Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New books and a blog you should look at.

Mo Willems keeps a blog that I read from time to time. Being a writer and illustrator, he is friends with lots of other writers and illustrators and occasionally he has them over for dinner. He calls these gatherings "doodle dinners" because he uses butcher paper on his table instead of a table cloth. His friends and family get together and doodle on the table before, during, and after dinner and then he takes a picture of the doodles and puts them on his blog. I think this is such a fantastic idea, even if it's just your own little family. What a great way to enhance the family dinner! Also, in his dining room, he has painted the walls with chalk board paint so quite often they doodle on the walls as well. I wish I'd thought of that when my kids were little, since they were drawing on the walls anyway!

So that's all, I just wanted to share that with you and also, here are the Junior Library Guild books that will be coming in December, during Book Fair no doubt! In any case, there will be lots of new books in the library in January!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Exquisite Corpse

Mr. Richards loves the Library of Congress website. He is fascinated by their digital collection of old photographs, phonograph recordings, and early films. And I mean really old, items from the dawn of their respective technologies. It is truly fascinating and I recommend you spend some time wandering around there. One day he came across The Exquisite Corpse Adventure and discovered it was also a podcast that could be downloaded from iTunes, and because we both love podcasts, he told me about it. I spent today listening to it.

The Exquisite Corpse is a progressive story. You know, like that old party game where someone writes the beginning of a story and folds the paper over to cover it and hands it to the next person who writes the next bit, folds the paper over and passes it on to the next person, etc, until the page is full and you have a hilariously disjointed story to read aloud. I used to love to play this game (still do, in fact) but had a very hard time getting people to play it with me. Anyway, this time the game is played with a great handful of favorite children's authors and illustrators. Such recognizable names as Jon Scieszka -Stinky Cheese Man, Time Warp Trio, Katherine Paterson - The Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Kate DiCamillo - Tale of Despereaux, Lemony Snicket - A Series of Unfortunate Events, Jack Gantos - Joey Pigza Loses Control, Megan MacDonald - Judy Moody to name just a few.

The story is available at as an illustrated ebook or as downloadable audio files. The project was kicked off at the 2009 National Book Festival and a new chapter was released every two weeks for an entire year. The last chapter was put up September 29, 2010. Jon Sciezska, who at the time was the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, wrote the first chapter of the story, setting up the other authors for a crazy ride of a story which would have to include such things as werewolves and mad scientists, a roller skating baby, creatures from another planet, a monkey disguised as a pirate, a real ninja, two meatballs and a bad egg, plus a whole lot more. And each subsequent writer somehow worked all of these things in to the story. The only other requirement was that the authors had to use references to children's literature in their stories. In the final chapter, it was all wrapped up by this year's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Katherine Paterson.

This was really fun to listen to. Each chapter was action packed and it was also a great way to compare the writing styles of each author. Some author's have very distinctive writing styles, like Lemony Snicket or Gregory Maguire and you could probably recognize them right away. And some author's I enjoyed much more than others. Anyway, I highly recommend this very entertaining adventure and it's free so you have nothing to lose.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New York Times follow up and current obsessions.

In the last few days, I've received a lot of positive feedback on my post 'In defense of the picture book,' for which I'm very pleased. I meant everything I said in the post, however, after going back to the Times article and reading some of the comments, I felt I needed to bring some new information to the discussion. I used a quote from the article and criticized it in my post. It turns out that the woman attributed with that quote believes she was misquoted and that what she had said was taken out of context. You can read her response here.

I had said in my previous post that I was 'horrified' by the quote in question, and I remain horrified, but not at the woman who supposedly said this, rather at the Times for putting this forth as the prevailing attitude among parents and the likely reason for the decline in sales of picture books. And shame on me for not getting both sides of the story before making comments of my own. Aside from that, I stand by my post and I do feel strongly about letting kids enjoy all kinds of reading materials and allowing them to self-select. The lesson learned is to not take the news at face value. It's important to dig deeper, think critically, and make sure you have all the information before you put in your $.02.

On to the fun stuff. The first installment of the final Harry Potter movie will be out on November 19. I'm very excited to see the movie. I'm a big Harry Potter fan, of both the books and the movies, although I wasn't into it early enough to see Jo Rowling at Hicklebee's back in the day. But the fun thing about it was watching my daughter grow up with Harry. She began reading the books in fourth grade. I had already read the first one and couldn't get her interested in it. Then one day, she came home from school and asked for the book because one of her classmates had done an oral book report on it and it intrigued her. She was instantly hooked. At this time, the first two books were out so she gobbled up the second one as soon as she finished the first. Then we waited for each successive book release. And as she got older, I thought she would leave Harry behind as part of her childhood, along with Barbie dolls and Pokemon. But as she got older, so did Harry and his story matured along with him and she didn't have to give him up. Instead, she loved him all the more. And so did I. She preferred to read the books to herself so we would have to keep two bookmarks in the book and we would race each other through the books and ask each other "have you gotten to that part yet?" She went to a couple midnight book releases with her friend, though she wouldn't wear a costume. When the last couple movies came out, we went to the midnight showings on the first day of release. When the last book came out in 2007, I read the book in a day and a half. It made me cry. My daughter didn't start it right away. She put it off. And waited. Until more than a year later. I asked her why she wasn't reading the book, she looked wistful and said she didn't want to say goodbye. She wasn't ready to let Harry go. But finally, she did read it. And now all we have left is the last movie in two parts.

She's away at college now so we won't get to see the movie together on opening day. She'll go with her friends, I'll go with mine. I suspect we'll see it again when she's home for Thanksgiving. Also, I'm knitting her a Quidditch sweater. Here's how it looks so far:

True confession: I started this post two days ago. About the same time I started listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on audio book. I couldn't put it down long enough to finish this post, until now. I just finished listening to it. I can't wait to see it on screen. Also, I'm much further along with the sweater.

In other book news, I'm currently reading a collection of short stories called Zombies Vs. Unicorns. I'm only three stories in and this post is already long enough so I'll tell you about ZVU next time.

Also, I'm thinking of doing a Nobody Owens/Harry Potter Venn diagram.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

In defense of the picture book.

Today I want to talk about picture books. Some of you may have heard about or read this article in the New York Times about the decline in sales of the picture book, resulting in fewer picture books being published. The article suggests that parents are pushing their children to read chapter books at ever younger ages. I have to say that I am horrified by the following quote:
“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.
The 'he' she is referring to is 6 and 1/2 years old. My heart goes out to this kid. I don't blame him for trying to go back to picture books, I wouldn't want to work to read either. Reading shouldn't be work, reading should be joyful. The joy comes from finding something special on the book shelf that speaks to you in some way. The joy comes from learning a new word as if it were some secret that no one else knows. The joy is pouring over the illustrations to make sure the story is complete and that you've seen every detail.
As was also pointed out in the article, chapter books do not equate to literature. Have you tried reading a Magic Tree House book? Or an Animal Ark book? Or a Rainbow Fairy book? I'm not saying these books are bad, they have their place and the kids love them but they are formulaic, repetitive and the vocabulary is basic and controlled. For me, these multi-volume series books for the first or second grade emergent chapter book readers are like Twinkies; I liked them as a kid but as an adult I've lost my taste for them. I'm not saying we should take away their Twinkies, but I am saying they should also try the creme brulee.

There are many reasons why picture books are good for all ages. The number one reason is that they can be shared. Reading with your children is still the best way to get your kids to read and enjoy reading. It's also a great way to spend some time with your kids! Read them something that you like and then read something that they like and you'll learn about each other. Talk about your favorite authors and illustrators and your enthusiasm will be infectious!

Now I know some people are thinking "But picture books are too easy, I want my child to improve her vocabulary!" You should know that many, many picture books are written at a third grade reading level or above and the language is usually much more complex than in the run of the mill beginner chapter books and the pictures help them decode those words. Real life example: You may have read previously in this very blog that I read the book 13 Words by Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman to first through third grade classes over the course of a week. First graders were able to tell me that 'despondent' means 'sad' because they could see it in the illustration. They also learned that 'scarlet' is a shade of red, that a haberdashery is a hat shop, and that a mezzo-soprano is an opera singer and they were able to work it out for themselves by looking at the pictures, Maira Kalman's wonderful child-like paintings.

But the words in picture books are also used to paint a picture. Here is an example from Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls:
"In the middle of the night, when every thing was still, she heard clawing and gnawing, nibbling and squabbling. She could hear the wolves in the walls plotting their wolfish plots, hatching their wolfish schemes."
Those two sentences are loaded with wolfish atmosphere, don't you think? There are many wonderful picture books that are written in poetic language that is not found in controlled vocabulary beginner chapter books.

My favorite picture books are the funny ones. And if you think being funny is easy or that it doesn't take much brain power to get a joke, think again. Humor, beyond underpants, requires sophistication. Understanding the humor of fractured fairytales requires previous knowledge of the fairytales. Getting puns and wordplay requires a firm grasp of language. In a very funny book called Bobby Bramble Loses His Brain by Dave Keane, a very active boy lands on his head one day, it cracks open and his brain runs away. His mother calls the police to report the brain missing:
"Oh, I imagine it's gray and about seven inches tall. But apparently my son has a very quick mind, because nobody got a good look at it!"
In this quote, we need to know that 'quick mind' refers to being smart but here it is used in the literal sense because his brain is on the run. The pictures that accompany the text add to the hilarity.

Finally, let's look at the pictures themselves. Many people lament the fact that art is not being taught in some schools. Picture books are illustrated by artists. Children can be exposed to a wide variety of artistic styles through picture books, from the simplistic doodles of Mo Willems to the complex watercolors of Jerry Pinkney to the photorealistic drawing of Chris Van Allsburg. How will children learn to appreciate art if we discount and devalue all the art that is found in books published for children?

So, having said all that, the point is that kids need variety in their reading. Controlled vocabulary chapter books are great reading practice for kids but not to the exclusion of other materials. It's just as important for kids to read picture books, magazines, short stories, poetry, non-fiction and so on to give them a well rounded and joyful reading experience.

Here is my unsolicited advice for the day. Slow down. Let kids be kids. Let them choose their own reading material. Let them share it with you. And come to the library and let me show you some fantastic picture books. If you can't make it to the library, check out my favorites in the catalog, under 'staff picks.'

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

House on the Rock, Day 2: And then what happened?

Saturday was a big day! My friend and I were very focused on winning a ride on the World's Largest Carousel That No One Is Supposed to Ride. There three ways a person could win a ride: you could win by raffle, by winning the costume contest, or by winning the scavenger hunt. We bought raffle tickets the night before, we had costumes but felt the competition might be pretty stiff, so to up our chances, we decided to complete the scavenger hunt. They had given us the clues the day before so while were waiting for the reading to begin, we worked out almost all of the clues. When we got up Saturday morning, we were ready! Most of the clues led us to locations in Spring Green and all we had to do was collect a stamp from each location. We had to go to three other nearby towns to complete our card.
The first town we went to was Gotham where we had to go to the Bat Cave to collect a stamp. We didn't know what to expect but the bat cave turned out to be a lounge with a Batman theme. And Gotham in this part of the world is pronounced Goh-them rather than Gah-tham. Here is a picture of me in front of the Bat Cave.
Next, we went to the town of Muscoda, pronounced Musk-uh-day to get a stamp from Culver's. Finally, to the Carousel lounge in Richland, pronounced Richland, for our last stamp. We finished in two hours. We pit stopped at our hotel room, added some finishing touches to my friend's costume, packed up our costumes and headed back up to the rock to tour the house.

"Where's the rock?" asked Shadow.
"Under the house," said Wednesday.
"Where's the house?"
Wednesday put his finger to his lips, and they walked forward. Farther in, a player piano was playing something that was intended to be Ravel's Bolero.

The place seemed to be a geometrically reconfigured 1960's bachelor pad, with open stone work, pile carpeting, and magnificently ugly mushroom-shaped stained-glass lampshades. Up a winding staircase was another room filled with knickknacks.
"They say this was built by Frank Lloyd Wright's evil twin," said Wednesday. "Frank Lloyd Wrong." - American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.

Here is me at the end of the Infinity Room. It's a long pointy room that juts out over the gentle hills and valleys around the house. That thing that looks like a platform that I'm standing in front of is actually a window. The wind was blowing pretty good on this day which made the whole room creak a little bit. Which was a little spooky. After this room, we entered the Attraction.

The Attraction is like nothing you've ever seen in your entire life. It is a collection of antiques, cheap fakes, and oddities that have really no common thread. There are vast collections of model ships and airplanes, dollhouses, firearms, armor, and things for which I don't know the names.

One of the most amazing and head scratching features is the Whale Room. Here is a picture of a diorama of a giant squid and a whale locked in mortal combat. If you look close, you can see a little row boat inside the whale's mouth. This display was probably about 6 feet long and 3 feet high. This alone was pretty impressive. And then you turn the corner. And slowly, you realize that the enormous thing you are looking at, the ginormity that is filling the room, was the diorama that you were just looking at. The diorama was the miniature and the actual thing is 3 stories high!
With my little point and shoot camera, it was impossible to get a decent picture between the poor lighting and the hugeness of it. There was a ramp to walk up that spiraled around the structure and in the walls were more displays of stuff. The picture of the whale's mouth was taken from the third story and you can just see in the lower left corner of the picture a person standing on the second floor to give you an idea of the scale of the thing. But I really can't tell you what the point of it is. Because I don't know.

As you are working your way around the whale room, there are other little rooms that break off on each floor, I guess so you can get a break from the overwhelmingness of the big whale. This is where you will see displays of Christmas decorations, Santa Claus mugs, and a Christmas town constructed of plastic canvas and craft yarn. ???

Throughout the house and attraction are rooms that contain mechanical bands and orchestras, ranging from just a player piano to entire orchestras peopled with mannequins. Neil Gaiman describes the cacophony that emanates from these rooms as 'discordant.' Here is a definition of 'discordant:' 2 discordant sounds: inharmonious, tuneless, off-key, dissonant, harsh,jarring, grating, jangling, jangly, strident, shrill, screeching,screechy, cacophonous; sharp, flat.
And here is an illustration:

This is the Mikado room. I recorded the sound for these separately but the files were corrupted and they didn't make it. The song that plays in the Mikado room is Danse Macabre. Beautiful!
This is another room full of mechanical instruments, including jugs and glass jars. There were many more of these musical rooms and they were all coin operated. To hear them play, you had to put two tokens into a machine to start them up. We walked through room after room of these discordant mechanical bands, some with animatronic characters and all in terrible lighting until we were on sensory overload.
And then we entered the Carousel Room. I wish someone could have filmed me as I entered that room for the first time. I was like a child. Like one of those kids from the old Willy Wonka movie walking into a room and looking all around with my mouth agape and eyes wide open, not knowing what to look at first. The Carousel was spinning and the music was playing, not as discordantly as the previous rooms but nearly, and there are 20,000 lights on the thing and no one is riding it. The creatures on the Carousel are the most bizarre collection of myth-colliding characters you could imagine. Most of them are part horse and part something else but there are no horse heads on any of these creatures.

The next thing you must do is look up. Because there is - what would you call it, a flock? of angels hanging from the ceiling. But they are just department store mannequins with wings slapped on their backs! It's just so weird and so wonderful! But it's not the end of the tour, more wonders await! To leave the Carousel room, you must walk through the gaping maw of some kind of monkey monster and that leads you to the organ room. The organ room is full of giant pipe organs with a twisty elevated path that winds around through the room. There are also 3 foot high beer steins in this room.
And also this giant sized chandelier that is made up of smaller chandeliers, the same ones that illuminate the Carousel.
Finally at the end of the organ room is this mechanical orchestra of static mannequins and the pianist has no legs. But there was still more to see. The doll houses and the armor and the lovingly displayed fake crown jewels. And the miniature circus, and the miniature of the miniature circus. It just went on and on until finally I reached my absolute threshold of sensory overload and I could not take it anymore. I stopped taking pictures and made a beeline for the exit. The air outside was crisp and refreshing so we bought some coffee in the gift shop and sat outside for a while to calm down.
After our break, we changed into our costumes and enjoyed the costume party. Sadly, we did not win a ride on the carousel but we still had a grand time. We were allowed to roam the house and the attraction in our costumes and that made it truly surreal! There were some really amazing costumes at this party.

Then we stumbled into the Carousel room again and saw Neil Gaiman riding the Carousel That No One Is Allowed to Ride. I just managed to get a picture before the end of his ride and then my camera battery died.
This picture came from my friend's camera. My friend is dressed as a cuddly kraken and I'm the raven Munin. And yes, that is Mr. Neil Gaiman between us. My daughter says I look like a teenage girl meeting Hannah Montana in this picture. That's pretty much how I felt. Like a giddy little school girl. I almost chickened out and missed the opportunity but my friend reminded me that we would have no regrets on this trip, and she was right and I thank her for it. I'm also grateful to Mr. Gaiman's assistant Lorraine who made sure we weren't holding our drink cups in the picture. Once we got this picture, the day caught up to us. We were totally exhausted and totally happy so we went back to our motel room and collapsed. The whole weekend was such a terrific adventure, I will never forget it!

Monday, November 1, 2010

The House on the Rock, day 1, in which I answer the question "Where was Mrs. Richards on Friday?"

Some of you may have noticed that I wasn't at school on Friday. Well, I had a personal necessity. I had to go to Wisconsin and get a copy of The Graveyard Book signed by the author, Neil Gaiman and bring it back to the library. While I was there, I visited the House on the Rock and went to a costume part there. But here is what happened on Friday:
I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin and picked up a friend who traveled from Toronto and together we drove to Spring Green, Wisconsin, population 1444. After we checked in to our hotel, we popped in to the Rock and Roll Drive in for a bite to eat. Inside the restaurant was this weird hot dog guy who looked a little to eager to be eaten. And wearing a sombrero. He was pretty convincing though, because my friend indeed had a hot dog for dinner. I had a hamburger and we both had some delicious root beer in glasses so frosty that the foam from the root beer that dripped down the sides froze to the glass. Next we drove up to the crown jewel of roadside attractions The House on the Rock. The House on the Rock plays a key role in an important scene in the book American Gods, by Neil Gaiman which is why Mr. Gaiman was there signing books. The whole weekend was a celebration of the book and the role that the house plays in it. So we checked in for the event and found out that our assigned book signing time would be after the evening's reading. So unfortunately, the book I was going to have him sign was still back at the hotel. Fortunately, they were giving out copies of The Graveyard Book (newly out in paperback) so I had that for him to sign. Also for sale were presigned copies of his other books so I bought a signed copy of Odd and the Frost Giants to keep for myself.

The reading was fantastic! He read part of the chapter in the book that takes place at the House on the Rock. There were several hundred people under the tent listening to him read and you could have heard a pin drop during his pauses. My friend and I had lined up early so we were able to get a seat in the third row in front of the stage. I was in heaven! After he read from American Gods he was interviewed by Steve Paulson of Wisconsin Public Radio. He had a lot of interesting things to say! I think they were recording it so as soon as it's available online, I will put up a link. Then there were some questions that were submitted earlier by fans and after that, he read two more short ghost stories which were great!

When the reading was over, it was time for the signing. My friend and I stood in line for two hours to get our books signed. It was a long wait but we talked to people in line around us so it wasn't so bad. When I finally got to the table I asked Mr. Gaiman to sign my book for Marshall Lane School and he did and doodled a little gravestone. He looked pretty tired when I got to the table but he kept signing books for another hour! He is very good to his fans. We were pretty tired by this time as well so we went back to our room and went to bed. It was a pretty great day but the next day was even better! I'll tell you about that tomorrow! In the mean time, go to to listen to (and watch) Neil Gaiman read The Graveyard Book for free!