Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Reader- Amy Hest

"The reader has a small brown dog and a suitcase that is brown
and a long red sled with a long loopy rope for pulling through deep snow.
His boots are high and very heavy, but he is strong
and his train tracks are impeccably straight.
They are beautiful." 

Two good friends venture out into the snow together.
They climb to the top of a giant hill.
Where they cavort. And make snow angels.
And  picnic on warm drinks and crunchy toast.

Finally, it is time, and the little boy opens his suitcase and draws out a book.
Two Good Friends.

“And the only sound in the world is the sound of the reader 
reading to the very last page...the very last word.”

This is one of those gentle, quiet, and oh-so-perfect picture books.
Perfect for reading to children on a snowy day.
Perfect for putting in a friendship basket.
Perfect for a basket of books about reading.

Perfect for using as a mentor text
for small moments
or beautifully chosen words.

And Lauren Castillo's illustrations?
Those are perfect too. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


 I'm trying to figure out a new me.

The new me
doesn't have to worry about
those breathless I have a late meeting at work
but it's also parent teacher conferences at school
and then there's basketball practice 
and darn it I forgot to get something out of the freezer
how many nights can I justify
feeding my kids fish sticks
or frozen lasagna
kind of days.

The new me
Doesn't drag home 
a bulging teacher bag 
knowing that the first thing on the agenda 
is 25 algebra problems
with a non-algebraic son 
and supervising/assisting/ok sometimes actually building
the diorama of a museum exhibit of a
famous African American poet
who my seventeen-year-old
could care less about
but the project is due in two days
and it's 80% of the English grade for this semester. 

The new me
doesn't have to keep track of practice schedules
driving in circles between home and gyms and fields 
like one of those little cars on a track
at the amusement park
doesn't have to sell
candy bars, coffee cakes,
or raffle tickets
and doesn't spend hours in gyms 
dodging bouncing balls
and engaging in small talk 
while wishing I could just go sit in a corner
with the book that is calling my name.

The new me
doesn't serve on parent boards 
instead of dating
doesn't plan family vacations 
around basketball tournaments
has time to take a Spanish class
or work out at a rec center
or foster dogs 
for the rescue league. 

I'm trying to figure out this new me.
But it's hard
I m not quite ready
to let go
of the life
that old me
has loved.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


"Big Mean Mike was the biggest toughest dog in the whole neighborhood. He had a big mean bark. And big sharp teeth. He wore a big black collar with gleaming silver spikes and his claws were big and mean and very, very pointy."

"Best of all he had a big mean car that he liked to drive around the big mean streets. It made a big mean sound whenever he revved the engine."

One day, Big Mean Mike goes to buy new combat boots. When he opens the trunk of his car, intending to store his purchase, he discovers a tiny fuzzy bunny sitting there. He angrily places the bunny on the curb, revs his engine, and leaves the tiny fuzzy bunny sitting in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

The next day, he reaches into the glove compartment for his gym pass, and finds two tiny fuzzy bunnies. The day after that, there are three fuzzy bunnies sitting on the hood.

That weekend, Mike heads to the monster truck show. When he gets there, he discovers four fuzzy bunnies under the seat of his car.  Now Big Mean Mike faces a huge dilemma. He can't leave them in the car, because there are too many tough characters hanging around. At the same time, he doesn't want to ruin his tough guy image by being seen in public with a bunch of tiny fuzzy bunnies. How will Mike respond?

This is one of those pick it up in the bookstore, laugh out loud, and know right away that kids from 8 to 80 are going to enjoy it. Big Fun! At the same time, I can see a million different reading/writing/life lessons. It would be perfect in a mini- lesson on how an author uses actions to reveal character. It would be terrific for a lesson on how characters change. Or if I was teaching theme, I could use it with other books like THE RECESS QUEEN, EACH KINDNESS, and Patricia Polacco's BULLY to talk about life lessons.

Definitely one of those perfect, gotta-own-this-one picture books.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


 I'm always fascinated by how books can help people see the world in different ways. That definitely happened to me this week.  On Saturday, I blogged about Charles R. Smith's new book, BRICK BY BRICK. Monday, I found THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT, by Suzanne Slade. Slade adapted the old folk tale, "The House that Jack Built," into a fun, multi-genre picture book that recaps the building of the White House. The left half of each two-page spread is factual, a paragraph or two, and the right half includes the rhyme. In one of the early pages, for example, we learn that there was a contest to draw the plan for the President's House. The winner, James Hoban, received $500. On the right side, there's a portion of the cumulative rhyme.
This is the design,
that would stand for all time
That was drawn for the lot,
that grand scenic spot,
for the President's House that George built.
Throughout the book, the spotlight is on Washington. He's a hands-on, problem solving hero. When builders discover that there is not going to be enough stone, Washington decides that the White House will be two stories, rather than three. Money is tight so Washington suggests that they use wood instead of marble for the floors. And then, after all of his hard work, George Washington never even got to live in the White House! (Oh, and in case you are wondering, for seventy years, it was the largest house in the U(nited states. The cost was $272,000 or 4.9 million today). 

Having just read BRICK BY BRICK, I kept looking for a discussion of the slaves who did the actual building of the house. I was surprised when they were mentioned in only a very cursory way.  I am thinking that it would be really interesting to pair the two books to help kids explore author's perspective. I'm planning on trying it in a fourth grade classroom next week.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Inauguration Day seems a perfect day to share AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: TOGETHER WE STAND, the newest retelling of Katherine Lee Bates' song, "America the Beautiful." Each line of the famous song has its on its own two-page spread, illustrated by a well-known children's author: Bryan Collier, Raúl Colón, Diane Goode, Mary Grandpré, John Hendrix, Yuyi Morales, Jon J Muth, LeUyen Pahm, Sonia Lynn Sadler, and Chris Soenpiet. I'd love to have any or all of them hanging in my living room. You can see a few here, if you'd like.

Additionally, down one side of each two-page spread is a presidential quote.
"I believe that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another."  Thomas Jefferson 

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."   Franklin D. Roosevelt 

"Change will not cofe if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." Barack Obama

Each of these quotes is topped by a national landmarks or symbol: things like the Statue of Liberty, the American Flag, White House, the American Rose, and the Capitol Building. Readers can find more information on these landmarks and symbols in the Author's Notes.

The New York Times reviewed the book here

Sunday, January 20, 2013


When Joyce Carol Thomas was about ten, her family boarded a train and immigrated from Oklahoma to California. IN THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY, is Thomas' memoir, a love song to California, that follows the family's journey to their new home. 

IN THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY is a quiet book, brimming with beautiful word portraits. It's not a book that I'm sure kids will love on their own; I think it's one they will fall in love with when they hear it read aloud. I see myself using it again and again in mini-lessons on how authors use details, or on how carefully they choose their words,  or on surprising images.

The waiting train huffs
"Hurry, hurry, hurry!"
And I worry, worry, worry,
Hissing wheels
hiss, hiss, hiss
and I'm afraid we'll
miss, miss, miss
the train! 
And so we ride into early afternoons
past quick and slow-stepping lizards
basking hood-eyed 
on dazzling rocks.

We ride into late afternoon
past a snake whose body is a pen
writing calligraphy
on the paper-dry earth.

Beyond the bay
mountains topped with ice cream snow
reaching toward the cloud-powdered sky
in the Land of Milk and Honey 

Thomas' beautiful language is paired with the signature sepia illustrations of one of her favorite partners- Floyd Cooper. Perfect!

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Monday, January 21st, is Inauguration Day. It seems a perfect time then, to share Charles R. Smith's latest picture book,  BRICK BY BRICK. This picture book tells the story of how the White House was actually built.

By slaves.

Did you know that?

I didn't.

In the author's notes, Smith says:
When construction began in 1792, it (the White House) was in the middle of nowhere.
Manpower was needed to clear the forest, build the house, and make all the beautiful details inside. Lots of manpower. Local workers including immigrants from Scotland and other countries were hired, as well as free blacks, but it wasn't enough.
That's where the slaves come in.
After realizing there weren't enough workers in the population to assist in construction, the government looked to slaves to round out the workforce. Slave owners from Virginia and Maryland received five dollars a month to rent out each slave. After a hard day of work, slaves returned to a small, shared hut and ate from the rations of pork, beef, and cornmeal provided to them. 

Slaves endured a snake-infested swamp island and mosquito swarms to dig up the stones needed for the walls of the house. They endured hour after hour of cutting and trimming wood, often until their hands were bloodied or deformed. The work was hard on the body, especially the hands. 

I chose to focus on the hands…
 And so Smith takes readers through the slaves' building of the White House- digging and breaking the stone, sawing down trees, making bricks, building walls, completing the finish work- focusing on the hands with his typical, gorgeous, rhythmic, repetitious poetry,  and tight-in specificity. Listen to a page:
Sawyers saw blades
through logs of oak wood,
seven days a week
where a forest once stood.



Up, down, push, pull
two men per pit saw,
spraying sawdust
until slave hands are raw.

Slave hands saw
twelve hours a day,
but slave owners take
slave hands' pay.
Hands also feature prominently in Floyd Cooper's illustrations. Cooper, illustrator of many, many books, including classics like BROWN HONEY AND BROOMWHEAT TEA and MEET DANITRA BROWN, and newer work like QUEEN OF THE TRACK: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH JUMPER, and IN THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY is right up there with Kadir Nelson on my list of favorites. The illustrations for BRICK BY BRICK, done in tans, browns, sepia, and blues, are perfect.

A book you will definitely want to share this week…

Friday, January 18, 2013


Each year, the Denver Public Schools publishes a volume of student poetry.  A POEM KNOWS,  Volume 5, arrived in local bookstores a few weeks ago. On the website, teacher/editor Steve Replogle says:
 The series has published poems and artwork from about 1,500 students. That's a lot of children! Once upon a time, they were happy to find themselves as published poets, applauded at our receptions and celebrated by their communities. Many of those students are now in high school and preparing to go to college. It may not be long until they begin to publish books of their own…

"A Book Knows"
A book knows
what you want to learn about
and what you want to hear. 
It loves to be read and admired.
It is a house for words. 
When you flip the page
the words get in order.
A book knows. 

DAC, 1st grade

 The boxes are red
The boxes are blue
The boxes are pink
The boxes are green
Happy birthday!
AS,  Kindergarten

"What If It Rained 
 If it rained chocolate
In the winter
It would rain hot fudge
And it would stay hot forever
And we would still it it
If we waited
It would cover the whole grass
We would be able to make chocolate angels
and chocolate men
My dogs would be able to roll in it
CS, 3rd grade

"Early Each Sunday"
You used to be a preacher
because you wanted to teach about God
 and things like that
You'd wake early each Sunday, and
then you'd be gone
to stand in the spotlight of the stained glass
 windows and candles
lighting the faces
of the men
and the women
 and me
Smiling, you'd smile back.

Now that's over, you wake early
each Sunday
to listen to a voice that isn't yours
standing in the spotlight of the stained glass
windows and candles 
lighting the faces of the men
and the women
 but not me, because it isn't the same

But Grandpa, since you're now retired
You can spend more time with me.
CL, 5th grade


You walk tall jumping from page to page
Correcting words and making others
Deleting some words and moving on
Laughing and crying through different poems.

CH, 5th grade

Read about how the books came into being here.

Order the book (and read more poems) on the DPS Poetry wikispace.

Violet Nesdoly is hosting Poetry Friday today.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Son #2's voice pulls me from a sound sleep.

"Zay is on the phone. He needs to talk to you. It's an emergency."

I look at the clock. 1:30.  Emergency?  I imagine smashed cars, dismembered limbs, police blotters… My heart is pounding, but I try to sound calm. "Hi Zay, what's going on?"

My son, 900 miles away, is not so calm. "Why did it take you so long to answer the phone?  I left my computer at the airport."

I immediately picture Zay's Apple laptop sitting next to a chair on some concourse. Or, now, ten hours later, probably in some very far away city.

"I'm sorry," says Zay. "They made me take off my knee brace because of the metal. And I had to take off my jeans to do that. And they wanted me to hurry. And then I couldn't get my brace back on. And I just forgot to pick up my computer. "

I think of myself, going through the security lines at the airport. I'm not an every week traveler, don't have an airport security routine in my repetoire. Trying to juggle laptop, purse, carry on, etc. always leave me a little unnerved. I always think I am going to lose my driver's license or my ticket. Then Zay was trying to manage the whole knee brace ordeal too. I might have forgotten the computer too. I try to "choose kind."

"It's ok, Zay, they probably still have it in security. I will go to the airport in the morning."

I lay in bed trying to figure out this latest "mother emergency." Where I might find his lost computer at the airport. How I can pack the computer so that it will arrive in Arizona in one piece. How I will come up with the money to replace the computer if it's not there. My alarm goes off at 6, and before seven, I have braved the -2 degree temperature, scraped off the car, and am on my way to DIA.

First I ask a maroon-coated security guard. "Nothing is kept at in the security area," she says very authoritatively. "It's delivered to the Lost and Found office every twenty minutes.  You will need to go to that office, which is located in the far southwest corner of the main terminal,  about two blocks south of where we are currently standing. And the office doesn't open for 45 minutes, until 8."

I head that direction, hoping she is mistaken about the time. After wandering around for 15 minutes, in the administrative bowels of the airport, I finally find another maroon coat. "It is in this corner, but it's not on this floor," this one tells me. I go down the escalator and determine that the first guard was right about the time. The Lost and Found does open at 8. And of course I have not brought a book. I buy a cup of coffee, consider visiting a bookstore (you can never have too many books, right?), and sit down to wait the 30 minutes.

Finally, it is 8 o'clock. It takes the attendant about ten seconds to tell me that they do not have my son's year-old laptop. He suggests I go back to the security lines. Sometimes computers are left there. I walk the two blocks back down the airport, to the security area.

The woman at the entrance to security looks a little doubtful. "We don't usually keep that stuff," she says. "What you are going to need to do is get in this line." She points toward the first class boarding line, where approximately two-thirds of the people are decked in the Ravens' purple and black, evidently returning to Baltimore, after Saturday's game. "When you get to the front of the line, ask for a supervisor and see if they can help you."

Twenty minutes later, I reach the front of the line. The guard checking tickets radios someone in the back, and points to a spot out of the line, where I am allowed to wait. Ten minutes later, a supervisor appears.

"Yes, we have a computer," he says. "Can you tell me about the identifying features?"

"It's a Macbook Pro," I say confidently. "Silver, but it has a black breakproof case." 

I think that will be enough information, but evidently, they have several silver Macbooks in black breakproof cases in the backroom.  "Can you tell me about the identifying stickers?" asks the supervisor.

I struggle to remember what stickers are on my son's computers. All I can picture is his brother's computer, which often resides in the middle of our kitchen table. Then he asks about the screen saver. I don't know what that looks like either. He asks what name is used for log in. I suggest several options, but none of those are right.

"You have to tell me something," declares my friend the supervisor. "We don't just give away laptops."

"Let me call my son," I say, digging through my purse for my cell phone.

It takes three calls to wake Zay. "Why are you calling so early?" grumbles he who woke me at 1:30 this morning. I tell him I am at the airport. I need him to describe his computer. Finally, after a little more grumbling he describes the black and white stickers on the trackpad, and the red and black city scene screen save. I pass the information on to the supervisor and within a few minutes, another agent appears with the computer.

It is almost 9 by the time I reach my car, computer emergency solved. I still need to go to figure out how to pack the computer, take it to UPS, and get it mailed back to Arizona, not to mention handle the regular Sunday stuff- grocery store, laundry, and the usual bulging teacher bag.

Just another day in the life of a mom…

Monday, January 14, 2013


Sometimes, you just need to revisit an old friend. That's what I did this week. I went back and reread TOUCH BLUE by Cynthia Lord. I had read the book a couple of years ago, but lately, maybe because I'm about to become an "empty nester," I have been thinking a lot about my boys and the journey we have taken as a family. Lots of times, I think, people kind of "romanticize" the life of kids who have been in the foster care system. I loved the movie, THE BLIND SIDE, for example, but Michael Oher's experiences, at least as they are portrayed in that film, don't match my boys' reality in any way, shape, or form. Even though foster care might sometimes be the best alternative for kids, it's still incredibly hard, and leaves deep and long lasting scars, that aren't fully healed, even many years later.  Cynthia Lord captures that beautifully in TOUCH BLUE. Here are some of my favorite lines:

“Do you think Aaron’s mom misses him?”
“I expect so. It’s very hard to know you’ve hurt someone you love. But his mom had a lot of chances to make this right, and she didn’t do what she needed to do. She didn’t show up for meetings or to take her drug tests.  I guess the judge decided it was time to stop giving the chances to the parent, and start giving the chances to the kid.” pp. 52-53

People say it’s better to know the truth, but what if the ending’s a bad one? Is it still better to know? Or is it kinder to keep that string of hope dangling? To believe that maybe if you just wait long enough, everything could still end the way you want? p. 86
I notice something sparkle near my feet among the tangles of rockweed. I reach down a palm-sized circle of blue sea glass, just the bottom of a bottle. Once it was someone’s trash, but now the ocean has tumbled it all smooth and beautiful.  p. 2
Dad shifts the cooler in his hand. “This is going to take work, Tess. We need to earn his trust. We need to be stubborn.”
I tip my chin up to look at him. “I thought being stubborn was a bad thing.”
He smiles. “Not always. Stubborn can also mean, ‘I won’t give up on you.’”  Pp. 51-52

My mom would never miss seeing me in a concert. She’d write it on the calendar and be there in time to get a good seat. I imagine what it might be like for Aaron: standing up at the end as the audience applauds, but she’s not there. Or unwrapping his trumpet that Christmas morning and not being able to hold it up and show it to her.  Or seeing his birthday cake in front of him and she’s not telling him to make a wish. But it’s all a big white blank in my imagination, because I can’t even pretend what it would feel like to not have my mom at those times. 95

I also enjoyed two new picture books by one of my all-time, absolute favorite author/illustrators, Kadir Nelson. I'll be using these in a presentation on intermediate grade picture books in a couple of weeks.

And then my dear friend, Kyle, introduced me to  BLACK DOG by Levi Pinfold, which I also absolutely love.  A terrific book for enjoying, also for including in a mini-lesson on theme. And I love the illustrations, wish this one would win the Caldecott…

As far as professional reading, I'm still lugging around BOOK LOVE, which I read over break, and revisiting that on a pretty much daily basis. And the leadership team at school is reading LEVERAGE LEADERSHIP, so I'm working my way through that book.

This week's pile includes COLLATERAL by Ellen Hopkins. I picked it up thinking it was YA, but it's actually an adult novel in verse, about a young woman who falls in love with a soldier/poet. I'm only a few chapters in, but am loving it so far.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


I have a confession to make. I read a lot, but I don't think my reading comprehension is very good. Why, you ask? Well, because I can't remember books. Take Polly Horvath's EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE, for example. WAFFLE was a Newbery Honor book about ten years ago, and I'm pretty sure I read it. The reviews say WAFFLE is about an eleven-year-old girl named Primrose who lives in a small Canadian fishing village. Primrose's parents are believed drowned in a terrible storm at sea, but Primrose is absolutely sure they are still alive. While she waits for their return,  she lives with her Uncle Jack, but spends most of her time at the town restaurant, The Girl on a Red Swing, where absolutely everything, yes, even lasagna, is served on a waffle. School Library Journal said this about the book:
EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE is ultimately a folksy, Garrison Keillor-style take on small-town life, spiced with sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant anecdotes about the quirks and adventures of individual townspeople as seen through Primrose's wise eyes. It's a quiet, but very funny book.
 Recently, A YEAR IN COAL HARBOR, the sequel to everything on a waffle, was published. It's gotten some positive reviews, and some people even think it will be in the running for the Newbery. I found it at the library over vacation. ONE YEAR IN COAL HARBOR picks up on Primrose's life year after EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE ends. She's still living in Coal Harbor, but her parents have returned, just like she knew they would (I think they actually came back at the end of WAFFLE).

At the beginning of the book, Primrose is still spending lots of time with Miss Bowzer, helping out in the restaurant. She regularly visits Bert and Evie, an older couple who were her foster parents for a short while her parents were gone. Evie is also a cook, but her trademark ingredient is miniature marshmallows, sometimes even the colored ones. Primrose is determined that Miss Bowser and her Uncle Jack should get married, and she works hard at making that happen. And she is worried that she will never have a real best friend. Things change when Ked moves to town. Ked is Bert and Evie's foster son, and soon becomes Primrose's best friend. Primrose enlists his help in writing a cookbook, and protesting the logging of a nearby mountain.

If School Library Journal reviewed  ONE YEAR IN COAL HARBOR, I think they could say lots of the same things as they did about EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE. Again, it has a folksy, Garrison Keillor-ish feel about life in a small town. There are lots of quirky characters. It's funny (although I wonder if kids will sometimes miss the humor). There's a kid friendly recipe at the end of each chapter. Miniature marshmallows figure prominently.

Not sure I think this will win the Newbery, but it's a great example of character development. And a fun read.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


DEAR BLUE SKY, by Mary Sullivan

Cassie's world is falling apart.
Her beloved older brother and running partner, Sef, 
has enlisted in the Army, and is headed to Iraq.
Her mother is drinking.  A lot. 
Her mother and father are fighting about Iraq.
Her older sister, Van, is dating a boy no one else likes.
Her little brother, Jack, who has Down's syndrome, has stopped talking.
Her best friend, Sonia, has stopped talking to Cassie.
Cassie's world is falling apart.

In her seventh grade social studies class, Cassie is assigned to connect with someone from another country. She decides to connect with someone from Iraq. On the internet, she meets Blue Sky, a thirteen-year-old girl from Baghdad. Blue Sky's life has been torn apart by the war- her home has been destroyed, she can no longer attend school, and a neighbor is blown apart right in front of her eyes. Blue Sky and her family want the Americans to go home, so that Iraqi people can begin to rebuild their lives. Through Blue Sky, Cassie discovers that war is much more complicated than it seems.

I loved this book. Mary Sullivan does a terrific job capturing how war impacted so many different people- Cassie, her siblings, and her mom and dad. Then she uses blog entries and email to capture Blue Sky's reality. This one is sure to bring up lots of conversations about the realities of war.  

WARNING: Have kleenex ready before you pick up this book!

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Two glorious new picture books by one of my favorite, favorite, favorite author illustrators.

I Have a Dream contains a CD of Marin Luther King's original speech. Perfect for sharing with kids next week, in preparation for Martin Luther King Day.

Nelson Mandela traces the world changing peace warrior's life from childhood through his long political career. Another must have…

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I stand in the luggage area, waiting anxiously. It has been three months since I have seen Son #1. Three long months. The airport is crowded. Somehow, I have managed, in all of the excitement to forget my phone. I wonder if we will ever connect.

Suddenly, I hear that voice.

"Come on, let's go."

I hardly recognize the young man standing in front of me. There are still those gorgeous brown eyes. That smile with the dimple and the gap in the middle. But now, the few scraggly hairs on the chin have become a goatee. And the boy-man I sent away is a man. Tall. Thin. Handsome. 

I cannot help myself. Tears well up. It has been way, way, way too long.

He will be staying almost three weeks. I expect that he will have a suitcase. But he brings only a backpack.

"I left a lot at home," he says.

One thing he did bring was his plaque.

A one foot by two foot wood plaque with  a picture of the football team on the top, and a smaller, maybe 5" X 7" individual picture in the corner.

"Can we hang this up?" he says, dragging it out of his backpack that night.

"Of course," I say.

I am a little surprised, however, when I get up the next morning to find the plaque hanging over the fireplace in living room.

I want, so much for my boys to become readers. They are not. I try to talk myself out of spending money on books they won't read. Even so, I find myself in the book section at Target the day before Christmas. I want to choose books for my boys.

Son #2 has just seen THE HOBBIT, so I buy that book for him. I hesitate for a minute for Son #1, then decide on a crime/thriller. I doubt that he will read it, but I just cannot quit trying.

We get in the car to go to the mall.

"What is this, anyway?" he says, holding up the CD audiobook of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.
I am not a big audiobook reader, but somehow I reserved this one instead of the hard copy. I have been listening to it as I drive around Denver this week.

"It's a book I'm listening to. Some people think it will win the Newbery."

"What's it about?"

I tell him that I don't really know yet. That so far there is a witch. And a little girl who is the only surviving of five children. That she invites a puppeeter and his two assistants to her birthday party. And that I am not far enough to know how all of those pieces fit together.

I am surprised that my son is interested. Elizabethan fantasy just doesn't seem like his genre.

"I was listening to it yesterday when I went to PT," says son #1.

Again I am more than a little surprised.


We go to the mall to buy new glasses. The glasses will take an hour, so we wander the mall. We buy a pair of tennis shoes, two pair of jeans. Still half an hour. We end up in the Apple store looking at phone covers. I show my son a cover that looks like an old book. I am joking. Thinking he will not  be interested.

"I want it," he says.

I try to keep the surprise out of my voice. "You do?" I say, in what I hope is a reasonably even tone. I tell him that if he wants a new phone cover, he needs to spend his own money. I think this will be enough to deter him.

The next night, we are watching a football game on television. It is about 8:30. "I wanna go to the mall," he declares.

"For what?" I ask.

"Cuz I wanna buy that phone cover."

Again I work hard to keep the surprise out of my voice. "I'm not sure you can make it before they close. Maybe you can go tomorrow. It's close to the dentist."

And once again, I am surprised the next day when he asks if we can swing by the Apple store on the way home from the dentist. A book cover.

There have been so many surprises this vacation…

 He needs the car for physical therapy. So he has been getting up at six several mornings each week. Without being asked. Without me having to bang on the door or wake him two or three times. Without complaining. Then coming back to get me. At the time I ask. Without complaining.

Unloading the dishwasher. Without being asked.

Stepping in when his brother is complaining about the enchiladas I have made for dinner. "K, stop!" he declares firmly. "Someday you are going to be at college and you are going to wish your mom to make you a pan of enchiladas for dinner!"

Apologizing for the math class he dropped this fall. "I'll make it up this spring," he says. "I just couldn't catch up after the surgery. And I didn't want to get an F."

It hasn't all been perfect. Last night there was a huge stack of dirty dishes in the sink when I got home from work. And the gas tank was empty, despite the fact that I had given him money to fill the car yesterday morning. Then this morning I woke at 3:14 to the TV blaring, because no one had turned it off when they went to bed last night.  And there are still endless conversations about good choices with girls, and drugs, and God.

Even so, I'm loving watching my man child grow up.

And dreading Saturday, when I have to take him back to the airport.

Monday, January 7, 2013


Several weeks ago, I stumbled across THE MARBLE QUEEN somewhere in kidlitosphere. The book was endorsed by Barbara O'Connor, so right there, that was a good sign for me. I put my name in a book give away, and I WON! January 1, 2013, I won something! Seems like it ought to be a good omen to win a book the first day of the new year. And when the book came, I discovered something even way cooler! Stephanie J. Blake is a COLORADO author. She lives in Castle Rock, which is about 30 minutes south of me! We're almost neighbors!

THE MARBLE QUEEN, set in 1959,  is Blake's first novel. The main character,  Freedom Jane McKenzie, is the best mibster (marble player) in her grade/neighborhood, and wants to enter the Autumn Jubilee Marble Contest, and win the $100 first prize, but her mama,  Mrs. Wilhelmina Ann McKenzie, says that Freedom Jane is too old to be playing marbles with the boys. Freedom isn't ready to give up her dream. On top of that, Daniel, who has been her best friend for years, doesn't want to play with her any more, because she is a girl. And then her daddy, Homer Higginbotham McKenzie, is drinking way too much beer, which makes her mom angry.  

This book will, of course, raise the hackles of all your ten year old feminists. I suspect there will also be more than a few discussions about the friendship between Freedom and Daniel. How can someone who has been a friend forever all of a sudden turn his back on his best friend?  I also can think of a number of kids whose family members struggle with alcoholism or other kinds of addiction. I know I will hand this book to them, just to say, "Other kids have been there too."

When I finished reading the book, I had a great idea. Since we are practically neighbors, I thought it would be fun to host a little author party, right here at Carol W's Corner.  I asked Stephanie if she would be open to answering a few questions, and she graciously agreed. Please join me, then, in welcoming Stephanie J. Blake to my blog. 

Talk about your process. How did this book come to be? How did it get published?
The idea for the story came to me one Sunday while I was reading the paper. I was fascinated by an article about a group of old men who were reminiscing about their time as mibsters when they were children in the 1940’s and 50’s. Back then, marble competitions were sponsored by newspapers and children could win scholarships and cash prizes for becoming The Marble King. There weren’t many girls playing back then. I did some research and the story grew from there. It took about two years to write it.

 All told, it took me six years to get The Marble Queen published. I had about 13 rejections and have saved each and every one. The manuscript actually sat in the slush at Marshall Cavendish for almost a year before my editor emailed in April 2010 to ask if it was still available. I did a revision pre-sale and got the offer on June 10, 2010. The book came out to great reviews December 18, 2012.

How do you know so much about marbles? Were you a marble player?
I was not a mibster growing up. I am self-taught and have a pretty good spin shot! I have been collecting marbles for a few years. I have some special antique marbles that were found in thrift stores.

Who is Freedom? Is she based on anyone you know?
Freedom Jane was a name I’d picked out if I ever had a girl. Alas, my husband and I have three boys. Freedom is probably a lot like I was at ten—very headstrong, curious, smart, and a total tomboy.

How did you choose 1959 as the setting for the book?
The late 50’s are a magical time to me. I’d love to go back in time and wear bobby socks and poodle skirts. I set the story in 1959 because I wanted my characters to have innocence all around them. I didn’t want segregation issues or war time to complicate the story. I really wanted to explore early feminism and alcoholism.

Are there any instances in the book that are autobiographical, e.g. the fight on the first day of school, or dropping the collection plate, or being thunked on the head?
My mother used to wear a thimble on her finger when we acted up in church! I loved to skate when I was a kid, and I always coveted white leather skates with pink pompoms on the laces, but I never did get a pair. I fed my brother a worm once, and got into some awful trouble over that. My mom used to make zucchini slaw, and I just hated it.

 Friendships between girls and boys can get pretty hard around Freedom's age. Has this come up in your own life? How did you decide to make Freedom's best friend a boy?
As a girl, my best friends were usually boys. I had callouses from swinging on the monkey bars and I played sports. I didn’t care much for Barbie. My hair was always a mess. I was also close with my little brother, and we spent a lot of time playing together outside or on the playground across the street from our house. We moved around a lot, and I just didn’t identify with other little girls and the games they played.

So many kids I know struggle with family members who are alcoholics or drug users. I love that you showed Freedom's relationship with her father in the complexity that usually exists. Freedom clearly loves her dad, and he's not a bad guy at all. Talk a little about your thinking regarding that part of the book…
Freedom’s dad, Homer, is a complex character. He has these dreams and aspirations but can’t get out of his own way. Drinking is his escape. I wanted to be very careful and not make Homer a bad person when he drinks. Unfortunately, he is a weak man. Mama can’t stand weakness in anyone. 

Freedom has picked up on that. It’s the breaking of Mama’s rules that worries Freedom more than the actual alcohol use. She has unconditional love for Homer, even though he continues to fall short and disappoint Freedom. My editor and I were more worried about how Mama was portrayed. In early revisions, I had to soften Mama up to make her more likeable.

 I know a little about you from the cover, and from your website. I know that you live in Colorado, and have three sons, and love to bake. Do you write full time? If not, what do you do for your “day job?” When and where do you find time to write?
I am a full-time mom and part-time writer. While I have a dedicated office area on the main floor of our home, I struggle with writing. Sometimes I write for days, but sometimes months go by and I don’t write a thing. In the summer, I love to go fishing. I’d rather go fishing than write any day of the week.

What is next on the agenda? Do you have another book in the works?
I am working on a companion novel to The Marble Queen. It's set in April of 1971 and will be Barbara Jean's story. Freedom will be college-aged and Higgie will be a difficult teen. Some themes will be alcoholism, Vietnam, first crushes, and divorce.

Stephanie may be hosting an author signing in the near future at one of our local bookstores. If so, you know I will be sitting in the front row!

Friday, January 4, 2013


I love poetry. And  books. And my kids. And teaching. And lots of other things too.

One of the things I love most is dogs. Last summer, right after the shooting in Aurora, Cindy Lord posted a link on Facebook. Outside Washington, D.C, it seemed, there in an organization called the Warrior Canine Connection. They raise golden retrievers and labs. The dogs are trained by veterans with Traumatic Brain Injuries, and eventually, they become service dogs for other veterans.

Last summer, the Warrior Canine Connection had a litter of six Golden Retriever puppies. They allowed another organization,, to put cameras in their puppy nursery. And you could watch the puppies 24/7. And that's pretty much what I did, those first few awful days. And then I kind of got addicted and spent a lot of the rest of the summer watching them grow.

Levi, Abby, Penny, Ruby, Lucy, and Grace have moved on. But last week, a new litter was born. And today, the camera went live again, and you can watch five roly poly yellow lab babies with barrel tummies and exclamation point tails. You need to go here for a soul break!

It seems only right, then, to have a dog poem in their honor. And so I turn, again, to Mary Oliver, who has a lovely poem about her dog, Percy.

"The sweetness of dogs (fifteen) "

…I thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! How rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up into
my face. As though I were
his perfect moon.” 

Mary Oliver 

Read the rest of the poem here.

And after you are done puppy watching (which I should warn you is totally addicting and absolutely ruins any possibility of getting anything productive done all day!) you can go over and check out the rest of the Poetry Friday posts with first-time host, Matt, at Radio, Rhythm, and Rhyme

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


 So it's January 1, 2013
and many of my friends in the blogosphere
are choosing 
the "one little word"
that will be a life-theme 
for this year.

was a hard year
A year when I doubted myself
as a teacher
a mom
a friend
a human being
again and again and again.
 And a year when I doubted my God
again and again and again.

And now I am trying to choose a word for 2013.

Just one word.
Maybe my word should be Trust?
I want to trust that last year was part of a bigger plan
That all things will work for good.
And that this year will be better.
Maybe trust would be a good word.

Maybe my word should be Hope?
2012 was a hard year for our family
A lot of dreams had to die.
And I am having a hard time believing
that we will regain our footing
that my boys will find their way
grow into the men that God
intends them to be.
Maybe hope would be a good word. 

Maybe my word should be Open. 
The boys are leaving…
I want to be open
To whatever might come.
 As hard as this year has been
I am not sure
that I am ready to be done
having kids at home.
And I wonder
is there another kid out there
in the foster care system
That needs me
as much as I need them.
Maybe open would be a good word.

Maybe my word should be explore.  
This year, I want to explore
a new hobby--
some kind of art-
clay, or collage, or knitting, or watercolor.
I want to explore new volunteer work--
maybe with a agency
that trains service dogs,
or rescues Golden Retrievers or labs.
I want to explore a new kind of physical activity-
maybe go back to swimming, or try water aerobics.
Maybe explore would be a good word. 

So, while I know
that this is January 1st
and I should be ready
to choose a word
right now I can't.

For right now, my word is