Monday, December 21, 2015

Spring 2016 Schedule

The 2015 workshops have concluded, but we've got lots of great things planned for the spring:

Spring - 2016

Saturday, January 23rd, 11:00am - Noon
Cooking Experiments with Helen Labun
Cooking isn’t just about following a recipe and having it turn out “right.” There’s lots to explore with sensory perception, science, culture, history. . . in this workshop Helen Labun (author of Discovering Flavor) uses recently published cookbooks for kids to show possible learning activities involving food. Snacks will, of course, be provided. Very few items will be set on fire.

Saturday, February 6th, 11 am - Noon
Writing About Tough Topics for Kids - Author Panel
Panel with Kate Messner, Jo Knowles and Tamara Ellis Smith
Books and stories can be an important tool in helping kids cope with difficult situations. In this moderated panel, four authors speak about their experience writing about these tough topics - from natural disasters to the loss of loved ones - and the response from young readers.

Saturday, March 5th, 11am - Noon
Exploring the Boundaries of Genre
Students, and many adult readers as well, tend to think of non-fiction as objective truth and fantastical fiction as pure invention. In fact, the two have a lot in common. Exploring the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction can enrich Social Studies and Language Arts classrooms, as well as inspire great writing projects. Children’s writer and teacher Laura Williams McCaffrey and author/editor Tod Olson will talk about the ways in which non-fiction borrows from the tool kit of fiction and fantasy comments on the world we live in.

 Friday, March 25th, 9:30 - 11:30 am
The "You Don't Need To Win a Prize to be Great" Materials Review
In our fourth Materials Review, Meg Allison (U-32 Librarian & DCF Committee Member), Carrie Fitz & Jane Knight (DCF Committee Member) will take a break from talking about Dorothy Canfield Fisher books and talk instead about great books that didn’t make the list.  Sometimes the perfect book for a young reader simply isn’t one that’s going to win a prize - so how do you find those overlooked books? The panelists will cover fiction and non-fiction titles for the middle grades, and also touch on how DCF books are selected. Event includes light refreshments, displays of new and upcoming books, and giveaways.

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 engaged 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 bring poetry into their students' learning lives.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Heroes - With Will Alexander & Kekla Magoon

On Saturday, November 14th, Will Alexander (Nomad, Goblin Secrets) & Kekla Magoon (Shadows of Sherwood, X: A Novel, How It Went Down) came to our Author-Educator Series to talk about Creating Heroes. You can read more about the authors in this earlier post

Okay, we knew that "creating heroes" was a big topic, a topic that undoubtedly has underpinned dozens (hundreds) of careers in sociology, anthropology, folkloric studies, modern literature, and psychology. We'll call this recounting of the workshop with Will Alexander and Kekla Magoon: "Heroes: Discuss" because it brought up many interesting ways to frame thinking about a "hero" for classroom discussion.

As Will noted in his introduction ". . 'hero' - we all know what it means and none of us agree."

Types of Heroes

Will divides the hero world into three basic flavors - the trickster (a hero with agency but no power), the badass (a destructive hero, they break things, they're cathartic entertainment - like most comic book heroes) and the superhero (who builds things, renews, is a culture hero).

You can think of these types of heroes in terms of rites of passage as well. Tricksters have little to no externally derived power or respect and they're not physically powerful either, similar to children. They rely primarily on their wits. The badass is more or less an adolescent fantasy (as a side note, I looked up a more-classroom-friendly synonym for badass and the online thesaurus included "Vladimir Putin"). And a superhero would be the "best kind of grown up."

Will writes about trickster heroes and observes that middle grade fiction is primarily focused on this type of character.

Hobbits are an example of the trickster hero - they're middle aged and frumpy, and lacked heroic tendencies until they found themselves in the middle of a hero story, learning to navigate a world they didn't understand. Children identify with these power dynamics and the need to learn to navigate the world (although perhaps not so much with being middle aged and frumpy). The trickster stories also tell an important flip side of the coin - how to best handle power when you do have it. . . a lesson sometimes taught by counterexample as the heroes encounter powerful villains. As children grow older they're navigating not only the dynamics of possessing limited power, but of changing amounts of power - culturally, intellectually, and also physically.

In Will's books, Rowny in Goblin Secrets is a young, powerless child who doesn't have possess the direct power of casting spells like a Harry Potter character, but rather exercises an indirect magic conjured through masks, performances, and influencing others in that way.

In Ambassador, the protagonists are (as the title suggests) ambassadors, but they reside relatively low in the power structure. They don't have authority to break rules, they can only move around them. But it is very important that children be Ambassadors between worlds in this science fiction novel. As one can observe in ever-popular Unlikely Friendships series, interspecies friendships always begin between juveniles. This structure gives the children important responsibility even if they don't have a large amount of power.

Almost Heroes

There are some murky hero waters. For example, is a hero defined by the situation or by inherent talents? Superheroes in comic books have inherent powers used for good. Hobbits don't have inherent powers, but are heroes due to situations they were forced to navigate. Katniss in The Hunger Games eventually emerges as a hero, but in the first book most of her actions after stepping forward to save her sister were focused on saving herself - she had the goal of surviving the games, not of challenging the power structure. She wasn't out to Do Good in a broader sense, but her actions and what other people made of her actions led to greater good.

Antiheroes and reluctant heroes don't start off with the expected hero qualities of wanting to bravely fight for an important cause, but they may find themselves in that situation over the course of the book. The protagonists' characters usually develop along with their actions to assume more heroic qualities. What if they didn't? Would the actions be enough to qualify?

Heroes Who Develop Across a Series

Reluctant heroes like Katniss can develop across books in a series. The first book of Kekla's Robin Hood retelling, featuring Robyn Hoodlum, just came out this fall and in it the protagonist doesn't yet own her identity as a hero, even though some hero-like actions have come about from her adventures in Book 1. One way of looking at the arc of Robyn Hoodlum and other heroes who develop over the course of several stories is 1. they develop their hero qualities 2. they take ownership of their role as hero and 3. they fully enact their heroism and achieve a major victory for the cause of Good (whatever Good happens to be). 

Heroes Aren't Always Great Role Models 

Hero and role model aren't synonymous. As Will puts it "Is Batman a good person or even remotely on an even keel?" Not really. Destructive, bad ass type heroes offer a smash-things-up sort of catharsis without representing great life choices. They let readers play out in their imaginations all kinds of possible, and also impossible, actions and their consequences. They're faced with larger than life dilemmas, up to and beyond threats like the entire Earth being exploded by alien invaders. Will would argue in favor of readers of all ages letting these scenarios play out in their minds via the written word.

Are Protagonists Always Heroes?

Lots of protagonists aren't heroes, but in books where Stuff Happens and there's a fair amount of action and overcoming of obstacles, it's hard not to apply some hero framework to the characters. Many children's or YA books have storylines that lend themselves to heroic protagonists.

Kekla tries not to write about heroes. Her early books set during the Civil Rights movements of the last generation focused on average citizens, not the big name heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. who we learn about in school. It's the people who showed up to listen to the I Have a Dream speech, not the person who delivered it. That begs the question whether these characters still count as heroes? We have a cultural understanding now of "everyday heroes" and popular culture highlights the concept of aggregating lots of very small actions from thousands of people for large impact.

In Kekla's book How It Went Down she tells one story from 19 perspectives, which takes away even the structure of a single main character to navigate the story.  But each of those people has their own story, with its own arc, and actions and consequences.

In another book, X: A Novel, Kekla writes about Malcolm X before he was a popular hero. He made a lot of bad choices - it's a hero origin story when the hero comes from a somewhat dubious origin. She wanted to strip away hindsight and show a time when Malcolm X had no way of knowing how his life would turn out, and hero status seemed very unlikely. It makes it clear that he wasn't born into his role, like Superman was born to be Superman, but rather arrived there through a complicated life path.

Heroes in the Classroom:

Will and Kekla's talk offered several ways to examine fictional characters in classroom books. Here are some of the points they brought up, in question form:

  • Is this main character a hero? 
  • Where does the main character's power come from? Compared with other characters in the story?
  • Does this character begin with an inherent heroic quality? (Like secretly being a wizard)
  • Does this character acquire heroic personal qualities across the course of the story?
  • Is this character's heroism defined by actions? What actions and what choice led to those actions?
  • If you think this character isn't a hero, what changes would make them a hero? How would that change the story? (Not necessarily for the better, since presumably the author wrote it this way for a reason)
  • What about the characters who aren't the main character in the story, what if they became the main character? Would they become heroes? (In the new book The Rest of Us Just Live Here Patrick Ness does this with characters who would otherwise be "extras" in a Chosen One style story about battling supernatural evil)

Friday, November 13, 2015

(Re)vision - Linda Urban and Melissa Guerrette

Linda Urban (left) & Melissa Guerrette (right)

We love picking up a brand new book, with a seemingly perfect story inside waiting to be read. Of course, we also know in the back of our minds that a lot of work - hard work - went into creating that final story. That story likely spent a long time very far from what the author wanted it to be. Young students rarely observe that difficult process behind their books, much less participate in it. Nonetheless, knowing the work that goes into a final book helps students understand writing and improve their own writing. It also helps them realize that if their work begins in a state they don't like, it doesn't mean they're terrible writers - it only means they need to revise, just like professional authors do (and do a lot).

When author Linda Urban began her latest book Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, she knew she was at the start of a difficult process. For one thing, writing books is just hard. For another, this story would be a departure from her previous novels (Center of Everything; Crooked Kind of Perfect; Hound Dog True). Linda explains that she knew her books had "lots of character and dialogue, without a lot of plot." They were quiet books, with well developed voices in the main characters and, as her son pointed out, an absence of HAM. Humor, Action, Mystery. He wanted a HAM book because that's the type of book he likes to read. Linda promised she'd write something for him.

Creating a different style of book required Linda to find a whole new way to write. Her earlier books she wrote taking her cues from sound (for example, dialogue) and based on feeling, not visuals and action. The common writing advice of "see the story like a movie" didn't apply. Now it did. The early drafts, Linda says, read like a list of set directions. Even the stuff that always worked well for her, the dialogue and the characters' own voices, didn't work well in this new context. Simply getting her main character Milo across the room took heroic effort. (To be fair, Milo spends a lot of the book moving across rooms populated by ogres in the made up world of Ogregon, reached through a malfunctioning clothes dryer, so she wasn't moving him across any old living room. It was nevertheless frustrating).

At the same time that Linda was working on Milo, she was also in communication with Maine-based teacher Melissa Guerrette. Melissa's fourth grade class had won a Skype visit and doughnut party with Linda as part of the promotions for her earlier book The Center of Everything. Linda had been impressed with how engaged Melissa's students were. The students were full of enthusiasm for their own reading lives, and full of advice for books Linda should read to inform her next writing project. An author-classroom learning partnership seemed like a good idea.

Linda sent 5 chapters of Milo to Melissa's class for feedback. These weren't the early super, super messy attempts, but they were also several steps away from what the final product would be. The students loved getting a look at these drafts; they wanted more.

"I know we were just talking to you, but now we just can't stop thinking about Milo, like we want more, we want more. Some books are like that. Some books are that good - people just say please make a book about the same thing, the first one was so good. I feel like those people about this book Milo Speck," one student explained.

The students sent Linda a stack of cards with the general theme "You Can Do It". As one student counseled "I agree it's hard to revise but in my opinion it feels good when you finish."

Linda naturally enjoyed a pep talk. She also honestly valued feedback these students, her future readers, might have. And she knew a close look at a writer's process could change how the students approached their own writing. Melissa, from the teacher's role, didn't correct the letters, but she did read them. . . and learned about many things students hadn't necessarily shared with her directly, their hang ups, concerns, frustrations about writing.

The attitudes students carried towards writing had previously raised concerns for Melissa. Many students arrived in 4th grade with negative feelings, convinced they weren't writers and resisting regular practice in the classroom. She worried about a classroom emphasis on deadlines, and mechanics, and not on creating a writerly practice. Students didn't appreciate writing's potential to let them share the ideas in their heads with the rest of the world.

Melissa's students' attitudes changed over the course of the two years she worked with Linda.

One major point of change in students' approach to writing came with their writing notebooks. Linda keeps multiple notebooks for each project: messy notebooks, more task-oriented project notebooks, and during the Milo project she even began a progress notebook (reflecting on the day's work) based on the recommendation of business writer David Allen.

Page from Linda's notebook

Melissa's students had kept notebooks for class assignments, but they'd viewed them as simply that - a place to complete assignments. Even the way they took care of the books physically reflected disinterest (and sometimes resentment). But, Melissa says, the classroom time dedicated to working in the notebooks soon became a chance to develop their writing practice, with ". . . authentic conditions for writing, not just moving through a check list" and the notebooks themselves were seen as "a place that took care of their ideas."

Linda explains it this way: "A writing notebook is supposed to be a playground. . . a safe place for yourself and others, and within that you can do whatever you want."

And the half ideas, doodles, story boards, random thoughts in notebooks did evolve into polished pieces of writing. Melissa's students were okay with the idea of very messy starts followed by a lot of hard work to get to a final product. As one student described, all the arrows connecting his different ideas were "showing the roads to victory."

Linda and Melissa worked together on ways to help students navigate those roads to victory from what can be rocky beginnings. Below are slides from Melissa showing examples of two exercises:

Exercise comparing two passages (pre-and post-revision) from Milo and discussing what changed, and speculating on why it might have changed. Melissa notes that this exercise was part of thinking about how "writers act deliberately" and their revision goes beyond a spell check.

Exercise in description and action - page from student notebook.

Melissa and Linda both feel that their project can be replicated in other classrooms. Finding classroom time for the work proved challenging, especially since it had many phases of exploration -- with all the expected dead ends and backtracking inherent in exploration. Melissa notes, though, that curriculum standards emphasize quality of writing and that, ultimately, this process produced high quality writing, so it fit into those priorities. She also adjusted her own attitude towards notebooks and early drafts, letting go of any expectations she had of what students would produce. Another challenge is finding those author-educator partnerships. Linda notes that it's a rewarding form of community service, and the author role could be filled from any genre or style, since the need for thoughtful, deliberate revision holds true at the heart of most writing.

At the end of the Milo-based partnership, Linda traveled to Maine for a surprise visit to Melissa's classroom, where she met with students in person and had writing conferences with students who wanted to share their work with her. Now, Melissa reports, her students feel a great pride of ownership in Milo Speck: Accidental Agent, and she herself has returned to doing more of her own writing.

If you're interested in more thoughts on writers' notebooks check out:

This Collection of Blog Posts by Melissa
This Collection of Blog Posts by Linda
If you're interested in other examples of authors working with students on writing skills, check out these earlier Author-Educator workshop notes:
And, finally, we hope you join us for our final fall Author-Educator Workshop on Saturday, November 14th, at 11:00 am with Kekla Magoon and Will Alexander as they discuss "Creating Heroes." As usual, it is free, open to the public, and comes with refreshments. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Kekla Magoon & Will Alexander - Saturday, November 14th

Vermont College of Fine Arts draws many talented authors into the Montpelier community - many of whom are writing important, entertaining, fantastic, humorous, serious, and generally wonderful books for children and young adults. Two of those are VCFA faculty members Kekla Magoon and Will Alexander. Lucky for all of us, they are also generous with their time and coming to speak at Bear Pond Books this upcoming Saturday, November 14th, at 11:00 am.

The topic of Saturday's workshop is creating fictional heroes for young readers. Kekla and Will will be speaking about how they create these characters, and what impact these characters can have on the perspective of readers.

You don't have to take our word for it that Kekla and Will have interesting opinions to share, here's a sample of interviews, reviews, essays, and conversations about their work:

Come hear Kekla and Will this Saturday, November 14th, in the Children's Room at 11:00 am - there will be coffee and snacks, and the event is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Problem Solving in Stories with Nicole Griffin

N. (or Nicole) Griffin is the author of the new young reader series featuring Smashie McPerter and her friend Dontel. In the first book, Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11, the two search for who stole the class hamster after it goes missing under the reign of a vain substitute teacher at a time when the class is already miffed that Smashie considers hamsters creepy.

Nicole is also a math education consultant and so it shouldn't surprise us that she started her workshops on problem solving in stories with a math problem. Take a few minutes to consider it:

Now, a few more minutes to consider how did you go about solving this problem?

1. Deal with your feelings.

Some choice comments from the audience on their first reaction to the assignment "Flash backs of horror"; "sweaty palms"; "Relief at not having to share the answers out loud"; "happy because I used to really love math and never do it any more" (followed almost instantly by the discovery that you can forget a lot of math in a few short decades).

The dealing with your feelings phase often gets forgotten in teaching kids about problem solving. Nonetheless, if you're feeling anxious, discouraged, cocky, etc. that impedes your problem solving. Sometimes the feelings part gets forgotten with fictional problem solvers too (particularly odd since emotions usually make stories interesting). Think of Sherlock Holmes who rarely had to deal with his feelings.

2. Make sense of the problem

Making sense of the problem means not just reading it, but using tools like drawing visuals (shapes to represent the paintings for example) or identifying key parts to grasp what you're reading. In mysteries, it's common for investigators to talk over the problems confronting them as ways of making sense. In Smashie McPerter, Smashie and her friend Dontel fill notebooks with their outlines of trying to understand the key parts of the missing hamster problem.

3. Solve the problem

Workshop participants all went about solving the paintings problems in different ways - the blunt instrument of arithmetic (adding prices until you reached the set amount); trying to find an equation from the dim recesses of memory; etc. Often this solving involves false steps that send you back to #1. In Smashie, for example, the kids run through possible suspects and need to return to their notebooks each time they find evidence that one of their suspects can't have taken the hamster.

4. Explain your thinking.

In the math problem handed out at the workshop the test writer specifically requested "show your work." In the world of mysteries, the climactic speech by the sleuth explaining how she deduced what happened (I picture Angela Lansbury here) and caught the perpetrator is a nearly unavoidable plot point.

5. Check your work.

Double checking is, of course, a constant part of the problem solving process and Jane points out that when the kids in Smashie make a false accusation there are real consequences. This is not a problem solving duo who can point fingers until they happen upon the guilty party.

~ ~ ~

When we lay out basic problem solving structure and look at it through the lens of writing for kids, mysteries are an obvious choice for illustrating this skill. They're engaging stories built around a problem to be solved. They're a more fun way of understanding curriculum goals like CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 - which Nicole shared at the workshop:
CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution. They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals. They make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt. They consider analogous problems, and try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem in order to gain insight into its solution. They monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary. Older students might, depending on the context of the problem, transform algebraic expressions or change the viewing window on their graphing calculator to get the information they need. Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables, and graphs or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data, and search for regularity or trends. Younger students might rely on using concrete objects or pictures to help conceptualize and solve a problem. Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, "Does this make sense?" They can understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.
Not all children's mysteries are created equal and hit the balance of entertaining storytelling and strong problem solving, like what we find in Smashie McPerter. Jane suggests this list to get started:

Julian, Secret AgentCameron, Ann9780394819495Random HouseOct 20082-4
The Book ScavengerChambliss Bertman, Jennifer9781627791151Henry HoltJune 20154-6
The Clubhouse Mysteries Draper, Sharon9781442427099AlladinJuly 20112-4series
Operation BunnyGardner, Sally9781250050533Square FishSept 20142-4series
Smashie McPerterGriffin, N9780763661458CandlewickFeb 2015series
Adventures of Arnie the DonutKeller, Laurie9781250072498Square FishMay 20152-4series
Nancy Clancy Super SleuthO'Connor, Jane9780062084194HarperApril 20132-4series
Greetings From SomewhereParis, Harper9781442497184SimonJan 20141-3series
The Case of the Missing MoonstoneStratford, Jordan9780385754408KnopfJan 20153-6series
Secrets of Selkie BayThomas, Shelley Moore9780374367497Farrar, Strauss GirouxJuly 20153-6
Whodunit Detective AgencyWidmark, Martin9780448480664Grosset & DunlapOct 20141-3series

~ ~ ~ 

Don't forget on Saturday, November 7th, we've got another educators workshop coming up with Linda Urban and Melissa Guerrette - learn about their unique collaboration around teaching writing and revision in the classroom as Linda worked on her fun new children's book Milo Speck: Accidental Agent.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Microshelters Event with Derek "Deek" Diedricksen

So, the real strength of the Microshelters discussion is the pictures of the super cool tiny houses, offices, tree houses, and play forts (and under "play forts" we're including one tiny house designed entirely for reading and sipping wine in the backyard in peace and quiet. . . not school appropriate, perhaps, but clearly a basic necessity). We've discovered that snapping pictures of Deek talking in front of a screen with images projected on it doesn't really do justice to the inspiration. Here are links to resources that do:

We may now have come full circle from the 39 Story Treehouse book from our Early Chapter Books review a few weeks ago. The 13+ story treehouses were a little too over the top the review panel. But the classy tiny house treehouses, those work just fine. . .

From Deek's Blog:

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Materials Review: Early Chapter Books

At the end of last spring's middle grade materials review session we had a request for Early Chapter Books as the next topic. . . and started to get ready then and there with:
Last Friday, we took a closer look at both series and stand alone books in this category and also invited in early chapter book author Dough Wilhelm to share his perspective on creating these books. Here is a list of the books we read (not all were reviewed on the panel):
And here are the reviews:
Plus, a list of recommended leveled readers - requested at the event:
And notes from the discussion with Doug:
We're keeping track of all our Materials Reviews in the Author-Educator Series speakers list, under Bear Pond Staff (ie. the end of the list). 

Next up for the Author-Educator Series: Sunday, October 18th, 11:30 am: A short workshop on creating creative reading space, forts, and "Microshelters" with national small building expert Deek Diedricksen. Details here

Doug Wilhelm: Treasure Town

Author Doug Wilhelm has written a variety of books for kids. He has contributed to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. He wrote the acclaimed middle grade novel The Revealers. Now, he and his sister, Sarah-Lee Terrat, have started a new series of "bridge into reading" books beginning with Treasure Town. Doug spoke on our Early Chapter Book panel about developing a book that would draw kids into reading.

Several children's authors who have spoken here before have given ideas for playing games of "What If?" to generate the ideas that become stories (see for example these workshops from Kate Messner, S.S. Taylor, and Gary Miller and Deb Fleischman). Doug followed a similar process. The specific idea for Treasure Town began with Sarah-Lee keeping a notebook of the odd questions her young son would ask. When her son started noting funny names, one thing led to another, and Doug and Sarah dreamed up a story of characters worthy of the names Yuke and Bug (changed from Butt) Luck.

Yuke and Bug Luck are gold prospectors who hop a freight train with the intent of heading to Alaska, but go the wrong direction and end up in Florida instead.

From that starting premise, Doug needed to add protagonists closer in age to the intended readers. He ended up with three kids living in the fictional town of Sandy Feet, Florida, who are looking for buried treasure and team up with Yuke and Bug. It was important to have kids who felt relatable to young readers to carry the story. It also took some time to get that right. For example, several early cover ideas got scrapped because they focused on the grown Yuke and Bug. Sarah-Lee worked a long time figuring out how to draw children with a lot of character and expressions - the goofy adults of Yuke and Bug were much easier to draw.

In his teacher's guide materials Doug notes where the child-adult relationship in the book works especially well:
[My favorite part of the book is] the conversation between Luis and Bug when they’re walking, talking and dreaming about the pirate’s treasure. I like how Bug, a grownup, sort of listens to Luis, a kid, but not really. I bet a lot of kids will make a personal connection with that.
These fictional children are part of what draws kids into the page, but Doug wanted to be sure that a strong narrative did as well. The narrative of the story emphasizes action, and specifically humorous action, that's reinforced by the drawings. The final cover, for example, shows an action scene of one person digging, another looking expectantly into the hole, and two others coming running with expressions of, if not alarm, at least surprise. Or, when the kids meet the two gold prospectors, they don't simply cross paths in the street, they cross paths after Yuke has dug his way into a water main in downtown and lifted the police car up on a geyser he unleashed.

While some of the narrative pull for young readers comes from the ridiculous, a lot of it also comes from real life. The kids in the book aren't searching for any old generic buried treasure, they're looking for the treasure of real-life pirate Jean Lafitte. The nonfiction book Florida Pirates (quoted in Treasure Town's introduction) explains
"Unlike most people who attempt to hide their wealth, Jean Lafitte. . . once state that, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, he had buried enough gold to build a solid gold bridge across the Mississippi." 
So, there's no telling what you might find on a treasure hunt.

A last component for a successful early chapter book is how its produced. First there's the immediate hurdle of finding a publisher. Doug and Sarah-Lee looked for a traditional publisher before choosing instead to use their own publishing house Long Stride Books. A Kickstarter campaign to raised the funds for publication. They have since found an outside publisher, Pelican Press, to pick up the series.

The additional publishing component that audience members added was not only whether books appear in print, but how they appear in print. This issue came up with books in the panel review as well - since many were in galley form it was difficult to judge their final appearance. Participants noted that kids starting in early reader books often want their books to look like "real" books older children read. Jane observed that some books like the Tashi series collect individual early reader stories into one volume that has the heft of a book for an older audience.

Doug and Sarah-Lee have planned a series of adventure books featuring fictional searches for real lost treasures. . . we look forward to seeing them on shelves soon!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Early Chapter Books: Panel Reviews

Thank you for everyone who joined us last Friday for the Early Chapter Books Materials Review. We're posting the notes in a few installments . . starting with short reviews for all the books discussed that are below. Next up we'll add notes from Doug Wilhelm's discussion of writing Treasure Town.

Goofy Humor:

The 13 Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths (series): We needed to defer to some younger readers for parts of this review. . . "It's exactly what it looks like" according to Carrie - and her kids love it while she does not. It's about brothers who live in a treehouse and write books. As you might imagine from being 13 stories high, the treehouse has many elaborate features like a bowling alley, a marshmallow machine and dangerous "burp gas-bubblegum bubbles." It works well for reluctant readers, is funny, and does inspire readers to imagine their own fantastic treehouses and books to write.

The Yeti Files - Meet the Bigfeet by Kevin Sherry (Series): Along the same lines as the Treehouse series, the Yeti series is a funny book for reluctant readers. The premise for the first book in the series is that the Yeti is going to a family reunion with the cryptids - creatures that live alone and have sworn that they can never be seen by humans. It's heavy on illustrations, in a very simple cartooning style. Like the Treehouse series, these books have the potential to inspire otherwise reluctant readers / writers to start both reading and thinking up their own stories.

Bowling Alley Bandit: Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie Keller (Series): Arnie is a doughnut, bought from the best bakery in town, not realizing that doughnuts are for eating. But he convinces the man who bought him to keep him as a pet instead. He happily goes bowling with his new owner. When something is amiss at the bowling alley, Arnie enlists Peezo, his best buddy (who happens to be a slice of pizza) to help him investigate. Illustrations play a big role in telling this story. It's most similar to Bad Kitty in style. It may be goofball comedy, but it's also smart, as Keller is known for her clever use of wordplay.

Quirky Humor:

Milo Speck: Accidental Agent by Linda Urban: One day, Milo is grabbed by his clothes dryer and sucked into the land of Ogregon filled with ogres that eat children. Milo discovers that his father, who he thought was a fence salesman, is really a secret agent in Ogregon. Now Milo has to foil the ogres' plot against children and he isn't sure he's the hero for the job. Jane describes this as zany, Roald Dahl-esque humor. Linda Urban is coming to Bear Pond Books with Melissa Guerrette on November 7th at 11:00 am to teach a workshop on revision - details are found here. Also, Linda has an upcoming series of early chapter books called "Weekends with Max and his Dad" that will be published in spring of 2016.

Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon (Series): Harriet is a princess (also, a hamster) who finds palace life rather dull. She is also under a curse --at age 12 she will prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. . . except what happens is that she pricks her finger and everyone else falls into a deep sleep and now she needs to find a Prince who will kiss a whole palace to wake them up. There are some big vocabulary words, but the story is funny enough that they're worth it, or skippable. Jane describes this hamster princess book as having a "sophisticated wit." If she was allowed to say she loved two books the best, this would the best (but as things stood, she only got one and it's Dory).

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon: Another in the quirky, spunky kid category, but Jane says this book really does rise above the rest. Dory is a kid who has populated her world with elaborate imaginary friends. She drives everyone around her crazy. Her older siblings think she's too much of a baby to play with and they invent the story of Mrs. Gobblegracker who will come for her if she doesn't leave them alone - and so of course this new imaginary being joins Dory's world. Very clever and funny. If Jane is going to choose one book as her favorite, this one was it.

Extraordinary Warren: A Super Chicken by Sarah Dillard (Series): Warren, a little chick, is learning how to fly and he's searching for his inner super chicken. The author uses a graphic novel style in her chapter book, making it a good picture book / chapter book crossover. Jane says the medium works very well. There are two Extraordinary Warren books out in the series. The author and illustrator lives in Waitsfield.

Charming Books:

The Kingdom of Wrenly by Jordan Quinn (Series): A book that is easy to read, light, good for sensitive children as "nothing alarming happens and it wraps up neatly in a bow." The stories follow the Prince and a seamstress' daughter as they explore the Kingdom of Wrenly. Carrie says that it's "innocent and sweet and not very well written." But, she notes, the writing is not so far off the mark that kids are likely to care.

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter (Series) A "lovely" (per Carrie) book in the tradition of the Clementine series. Piper Green lives on an island in Maine. She is struggling because she misses her brother, who left for boarding school, and she doesn't get along with her new teacher. It's a funny book but also deals with real issue. Well written. There are two books in the series so far.

Cody and the Fountain of Happiness by Tricia Springstubb (Series): It's the first day of summer vacation and while not much is happening in Cody's house, she's enthusiastic about inventing her own entertainment. The story is very Ramona Quimby-like. Cody's mother is feeling stress about a new job, her father is gone for long stretches as a truck driver, her teenage brother is moping over a girl, and there's a new kid in town staying with his grandmother and missing his parents. It's not wildly inventive but it's also perfectly enjoyable, which is just fine.

The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng (Series): It's a "quiet, book lover's book" according to Jane. The protagonist, Anna, is the child of Chinese immigrants. She's having trouble navigating her social life. She's embarrassed by her mother's efforts to introduce Chinese culture into her daughter's American life. Anna decides that it's easier to find her friends in books, not people. She slowly learns to deal with friendships.

Princess Pistachio by Marie-Louse Gay (Series): Pistachio believes she is a princess, and when a mysterious crown arrives for her birthday she becomes truly convinced. Ramping up the spolied princess act isn't exactly popular with everyone around her. Jane found that, unlike other books where the main character drives the people around her crazy while being entertaining on the page, Pistachio was not. The words "sassy and entitled" were used, and not in a complimentary way. Jane recommends the author's picture books instead.  

Mystery Books:

The Diamond Mystery by Martin Widmark (Series): Two kids open a detective agency and this is their first case, of diamonds missing from a jewelry store. It's a classic whodunit structure: a client presents a mystery, there is a defined set of suspects each with reasons why they might have been the ones, and after a brief investigation of each person the real thief is revealed. Helen wonders if something was lost in the translation from the original Swedish - the language can read a bit like a vocabulary lesson. Also, she is disappointed that the publisher didn't work with the author and illustrator to convey more of Sweden in the book. The only geographical reference implies that the book is taking place in an American suburban town.

Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 by N. Griffin (Series): When the classroom hamster goes missing, Smashie (who didn't really like the hamster in the first place) decides to solve the mystery. This is a good book for problem solving and vocabulary building. It's also a good reading aloud book. The author is coming to Bear Pond Books on October 24th at 11:00 am to do a workshop on teaching problem solving skills. The workshop details are here.

Books with Clear Teaching Tie Ins (History, Science)

Tales from Maple Ridge: Logan Pryce Makes a Mess by Grace Gilmore and Petra Brown (Series): This series tells the story of a farm in 1892. The father needs to take a job off the farm because it is struggling, and the young son, Logan, is looking for ways help keep the farm going. It's very relatable and would appeal to Little House on the Prairie fans. There are two books in the series currently available, with two more slated for publication.

Ranger in Time by Kate Messner (Series): This series follows a search and rescue dog who failed his exam by chasing a squirrel. Through a little magic Ranger is transported back in time to the Oregon trail where a young girl has gone missing. The writing is solid and the conceit of the series lets history lessons be folded into the narrative. The author is local and has led workshops at Bear Pond before. We wrote an article on writing exercises based on Kate's workshops "New Ideas - Creative Jumpstarts that Work in the Classroom"

Frank Einstein by Jon Scieszka (Series): The first in a series, this book follows a familiar plot line of a genius scientist with a brilliant creation (an antimatter motor), stolen by a bad guy, and in need of being re-acquired. This book builds from ideas in science that are entryways to pretty sophisticated stuff (self-teaching artificial intelligence or the large hadron collider for example) but are presented in the context of madcap adventure and goofy humor. The book hits the gold standard of conveying that reading is A. fun and B. full of big ideas that change your understanding of the world. It wasn't Helen's sort of storyline, but that's personal preference, and her one "I love this book" went to Frank Einstein.

Totally True Adventures: The Race Around the World by Nancy Castaldo (Series): This book tells the story of reporter and adventurer Nellie Bly in simple language suitable for a classroom with children at different reading levels. It's neither creative nor fun, but it's probably useful - combining history, biography, and reading skills. The book promises additional materials online that connect to the classroom and common core but Helen gave up on finding them after a fair amount of searching. When she finally tracks down these promised materials, they'll appear here. For now we're giving up. This book is part of a series of Totally True Adventures.

Strong Read Alouds:

Emma and the Blue Genie by Cornelia Funke: Emma frees a very small blue genie who needs help getting his nose ring back so he can have his powers restored. It's a stand alone book. The reading level is on the challenging end of early chapter books. This author has many solid books, including Inkheart, The Pirate Pig and the soon-to-be-published Ruffleclaw.  

Appleblossom the Possum by Holly Goldberg Sloan: A book by the author of the DCF-nominated Counting by 7's. Carries summarizes this book as "delightful imaginings of what possum family culture would look like." Appleblossom goes out into the world and falls down a chimney into a human home, and her brothers launch a rescue mission. The story is enjoyable for both kids and grown ups.

Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee: Carrie was allowed only one book to say she "loved" and this was it. The book chronicles the firefly who dreams of flying to the moon, cricket who dreams of being Yogi Berra, Vole who is the last of his kind and dreams of sailing his father's ship (but there is no one to teach him) and Peter who is a Miniature Giant who will grow up to be a Big Giant. The book plates are beautiful. It's a good read aloud for any age.

Diva and Flea by Mo Willems & Tony DiTerlizzi: A Lady and the Tramp-esque story of a dog and cat in Paris. Diva is a dog who has never ventured into the big world of Paris, but who meets Flea, a streetwise cat "flaneuring" about the alleys of Paris. This book has a lovely classic feel and tremendously vibrant line drawings.

Books You Might Have Missed:

Some great series have been around for a while, but are still being newly discovered. Here are a few:
  • Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke - Anna lives in Africa and these books are a good introduction to new cultures. Jane (who is a big fan) describes them as "sweet as the day is long". They can be hard to find but call the Children's Room and Jane will track them down.
  • Matter of Fact Magic by Ruth Chew - These books are now being reprinted. They're a collection of stand alone stories about kids and magic. You can read the books' summaries on
  • Tashi by Anna and Barbara Fienberg - An Australian series, filled with the tall tales of a gnome-like imaginary friend named Tashi. Always popular during the holidays.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hold This! - Q&A with Carolyn Scoppettone

Last Friday while we were reviewing early chapter books (more on those tomorrow), Kellogg-Hubbard Library was hosting a launch event for the publication of Hold This! a debut picture book by Montpelier author Carolyn Scoppettone. Hold This! recounts a walk through the woods with a daughter discovering many treasures - or "treasures" - to share with her father.

Earlier this month, Islandport Press published a short written Q&A with Carolyn about the origin of the book, linked here. Now, she has nicely taken the time to do another round for our educators blog. 

This is a playful book describing exploring the outdoors, how did you approach finding the right text to prompt the feeling of "playfulness", which we usually think of as an impromptu emotion?

The inspiration for “Hold This!” came directly from my own children. When they were little, we walked in Hubbard Park frequently. I loved their irrepressible desire to explore the outdoors through their senses. They wanted to look at nature, of course, but they also wanted to hear it, smell it and touch it. So, I knew that I would need sensory language to capture the story I wanted to tell. From the earliest drafts, fun, sensory words like “splash gurgling” and “swissshing” appeared.
In addition to those Hubbard Park walks with my own children, I had plenty of experience exploring nature with other young kids. As a volunteer educator for the Four Winds program at Union Elementary School, I led outdoor nature lessons for many years. It struck me that the children were most deeply engaged when they were having fun. The experience of playing opened the door to forming a connection with the natural world. I wanted my main character to find joy in the woods. That joy bubbled up into playful language.
We've had authors in our educators series before speak about the sense of play and wonder as an important part of engaging kids in learning - looking a little beyond the text on the page, do you have thoughts for inspiring the feeling of play in planned activities, like you would find in a school setting?
At the end of “Hold This!,” Mika builds a fairy house. For young children, building small structures like these engages the imagination as well as the senses. Handling bark, leaves, stones, and other natural materials gives a child a chance to notice shape, texture, and fragrance, among other things.
While you might not build a fairy house in a classroom, natural materials can come into school to be used in crafts and art activities. I especially like art activities that highlight the complexity and beauty found in nature. Leaf rubbings, natural collages, shoe box dioramas, and many other activities allow children to create something beautiful out of things they find in nature.
There are also many crafts that highlight certain properties of natural objects. For example, when studying snowflakes in Four Winds, we would have the children cut out paper snowflakes. This is a simple but beautiful craft that reinforces the concept that the shape of each snowflake is unique.
 Puppet shows and felt board activities are always great, as well. In the Four Winds program, we would start each lesson with a puppet show that introduced the learning objectives. For a unit on camouflage, for example, the puppet characters blended in with the background. When I do an author visit with a preschool audience, I bring along a felt board version of “Hold This!” Children love helping me find the various natural treasures that Mika asks her father to hold. There are a wide variety of games, as well. Memory games, for example, work particularly well with a nature theme.
- Do you have any examples of school-based play and learning from your own time as a student? 
I grew up in San Diego where it was easy to be outside all year. My mother was a preschool teacher who loved nature.  So, from an early age I was encouraged to approach any excursion into the outdoors as a chance to truly observe the natural world. I don’t recall specific school-based play and learning from that time, but I’ll never forget how Mom would plop down on the ground to show me tiny flowers, “belly flowers” she called them, or how she would point out a swallow’s nest tucked in the eaves or a sparrow’s distinctive song.
When I was a kid, I loved scavenger hunts. There was an undeveloped canyon right near my house and I spent every afternoon playing imaginative games or combing the canyon for treasures. The shark’s teeth I found told me that the desert landscape I was exploring used to be an ocean. The horned toads, rocks and chaparral spoke to the changes the landscape had undergone over eons.
Despite the difficulty of getting children outside during the school day, I think it is crucial to do so on a regular basis. Just the experience of being outside is valuable. Any game that is played in nature allows a child to form a connection to the natural world. In a time when so much of our learning is indoors or on the computer, getting outside is even more important.
Interested in reading more about the theme of discovery, nature, and learning? Check out this earlier set of articles about author / illustrators Dierdre Gill and Jason Chin "Picture Books that Explore Nature"

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pre-Review - Early Chapter Books

It's a pre-review, not a preview, because these are some books that aren't on our list to for the Early Chapter Book materials review next Friday - so we reviewed them early.

Check out the pre-review books below and then join us on October 2nd at 9:30 am for an Early Chapter Books materials review with reviews, updates on popular series, refreshments, giveaways, and a bit of the author's perspective from panelist Doug Wilhelm (Treasure Town, Choose Your Own Adventure). Event details are here. These are always a fun event, lots of time for conversation and to check out new and upcoming books. We hope you can join us upstairs in the Children's room next Friday!


published by Puffin, paperback series, $4.99
Friday is always an exciting day for Humphrey, the class hamster. That's when he finds out where he will spend the weekend away from his usual home at Longfellow School. This time it will be Mandy's house, and her own hamster, Winky, has his very own hamster-size car. Humphrey falls in love with driving the first time he's behind the wheel --with a familiar nod to some of our favorite literary characters-- and wishes he had his own car to race Winky. Lucky for him, the teacher in Room 26 is able to make his dream a reality. Humphrey is a sweet protagonist who makes amusing observations about the students. This title has the same characters, humorous action, and gentle tone of the original Humphrey books for older kids, but the large print, short chapters, and numerous cartoon-style illustrations make this series perfect for readers brand new to chapter books.

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo
published by Candlewick, paperback series, $5.99
DiCamillo has incorporated characters from her popular Mercy Watson series into this slightly lengthier spin-off. Leroy Ninker is a concession stand worker at the local drive-in movie theater with dreams of being a real-life cowboy. (“Yippee-i-oh, that is the life for me! A cowboy is who I was meant to be.”) One day he discovers a horse for sale-- Maybelline, a horse who responds to generous and poetic praise. Part cowboy story and part pet love story, this multi-layered tale beautifully balances comically exaggerated details and true spirit. DiCamillo is a master of creating fully developed characters and plotline while retaining accessibility for emerging readers. Yee-haw!-- we give it a definite thumbs up.

The Princess In Black by Shannon Hale
published by Candlewick, paperback series, $6.99
The authors of "Rapunzel’s Revenge" and "Calamity Jack," writing here for a slightly younger audience, successfully turn the typical princess genre on its ear, offering beginning readers a clever, adventurous, and self-reliant heroine who is equally at home in black or pink. Princess Magnolia’s superhero identity is top secret; Duchess Wigtower must not find out. The Duchess snoops around her castle, always looking for evidence of the princesses' imperfections. Short sentences, a simple vocabulary with the occasional challenge, a manageable length, and a near picture-book level of illustrations give this chapter book immense accessibility-- for boys and girls both.

Space Taxi-- Archie Takes Flight by Wendy Mass & Michael Brawer
published by Little Brown, paperback series $5.99
This sci-fi adventure introduces an engaging character, Archie Morningstar, who can’t yet appreciate his last name, even though ‘Morning Star’ is the nickname for the planet Venus. When the action begins, it is Take Your Kid To Work Day and Archie doesn’t know about his father’s secret identity as an intergalactic voyager who pilots a space taxi. Soon Archie himself is being tested as a navigator who can expertly spot wormholes, with the help of a furry deputy named Pockets. A zippy plot propels the reader through a galactic adventure that never overdoes it-- the surprises are gentle, and the humor is always on target for a young demographic.