2016 (Publisher's Weekly)
A Literary Calendar of Children's Books 2016 (this one is really fun-- The Guardian)


We will be hard at work plotting for our Fall Events Schedule over the summer and we'd like to hear from YOU! Got suggestions, ideas or something you want to know more about? Contact Jane at

And....don't miss our last event of the spring!

Saturday, April 9th 11:00 am - Noon
Poetry with VT Poet Laureate Chard DeNiord
Vermont’s new Poet Laureate Chard DeNiord has a goal of getting schools across Vermont involved in poetry. He’s been involved in many poetry organizations, including the Next Stage Speaks initiative that he founded. He’ll speak about his experiences with Vermont students, in Vermont schools, and what opportunities there are for local teachers and librarians to involve kids in poetry.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Exploring the Boundaries of Genre

Authors Tod Olson and Laura Williams McCaffrey joined us in the Children’s Room on Saturday, March 5th to discuss the intersections of fiction and nonfiction, two genres often thought—particularly by students—to be opposites of each other. On the contrary, as Tod and Laura illuminated through an exploration of their writing processes of historical nonfiction and speculative fiction/fantasy, respectively, authors of nonfiction and fiction often use similar tools when crafting their narratives. As a result, works of nonfiction can function like fiction to draw readers into a story, and fantasy can help us better understand the real world.

The Role of the Nonfiction Writer

As an author and editor of narrative nonfiction for young readers—including the How to Get Rich series and Leopold II: Butcher of the Congo—Tod noted that there isn’t a proliferation of books in that genre to begin with, and those that do exist are often packaged for parents and teachers. (Take one look at Tod’s books and you’ll see that this isn’t the case.) While readers often expect nonfiction to be a direct reproduction of what happened, Tod stressed that history writers rely on the memories of multiple storytellers—via such things as diaries, letters, and oral histories—sources that are rich but extremely unreliable, as scientific research on memory has shown. Each story changes based on whose point of view it is being told from; thus nonfiction is built on hundreds of thousands of unreliable narrators, and there are still large holes in the historical record. As Tod said, nonfiction writers transform the large ball of clay that is the historical record into a sculpture by carving out pieces and shaping what is left into story. What is important for students to understand, Tod stressed, is that there is a line between the research and the craft of writing, but that it varies from writer to writer.

Resources for Fantasy Writers

Laura laughingly commented that she feels like she has the easier job as a writer of fantasy because she doesn’t have to decide who is the hero and who is the villain of a story based on conflicting accounts, nor does she have to worry about rightness. While works of historical fantasy/science fiction/speculative fiction—such as those by Octavia Butler and Jennifer Donnelly, whose novels are set within and comment on the historical record—have more direct connections to historical nonfiction, writers of fantasy draw on similar sources in their own writing processes. Laura, who also teaches writing, and other fantasy writers often rely on historical archives as resources, which are useful even if a text isn’t historical fiction. When writing Water Shaper, historical archives helped Laura understand what existed and what interpersonal relationships were like in the medieval period. Real-world sources such as technology help writers understand social order and structure. Imaginative cultural sources like fairy tales and folklore shed light on how we understand ourselves to be—particularly in terms of what we’re scared of. Ultimately, Laura concluded, human beings and their relationship to stories are at the core of fantasy writing.    

Crafting Narratives in Both Genres

Tod and Laura discussed how writers of nonfiction and fiction structure their narratives in order to make them viscerally appealing to readers. Shifting points of view to vary the story and crafting well-shaped chapters in which something important happens are two ways to do this. One of storytellers’ primary functions, as Tod explained, is to manipulate time. Writers of history can and do play fast and loose with time—making it seem as if it expands and contracts—by spending the longest portion of the narrative on the events that occurred within a smaller window of a larger story. This creates the sense for the reader of time slowing down, something we often experience in life even though, of course, time continues at its normal pace. Tod presented survival stories as a particularly appealing genre of nonfiction for younger and older readers alike because of their easily recognizable narrative progression: a catalyzing event followed by several attempts to resolve conflict and a final resolution. Stories that lack this progression, according to Tod, challenge both the writer and the reader. 

Tod is currently working on a book about the Apollo 13 mission, the research for which includes working through hundreds of hours of audio tapes, as well as multiple first-hand narrative accounts from astronauts and controllers. Despite this seeming wealth of sources, Tod noted the absence of  unrecorded back-room conversations. Marked, Laura’s recently released third book, is a dystopian young-adult novel featuring interspersed graphic novel vignettes. For Marked, Laura drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including fairy lore and photographs of enormous mines in National Geographic.  

For further reading on process and genre: 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Writing About Tough Topics for Kids - Author Panel

On Saturday, February 6th, authors Kate Messner, Jo Knowles, and Tamara Ellis Smith participated in a panel discussion focused on writing about tough topics for kids. As Jane, our Childrens Room manager, noted in her introduction, the subject of tough topics and how to talk about them with kids is a fraught one, and the differences between the issues kids and adults think kids are ready to explore are striking. The authors discussed this tension and why books that grapple with topics such as loss, addiction, and abuse are important resources for young readers.

L to R: Kate Messner, Jo Knowles, and Tamara Ellis Smith

The panel began with each author discussing her recent works dealing with sensitive and traumatic issues that kids face.

Kate featured two of her works of middle-grade fiction: All the Answers, published in 2015, and The Seventh Wish, coming this summer. All the Answers, in which seventh-grader Ava Anderson discovers her pencil can answer almost any question, deals with the reality of anxiety and catastrophic thinking in kids lives, something Kate shared she also experiences. Ultimately, Ava discovers herself asking the pencil questions to which she shouldn’t necessarily know the answer. Kate noted that her work has been criticized for the protagonist having “too many issues” when school, family, and friends converge in her novels. Kate argued that it seems adults often want children’s literature to reflect the lives they wish kids had instead of the lives kids actually have. 

One issue Vermont children increasingly deal with is addiction in the family. The Seventh Wish, Kate’s forthcoming middle-grade novel, is a retelling of the Russian folktale about a wish-granting fish. Kate wondered what contemporary kids would ask for, which would let us know what is really on their minds. The book started as a light-hearted story of a girl asking the fish to help with her dance performance. After learning of a close neighbor’s daughter’s struggle with heroin, Kate’s novel continued in a new direction, delving into how a family member’s addiction affects Charlie, the protagonist. The Seventh Wish demonstrates that not everything can be wished away. Older middle-grade students, Kate maintained, can and do deal with issues like drug addiction in their families, and books are a safe place in which to explore them.

Jo emphasized that she approaches her books from the underside, often focusing on what we don’t see and how it still affects us. For example, in Lessons from a Dead Girl, the story is told from the point of view of a friend of a victim of sexual abuse. Read Between the Lines is her most recent work of young-adult fiction and a tribute to Robert Cormier, author of The Chocolate War. Jo credited The Chocolate War as the first book in which she felt the real world was being shown to her. Read Between the Lines, like The Chocolate War, is a story of bullying told from multiple points of view that exposes lifes complexity. Jo underscored that all of her writing questions how we live with not only what we’re given but also what we observe happening to others, which affects us whether we realize it or not.

Tamara introduced Another Kind of Hurricane, her 2015 work of middle-grade fiction, as a labor of love that she started in 2005 after she took her then 4-year-old son to drop off donations at a Hurricane Katrina food and clothes drive. Her son asked, “Who is going to get my pair of pants, Mom?” Tamara realized that another 4-year-old boy would soon be wearing her son’s pants and imagined what it would be like if he and her son could meet. Another Kind of Hurricane chronicles the intersection of the lives of two ten-year-old boys—Zavion from New Orleans, whose family lost their home in Hurricane Katrina, and Henry from Underhill, Vermont, whose best friend recently died in a tragic accident—who meet after Henry’s blue jeans with his lucky marble still in the pocket make their way to Zavion. In addition to exploring different kinds of loss, the novel asks how and why we connect with other people in places we couldn’t have imagined. Another Kind of Hurricane pulls back the layers society places over us that connect us, creating a map in which kids can identify places of connection.

The panel opened the conversation to the audience, and Jane began the broader discussion by noting that Jo used the phrase “honest places” rather than “dark places” to describe the situations she explores in her writing. Jo answered that her preference for the phrase honest places has to do with the reality of the kinds of issues children experience. Jo contends that books are the safest places to first experience the topics that adults often say children aren’t ready for. Tamara noted that when adults say that children aren’t ready for certain topics, what the adults really mean is that they don’t know how to talk about those topics with kids. The issues of Hurricane Katrina distilled—loss and fear—are issues all kids have experienced in different ways. Kate posited that adults should allow kids to decide if they’re ready for the issues presented in books: kids can and will put books down if they’re not comfortable, and there’s no harm in reading a few pages. If an adult is concerned a child is not ready for a book, he or she could say to the child, “That’s a little edgy; you may or may not like it, ” but not giving kids these books won’t keep away the issues explored in them.

Another audience member inquired about how the authors chose content and context when writing about sensitive topics. Kate pointed out that in The Seventh Wish, heroin use happens off camera. The reader sees the consequences of drug abuse, not the abuse itself. Kate noted that she tackled the issue of heroin addiction differently in this novel written for a middle-grade audience differently than Jo likely would have in a novel for high-school students. Kate referenced her Ranger in Time series as another example of exploring tough issues, this time related to American history. Ranger in Time: Long Road to Freedom unravels sanitized accounts of the Underground Railroad as a highly organized, lantern-to-lantern journey from the American South to Canada. Writing this text challenged Kate to consider how to address the horrific and shameful reality of slavery in America for kids. At the same time, there are aspects of slavery—particularly sexual violence—that she couldn’t talk about in a book for younger middle-grade readers.

The question of whether the books “teach lessons” about tough subjects also arose. Tamara maintained that it’s important when writing to leave space for readers to draw their own conclusions, which creates an interesting collaborative dynamic between the writer and individual readers. Kate added that the big questions explored in all three panelists’ books are more complicated than black and white lessons; she offered “just say no” to drugs as an example of a dictum that we know doesn’t work. Jo said that her books don’t contain lessons, but rather they depict what life is like and how one person navigated it.

One audience member asked whether books like Jo’s Read Between the Lines—books that deal with issues current students experience—are being taught in schools. Jo answered that core curriculum standards make it difficult to add new materials, but that teachers often find alternative ways to introduce such books, often via extracurricular reading groups and summer reading programs. Librarians also play an important role in getting middle-grade and young-adult fiction into the hands of students. Tamara stressed the importance of getting literature into classrooms beyond English. For example, social studies classes could use Another Kind of Hurricane as part of a unit on natural disasters and how to fundraise in their wake. Tamaras Another Kind of Hurricane Project, launching this month, aims to do just this while connecting schools in one part of the country with others in disaster areas in a reciprocal learning experience.

At the end of the discussion, Kate asked the panelists to suggest favorite books written by other authors that cover tough topics. Her own nominations were Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, both works of young-adult fiction that deal with issues of race and justice. For younger middle-grade readers, Kate recommended Linda Urban’s forthcoming Weekends with Max and His Dad, illustrated by Katie Kath (available April 5th), about divorce and the transition to two houses. Jo recommended two memoirs for older middle-grade readers: Cece Bell’s El Deafo, because she’s “a fan of the grit,” and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which Jo finds to be a great introduction to free verse poetry. Tamara suggested the recently released Pax, written by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Jon Klassen, which is a work of middle-grade fiction that deals with war.

Some links with more information on our panelists, their texts, and author classroom visits: