Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin




Friday, April 29, 2016

A Parade Of Poetry

It's hard to believe the 20th anniversary celebration of National Poetry Month has nearly come to a close.  It's been twenty-nine days of showcasing poetry, reading and writing poems, creating spine poetry thanks to promoter teacher librarian Travis Jonker, blogger at 100 Scope Notes, and the true-blue fun of Poem in Your Pocket Day.  Although any day of the year is a great day for poetry, this month's focus wins more readers and writers to this literary form.

It's a time to direct attention to beloved favorite poems, classic collections and spotlight wonderful new titles. On March 8, 2016 three books were released.  The first of these, Wet Cement: A Mix Of Concrete Poems (Roaring Brook Press) is written by Bob Raczka.

In the introduction Raczka explains concrete poetry to readers with an emphasis on using words to literally paint a picture on a page.  The words in a concrete poem form the item being described in the poem.  In this collection he takes it further by using the letters in the poem's title to depict that word.

Twenty-one poems, shown in black on white and white on black, help us to soar if only for twelve seconds, play games, search the night skies and peer into our closets. We pause at the baseball diamond, run after tiny creatures of the night and marvel at the miracle of our planet in the cosmos.  We enjoy the best of two seasons, gasp at a summer storm's display and let a possession sail the air waves.

Bob Raczka asks us to vary our pattern of reading.  We find ourselves not only reading left to right but in a circle, bottom to top, connecting words as if in a puzzle, around curves, holding the pages in front of a mirror, right to left and sideways and following a maze.  The poems' titles, as well as the poem itself, are placed to coordinate a complete image.  Here is a sample poem with a title.




For younger readers and those young at heart Guess Who, Haiku (Abrams Appleseed) with words by Deanna Caswell and pictures by Bob Shea is a lively look at the ancient Japanese poetic technique. Using the five syllables, seven syllables and five syllables format for three lines of poetry, readers are invited to guess the animal being described.  Ten poems playfully portray creatures of all sizes.

Here's a haiku just for you!

new day on the farm
muffled mooing announces
a fresh pail of milk

Can you guess who from this haiku?

With a page turn we discover the answer in two words.  For the next poem the previous animal sends out the request for us to use our thinking skills.  This pattern continues until the final poem.

With this repetitive sequence Deanna Caswell supplies a pleasing, beckoning rhythm.  In an author's note at the back she defines a portion of the word haiku as an explanation for her particular poems.  She cheerfully requests readers to try reading the lines of the poems with one of the lines removed, asking us how or if this will change the results.


Using a palette of pastel colors with bright accents, Bob Shea's images charmingly enhance this gathering of haiku fun. Portions of some of the animals appear on the front book case.  On the opening and closing endpapers small circular hues feature black drawings of nine of the animals in a repeating design.

The text for each haiku poem is displayed in a different colored font on white with a pictorial clue pictured below.  With a page turn Shea has placed the animal on a vivid canvas usually including something from the clues in this illustration.  You can't help but smile at these pictures.



In their third collaboration (Step Gently Out and Sweep Up the Sun) poet Helen Frost and photographer, painter and illustrator Rick Lieder explore another marvelous aspect of our natural world. Among a Thousand Fireflies (Candlewick Press) takes us to an evening when two beetles seek to find each other.  The combination of these two artists' talents creates a breathtaking illuminating view.

In a summer meadow
near the river,
as night's first stars
blink on,
a firefly
steps
into a flower.

She waits and watches surrounded by more lights blinking on and off than would be possible to count.  She is searching for one particular cadence, a secret code.  It hardly seems possible she will find it.  But she does.

She answers with her own series of glowing beats, matching what she has seen.  She seeks acknowledgment.  He approaches.

Helen Frost with word choices and punctuation replicates the flashing of fireflies with her phrases.  If you read the text aloud, it's almost as if you are seated outside on a balmy summer's night, watching these tiny creatures work their mating magic.  You hardly dare breathe for the beauty her words carry.


When you open the dust jacket two photographs, on the back across the spine to the front, blend to become a single moment.  So exquisite is the detail and lighting you wonder how many pictures were taken to capture these exact visuals. A single shade of blue covers the book case.  On the front a pair of fireflies is embossed in the center.  On the opening and closing endpapers two more photographs reveal the intricacies of these delicate beings.

You will find yourself gasping at the splendor seen on every new page.  Rick Lieder varies his perspectives bringing us close to the fireflies and then stepping back to show us how they move and light the night.  The style of softening the background leaving only certain portions highly focused is a highly sensory experience for readers.



These three titles, representative of three distinctive types of poetry, Wet Cement: A Mix Of Concrete Poems written by Bob Raczka, Guess Who, Haiku written by Deanna Caswell with illustrations by Bob Shea and Among a Thousand Fireflies written by Helen Frost with photographs by Rick Lieder have one thing in common.  They are all brilliant.  I highly recommend adding them to your personal and professional collections.  Pause on every page.  Read them aloud.  Repeatedly.

To learn more about Bob Raczka, Bob Shea, Helen Frost and Rick Lieder please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  At the Candlewick Press website you can view an interior image from Among a Thousand Fireflies.  Enjoy the book trailer.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bridging The Divide With Love

It does not matter how old they are.  You can see it in their posture even before you have a chance to glance at their faces.  They will try to be brave.  They will try to keep their feelings hidden but if one of your students has had a shift in the dynamics of their home life, you will know.

You will carefully and with kindness offer them support.  One of the best things you can do is to give them a book which mirrors their experiences.  Many times a book will hold more weight than anything anyone else can say.  A book holds a kind of authority.  It's a type of magical connection.

 One of the finest titless I have read about a child adjusting to separation (divorce) is Weekends With Max And His Dad (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 5, 2016) written by Linda Urban with illustrations by Katie Kath.  Even before I finished the first ten pages, the end of chapter one in part one, I hugged this book with my heart (and my hands). It speaks to those in this position.  It speaks to those who are not, helping them to understand.

Weekend 
One
Spies
Chapter
One
When Max's dad came to pick him up on Friday night, he said, "Tomorrow, I will show you my new neighborhood."
"Sorry, Dad," said Max.  "Tomorrow I have spy duty.  You'll have to call me Agent Pepperoni."
"Oh," said Dad.  "Okay."
"But you can be my helper spy," said Max.  "You can be Agent Cheese."
"Not Agent Lightning?  Or Agent Super-Cool Guy?" asked Dad.

Max arrives at his dad's new apartment for the first time since his parent's separation.  Having recently finished reading The Sneaky Book of Spy Skills, he has plans to make this weekend alone with his dad an adventure.  To his father's credit he joins in on the fun with equal measure reading Max's book, donning a disguise along with his son and giving them a secret mission.  Listening, note and picture taking and map making prove beneficial on their unplanned tour of the area shops.  Secret sharing with a third agent, the newest member of the team, will have readers inwardly cheering for this son and this father.

Between superhero and archenemy battles, ukulele playing and a return visit to the local cafe to order the County's Best Bacon and Pineapple Pancakes both Max and his dad discover important pieces of information about each other.  They also make the acquaintance of a wonderful apartment resident and her two basset hounds, Barkis and Peggoty.  Make believe, running, the acquisition of Olle and a super-secret project further cement the caring, wonderful relationship between Max and his dad.

Looking forward to the third weekend visit Max can hardly contain his excitement.  His best buddy, Warren, is coming for a sleepover.  The boys are your proverbial two peas in a pod but Warren does offer comments helping Max to alter his perspectives.  Bonds of friendships and Michigan mammal habitats are built to last with a quest ensuring each is of the highest order.  As the final chapter in the third part comes to a close, two tasks yield satisfying results.  In the mathematics of love two equals one.


With every sentence read in this book my admiration for Linda Urban and her masterful ability to create endearing characters grew.  Through the conversations between her characters, their lively and loving personalities nearly walk off the pages into our space.  Not only do we enjoy the interactions of the primary characters but the secondary characters play a significant role in the ebb and flow of the narrative.  Their presence increases the eloquence in an already wonderful story of a boy and his father.

In my way of thinking Linda Urban, through the people in this book, shows us how to be our best possible selves.  Fashioning a new normal is not an easy task but each individual chooses to place the other person first.  This is what love, unconditional love, is.  Another technique Urban uses is to end each chapter with a promise of things to come or with a sense of achievement or peace of mind. Here are a couple of sample passages.

"Do you like it?" asked Dad.
"It's very blue," said Max.  He didn't want to say what he was really feeling.  What he was feeling was like somebody was sitting on his chest.  Max had liked the Detroit Lions last year, when he was in second grade.  He still liked the Detroit Lions now, but not as much.  And he did not think he liked blue very much at all.  He could not imagine a spy with a blue room and football curtains.
"Are you okay?" asked Dad.
Max did not want to hurt Dad's feelings.  "I'm tired," he said.  He pretended to yawn.

The lady in the pink apron gave Max and Dad each a large wedge of chocolate.  They posed for a picture with Mr. Benetti.  Snap snap snap snap snap snap snap!  went all the cameras in the room.
"So much for being inconspicuous," said Dad.  "I guess there'll be no spying in Italy for us.  Our cover is blown."
Max took another bite of heavenly chocolate.
"It's worth it."


When you open the dust jacket you can see that the circles employed on the front have been used on the back to the left.  The same colors are used, orange, green and a larger, deep golden yellow.  I like the idea of circles, no beginning and no end.  On the back Barkis and Peggoty are exuberantly checking out (sniffing) a pot of flowers.  On the book case in the same shade of pale yellow used on the jacket, etched in gold, a basset hound is posed on its hind legs howling.  A dark chocolate brown extends from the spine into the front and back of the case canvas.

The circles are used by illustrator Katie Kath on the title page and at the beginning of each of the three parts.  Black and white animated, detailed and spirited pictures are seen at nearly every page turn.  They are altered in size and perspective to further define moments in the story.  My favorite ones are when Max and his dad are spies.


Weekends With Max And His Dad written by Linda Urban with illustrations by Katie Kath brings pure joy to readers for its wondrous, lighthearted view of real people.  Everyone wins when you have people around you who look at life as half full, regardless of the circumstances.  This book needs to be read aloud.  It should be in classrooms, libraries and on the shelves in homes.  I do adore it, every single page.


To learn more about Linda Urban and Katie Kath and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  To read an excerpt of the book follow this link to the publisher's website.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Of Coffins, Combustion, Chickens And Cursed Contracts

Illustration by Ben Whitehouse

We all know and admire people who look at the world as one large living, breathing machine consisting of a nearly infinite amount of parts working together.  They assess every situation seeking solutions.  There are no boundaries or limits to their imagination.  They are always thinking outside the box.

In The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin (Walden Pond Press, April 12, 2016) written by Elinor Teele with cover and interior illustrations by Ben Whitehouse, two orphans, an older brother and his younger sister, must use their best qualities to survive the clutches of a dastardly relative. A family ritual of storytelling bolsters their hearts.  What each one does and would do for the other is the soul of this story.

The Beginning
"Tell me a story."
"A story? Not now!"
"My dear boy, if not now, when?  Seize the carp, John. Seize the carp." ...

Chapter 1
Once upon a time there was a boy who made coffins.  His name was John Peregrine Coggin, and the Coggin family had been manufacturing wooden caskets in the city of Pludgett for over a hundred years. ...

With this introduction and the beginning of chapter one, your mind is already filling up with questions.  Who was talking to John?  Where are they?  When is this conversation taking place?  You are intrigued to the core.

John, now eleven and his sister Paige, nearly seven, have been living with his Great-Aunt Beauregard since the death of their parents when he was five.  Unfortunately with his brilliant mind and his aunt putting him to work long hours at an early age, he has become the best coffin maker in the swampy community of  Pludgett.  He detests making caskets, yearning for some kind of escape from what promises to be a life of drudgery for both he and his sister.  An unusual impromptu trip away from the shop to a hotel by the sea has the siblings hopeful for a brighter future but then again, this is Great-Aunt Beauregard in charge of the outcome.

Her proposals have John saying things he has never previously said to her face.  The children make an escape out of a locked room with the assistance of a new friend, Boz, an exceedingly long-winded, walking-dictionary and mischief-making scamp.  Where might their destination be, you ask?  They are headed for the company of The Wandering Wayfarers, a circus.  A non-functioning steam powered engine named Autopsy and an unfortunate episode with a local official's newfangled automobile have the children on the run again.  To make matters worse Great-Aunt Beauregard has an uncanny knack of locating them wherever they go.

John, Paige and sometimes Boz, find themselves in one calamitous mess after another, exploding chicken poo being the least of their worries.  Each situation and the characters they meet add to the escalating precariousness of their future.  Will forces for good, ingenuity and teamwork prevail against greed and deceitfulness?  Only a dragon, a shaggy dog and a flying coffin can supply the answer.


As soon as you read the first page, you are drawn into the story by the request for a story.  Without missing a beat Elinor Teele draws us willingly into places seemingly familiar but completely unique, describing the communities, residences and other modes of transportation in which our main characters find themselves.  The phrase, a cast of colorful characters, applies with gusto to this narrative.  John and Paige find themselves thrust not always by choice but more due to circumstances into the presence of diverse and multi-dimensional people.

John's thoughts, the conversations between all the characters and the language each uses create highly engaging and often comedic responses in readers.  You will find yourself mentally assigning voice qualities to the characters based upon their personalities.  Boz's persuasive, embellished observations and suggestions, Great-Aunt Beauregard's boisterous outbursts, Maria Persimmons quiet, loving words, Leslie's arrogant assumptions and Miss Doyle's wise counsel as well as the circus performers requests, insights and advice supply non-stop entertainment, a montage of ingredients in the siblings' stew of life.  Here are some sample passages.

And when that didn't work---and granaries and grannies took to mysteriously disappearing overnight---the settlers began building hovels on top of the ones that were sinking.  The whole city was a layer cake of decay.
Of course, living in a city built on a swamp meant the air smelled like rotten eggs and mosquitoes were the size of pumpkins.  But no one ever complained.  Pludgett citizens were terribly proud of Pludgett.

"Building a story is like any other invention, John my lad," he would say.  "Guts and gung-ho at the beginning, struggles and surprises in the middle, and the glorious moment when everything comes right."

When John found enough balance to peek back at the fence, he could just spy the top of the canary in Great-Aunt Beauregard's hat.  It appeared to be screaming.
"JOHN PEREGRINE COGGIN! I WILL ROAST YOUR GIBLETS FOR THIS!

He stood and began touching his toes.
"One, two, one, two.  A working bakery like this should give me exactly the capital I need to convert my castle at Howst into a showpiece for investors." He threw back his shoulders and pounded his chest for emphasis.  "Harry, you may not know it yet, but you are looking at the next real estate king of this country."
Then, as a fitting finale, Leslie farted.

"Euripides!" Boz blasted.  "By George, I think you've got it!"
John grinned, happiness rising in him like yeasty bubbles.  


The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin written by Elinor Teele with cover and interior illustrations by Ben Whitehouse is a stellar story of high adventure.  You are advised to be prepared to read on the edge of your seat from cover to cover in a single sitting.  As you move with the primary characters from escapade to escapade you, like them, will understand (or have your beliefs confirmed) there is more than one way to define family.

If you desire to learn more about Elinor and this debut title, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Please stop by the publisher's website to read an excerpt.  An activity guide, writing exercises, is available here.  To read the other posts by bloggers in this tour follow this link to the Walden Pond Press blog.


To be able to chat with Elinor through a series of questions is an honor.  I know you are going to be as delighted as I am with her answers.

When I read a book as engaging as The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin (I did consume it in one sitting on a Sunday past.) I find myself marking passages with sticky notes.  One of the first pages I marked in this title referred to a rather vivid description of the town of Pludgett where John and his sister Page live.  I’m curious to know whether the world of Pludgett and the surrounding towns came first to you or did one of the characters present themselves to you? 

It’s been so long since the first draft that I had to go back and do some ferreting! John and Page are loosely based on reality, so they were in my head from the beginning.
But I always had Dickens in mind when it came to creating place. The opening passage of Bleak House and the description of the Thames in Little Dorrit are particular favorites of mine. I wanted Pludgett to be a city that reflected John’s trapped imagination—grime, grit, repetition, and layers and layers of rotting thinking. 
My original notes read:
Unhappy, unhappy. Grind, grind, grind. Inventiveness frowned upon. Like rats in a maze, directed over the same lines again and again.”


Within the body of the story there seems to be a blend of the past, without our current inventions, with more iconic text.  An example is your description of John as a lean unkeen coffin machine.  Was this blend intentional and would you tell us why?


Yep, it’s intentional. Since I was writing the book for my relatives, I wanted Coggin to have some of the same flavor of The Princess Bride, a family favorite
·        “Life is pain. Anybody that says different is selling something.”
·        “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”  
And it seemed fitting that John, whose imagination is boundless, shouldn’t be restricted by historical “accuracy” in the tone or text. The book is about busting open the rulebook. 


From your bio on your website you have a keen interest in theater and the study of Anglo-Saxon literature.  Did this influence the character of Boz being verbose in exceedingly descriptive language with a flair for the dramatic? 


Probably, but my siblings will tell you that verboseness and the tendency to be a ham were obvious from my early years! Theatre and my studies in literature just seem to have compounded it.  
I don’t adore all my characters, but I do have a soft spot for Boz. Like Gonzo in The Muppets or Merlyn in The Once and Future King, he doesn’t belong to a particular time period or setting—he’s a master of doggerel and servant of none. I hope folks have fun with the Easter eggs (cultural references) embedded in his speech.


Did you have to do much research to create the scientific thinking of John’s mind? 


Some. I’ve never been good at engineering principles—that honor belongs to my father and my grandfather—and it took me a while to sort out internal combustion. I’m absolutely certain that I’ve made a few clangers in my descriptions. (My apologies to my science teachers!)
But it was intriguing to discover how John’s interest in “how things work” dovetailed with my own exploration of “how writing works.” The two disciplines aren’t that far apart. You have a large variety of component parts that you must put together in a particular order. One thing follows another, and small structural mistakes can be extremely costly.


Would you please describe your writing space for us if you have a specific area?  Do you have a special schedule for your writing? 


I write in an old chicken coop. It still has the faint scent of its former inhabitants, but it’s perfectly serviceable.
There’s no special schedule, other than achieving a certain word count by the end of the week. Hours don’t count—you can stare at the ceiling for a day and call it work. For my own sanity, I have to get something on a page.


Did your work in photography help in creating the places in this book?  Are they based on any actual settings?


Probably not. When I’m taking photos, I’m thinking about framing and light and technical bits; I’m not always concentrating on how to describe the scene in front of me. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s hindering more than helping. But let’s give it the benefit of the doubt—photography has taught me to be more careful about noticing hidden corners.  
And, yes, some of the places are based on actual settings. The street of bakeries where Maria lives is a mash-up of a backpacking trip through York in the U.K. and Hansel & Gretel’s stumble through the forest; the lunar landscape of Miss Doyle’s archeological dig was prompted by a memory of New Zealand; and the train scenes harken back to a cross-country trip through Canada when I was very young.


Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin has taught me nothing is perfect.  Every invention is an adventure.  Every book is about trying something completely new and hoping to hell it works.  I hope I've written something kids will enjoy, but if I've failed, that's okay.  Life would be awfully boring with no mistakes.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hands. Heart. Art.

In ancient Greek mythology there is a story about a competition between the goddess, Athena, and a mortal woman, Arachne.  Arachne believed her weaving so fine; she made declarations which angered the goddess.  At the conclusion of the contest, Athena could see the weaving of the mortal woman was better than her tapestry but the subject matter infuriated her.  The next series of events resulted in Arachne being changed into a spider so she could weave as often as she wished for the rest of her life.  

It's an art form dating back thousands of years even before the fateful contest between the goddess and mortal.  Weaving is found in cultures throughout the world; a time-consuming process, the amount of hours determined by the talent of the weaver and the intricacies found in the final fabric.  Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life Of Louise Bourgeois (Abrams Books for Young Readers, March 1, 2016) written by Amy Novesky with pictures by Isabelle Arsenault is a beautiful portrait of a larger-than-life creative force.

Louise was raised by a river.

Her family had a large home next to the waters, using them to grow large floral and vegetable gardens.  Often Louise and her sister or brother would spend hours, even after dark, in a tent in those gardens.  The river assisted in the family's business of repairing ancient tapestries.  The wool responded to the properties of the elements in the water.

Louise's mother, her Maman, was a gifted weaver, the talent passed from generation to generation.  By the time she was twelve Louise could assist in the mending of the cloths.  At her mother's side she learned about the terms and tools of weaving as well as the ingredients used to create certain dyes.

Her father was in and out of her life, a man unlike her mother, her best friend.  When she was old enough Louise left to study in Paris.  Her focus of study was originally on mathematics but the death of her mother changed everything for Louise.  The young woman turned to art even making a gigantic spider

of bronze, steel, and marble she named Maman.

Louise worked in all kinds of mediums expressing her view of the world through art but in her later years she turned to textiles.  All the bits and pieces of her life were remade in threads and cloth.  She, like her mother, fashioned wondrous visions.


The words written by Amy Novesky do indeed read like a lullaby.  Carefully chosen they make reference to the aspects of a river, weaving, webs and spiders, intertwined throughout her narrative.  Each portion is like a poetic interlude.  Here is a sample passage.

She loved to work in the warm sun, her needle rising and falling beside the lilting river, perfect, delicate spiderwebs glinting with caught drops of water above her.  


The opened book case acquaints readers with the color palette adopted by Isabelle Arsenault, the warm reds, bright blue and shades of cream.  To the left, on the back, the text and images normally found on the front and back flaps of a dust jacket are displayed.  The opening and closing endpapers are a swirl of brush strokes in blues varying in intensity.

Rendered in ink, pencil, pastel, watercolor, and Photoshop the illustrations are a celebration and enhancement of the work of Louise Bourgeois and the words of Amy Novesky.  The heavier matte-finished paper adds to the tactile experience for readers.  Arsenault's images spanning two pages are marvelous, crossing the gutter like the flowing river or the woven threads of a cloth.  Her single page pictures come at defining moments in Louise's life asking us stop a bit and think.

The delicate lines, soft colors, design and layout are exquisite, a visual splendor.  When portraying Louise and the people in her life, Arsenault infuses them with animation depicting an unmistakable emotion.  The love Louise's mother has for her weaving and the love Louise has for mother are clearly evident in one particular picture.

One of my favorite illustrations is across two pages.  On the right are ornate floral patterns in red and blue beneath the text.  Under them are woven strands of red and blue, some more completed than others.  The most finished of the three crosses the gutter to the right becoming a piece worked on by Louise's mother.  She is seated in a chair near the river on a sunny day, the sun depicted like striped rays on the underside of an umbrella.  Her head is bent to the work in her lap, fingers sewing with a needle and thread.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life Of Louise Bourgeois written by Amy Novesky with pictures by Isabelle Arsenault is an eloquent story in text and images, a reflection of the artist they represent.  Works of nonfiction such as this book inspire and welcome readers to follow their expressive pursuits.  This beautiful book should find a place in your personal and professional collections.  An author's note with two realistic photographs concludes the book along with a list of quotes and sources. 

To learn more about Amy Novesky and Isabelle Arsenault please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Additional interior images can be viewed at the publisher's website and at an article in the Children's books section of The Guardian.  TeachingBooks.net has pronunciations of Amy Novesky's name and Isabelle Arsenault's name.


I am posting my selection for the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge a day early due to a prior commitment but be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher on Wednesday April 27, 2016 to view the other selections by bloggers.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Best Advice

Regardless of the decade some things will always remain true about maneuvering the often tricky paths of grades six, seven and eight.  It's a major fork in the road of life; from one moment to the next we alternate from hardly being able to wait to become an adult and then yearning for the distinctive blessings of childhood.  Change is in the air, sometimes like a slow soft breeze but other times like a roaring tornado.

On those rare days when everything seems aligned, we rejoice thankful for our families, our friends and ourselves. Cici Reno #Middle School Matchmaker (Sterling Children's Books, April 19, 2016) written by Kristina Springer is a refreshing look at middle school.  Just like real life, things are never quite as they appear to be at first glance.








Cici Reno @yogagirl4evr 32m
CHILD'S POSE -Knee, drop your butt to your heels,
reach forward.  Head down and focus on breathing.
Makes life's problems easier to handle.   

Ugh.  My nail polish is smudged.

Cici Reno and several friends are enjoying a final late summer day at the community pool.  In the course of their conversation we get our first peek at Cici's skills in personal relationships.  She has a knack for helping others to be their best possible selves.

By the second chapter we are introduced to her best friend Aggie who has recently returned home from a summer spent with her Dad and stepmom.  While Cici is surprised by Aggie's physical growth spurt, "boobs", she is confident enough to protect Aggie when necessary and offer her support.  In the evening when Aggie and Cici join their other girlfriends at the hooray-for-another-school-year bonfire, we become fully aware of Aggie's crush on Cici's brother's buddy and hockey teammate, Drew.  We know the stage has been set for what promises to be an interesting series of events as Aggie goes completely tongue-tied when she has a chance to speak with Drew.

Coming home after school to see Drew sitting in her kitchen with her brother, Luke, startles Cici.  She is definitely attracted to his sincere and charming attributes plus he is easy on the eyes.   In her bedroom later checking out his Twitter page, an idea pops into her mind.  Why doesn't Aggie talk to Drew via Twitter without giving him her name?

Aggie thinks this is a fantastic plan but she is simply can't summon the courage to give it a try.  Against her better judgment, Cici agrees to pose as Aggie using a fake name.  So now a triangle of sorts begins with Drew none the wiser.  Aggie is learning about Drew through Cici.  Drew is learning about Aggie and Cici (she can't help but refer to her own interests sometimes). And Cici finds herself forming a first love for Drew.

As the online chats between Drew and Sera Froste (Cici) get longer, more interesting and more fun the tension starts to grow.  When you throw Cici's pesky older brother Luke, Aggie's new interest in volleyball and a request from Drew into the mix, not even Cici's love of practicing yoga at her mother's studio can calm the emotional swirl taking place.  Friendships are tested.  Honesty wins.


After two readings, and nearly a third, of this title, I can sincerely say Kristina Springer sees right into the hearts of middle school age gals and guys and pours it out on the pages of Cici Reno #MiddleSchoolMatchmaker.  Her understanding of how they think and feel is apparent in the conversations between the characters and through Cici's voice.  Life in and out of school is depicted realistically with complete clarity; cafeteria chatter, hallway encounters, hockey and volleyball games, meetings at the mall, yoga classes and school dances.

The adults, Cici's mom and dad, Aggie's parents, the two women, Peg and Claire, in the yoga classes and teachers at the school are solid, positive and important fixtures in the teens (nearly teens) lives.  Their advice, their singular personalities and pure normalness provide the perfect amount of stability and humor.  Everyone needs people like this in their lives especially at this age.

Several techniques Springer employs make this title even more appealing.  Each chapter begins with a tweet from Cici Reno describing a particular yoga pose and its purpose.  We come to realize the significance of this in Cici's life; how it keeps her grounded. When Sera Froste @SeraFrosted and Drew @drewlingness are chatting on Twitter their conversations are supplied as if we are reading them on a screen.  We are right there with them.  And my reader's heart loves that familiar authors' names and book titles are mentioned.  Drew and Cici as Aggie do bond over a shared interest in a particular series.  Here are some sample passages.

I like myself well enough.  But that thing about looks being deceiving is totally true in my case.  My outside just hasn't caught up to my inside yet.  On the inside, I'm heading toward high school, and on the outside, I'm just starting fifth grade.

Dad comes in and pours himself a cup of coffee.  "Did you brush our teeth?" he asks.
I roll my eyes at him.  "Seriously?" Being a dentist, he's slightly obsessed with my teeth.  But I'm in seventh grade now; I think I have tooth-brushing under control.
Dad mimics my eye roll and in an ultra-dramatic voice he says, "Like ohmigod, my Dad is such a loser.  He, like, totally cares about my dental hygiene.  As if, gag me with a spoon, ohmigod." He takes a sip of his coffee and looks at me expectantly, smiling.
"I'm sorry, what language was that?" I ask him with a chuckle.
Dad laughs.  "Mock me now but when you're the last of your friends in the nursing home to still have your own teeth, you'll thank me.  Of course, I'll be dead."

I'm happy.  And it's all because of Drew.  We chatted for over an hour last night and he's just so sweet and smart.  I have no clue how he can be friends with my brother.  Most of Luke's friends are smelly, belching, obnoxious troll-like beings that need to take their shoes and socks off to count to twenty.  Well, except for Luke's friend, Matt---he's missing a toe.  ...


Cici Reno #MiddleSchoolMatchmaker written by Kristina Springer is a spirited and funny look at life among middle school friends, siblings and first loves.  The strength of the characters, especially the connections among the group of girls, is completely uplifting.  I predict this book will never be on the shelves.  Hooray for Cici Reno and for her creator, Kristina Springer.

To learn more about Kristina Springer and her other work please follow the link attached to her name to access her website and blog.  She is also on Twitter at @TinaSpringer and @yogagirl4evr  You can find her on Instagram too.

I am so happy Kristina Springer agreed to answer some of my questions in celebration of the release of this book and as part of the blog tour.


From reading your bio on your website I understand you were a writer for a weekly Internet Love Column for a year.  Did any of the experiences from writing this column influence the characters in Cici Reno #MiddleSchoolMatchmaker?  Or did you draw your main inspiration from the theme in the play Cyrano de Bergerac?  Or is it a combination of both?


You’re bringing me back! The Internet Love column was one of my first writing gigs and the Internet romance stories were CRAZY. Back then I was interviewing mostly adults and it was pre-match.com days so people were meeting on aol, in chatrooms, etc. Totally different times than our current social media so no, it didn’t influence me with Cici. My inspiration for Cici came from the Cyrano play as well as my own foray into middle school matchmaking in 7th grade. Of course back then we didn’t have the Internet so it was more so three-way calling type stuff. All the Internet influences come from my currently spending too much time on social media.


Your main character’s mother has a business, Peony Lane Yoga Studio, in a strip mall close to their home.  Cici finds solace for her body and mind there.  In fact each chapter begins with a tweet that Cici sends out on Twitter about a specific pose.  How long has the practice of yoga been a part of your life?  How has it influenced you or your writing?


I completely adore yoga! And strangely, I didn’t get into it until about three years ago. I’ve always enjoyed group exercise classes and was a real spin class fiend for years. But then my knee got banged up and my doctor said to stop all the hopping around Zumba-class type stuff. I had avoided yoga up until then because I thought it would be too slow moving but I was wrong! I tried a class one day and fell hard for it. It really does make me feel tons better physically and calms down my racing mind. I always leave class feeling amazing. And my two daughters (9 & 11) love it now too and take classes with me. Which is awesome!! It’s stressful being a kid and yoga helps them deal with life’s problems and release negative energy. Not to mention they love being better than me at it since they can get into a lot of the tough positions that I can’t. I got the idea for the yoga angle with the book when I was in class a couple of years ago and I had this really cool, laid back teacher. And I thought to myself, boy I bet her kids are really chill too. And it hit me that I should have a main character who's mom owns a yoga studio so she could be a yoga enthusiast too and hang out there a lot.


My copy of Cici Reno looks like a porcupine from all the sticky notes marking great passages, many of them filled with humorous insights by Cici.  I like that she takes an upbeat view of life while still being portrayed with a typical array of middle school, human of any age, emotions.  Was this intentional to have her be more grounded than most of the other girls her age?  Is this what gives her the ability to understand people and offer advice?  Also do you have a favorite comedian or comedy show?  (You have a wonderful sense of humor displayed in your writing.)


Thank you! J And yes, I was really trying to make Cici a well-grounded kid that friends often went to for advice. Someone I’d have LOVED to be friends with in middle school. And her confidence within herself juxtaposed nicely with her small physical stature. Somewhere in the book Cici even thinks something like, on the inside she feels like she’s headed for high school while on the outside she looks like she’s in the 5th grade. All the yoga has helped her be more zen about things also and being around so many different types of people who frequent her mom’s studio has given her insight too.
My all-time favorite comedian ever since I was a little kid is Lucille Ball. I’ve always been a huge I Love Lucy fan. And my very favorite comedy show for the last couple of years has been Impractical Jokers. I’m obsessed with them. The pranks they do are so much like how me and my friends were growing up.


Cici’s older brother Luke is wonderfully typical for an older brother.  Do you have an older brother?  Is he based upon someone else you have known?


Yes, I do have an older brother. I have three brothers in all (I’m the second oldest). And yep, Luke is based loosely on my older brother. My brother has been coming to my book signings for years, claiming that he was the muse for my writing. So I thought hey, I’ll make a character a bit like him so he can truly say he inspired me.  And, during my tween years I may have had a crush or five on various boys from my brother’s soccer teams. ;-)


One of the most important things in this book, for me, is that the girls in Cici’s group and her best friend Aggie, while not always seeing eye to eye with one another offer constant support.  This is refreshing and important in middle school novels.   Was there a specific reason you chose to not have an adversary for any of the characters in this book? 


With this particular book, I wanted to show what good strong friendships could be. Again, the kind of group I’d love to have hung with in middle school. And with having four kids (7, 9, 11, and 13), I find we talk about friendships and the way to be a good friend so much in my household and I liked having something reflect some of the values I try to teach my kids. My girls will come home from school and tell me some really doozies of the dramas going down at school and I try to help them understand where it’s coming from, why people do or say what they do, to believe in themselves and know who they are, and to always try to be kind.


Your website has definite appeal for your readers.  Did you design it yourself?


No, Denise Biondo from Biondo Studio did! http://www.biondostudio.com/ Isn’t she amazing? All I told her was that I was a coffee-obsessed kind of girl and would love a café look and this is what she designed.


Is there anything else you would like your readers to know Kristina?  Can we expect to see more of Cici and the characters in this book in the future? 

 
Yes, e-mail me and let me know if you do the poses in the front of each chapter! When I wrote the tweets I was picking poses that helped aid something in the particular chapter—like helping to heal a broken heart for example. I’ve been reading the book out loud to my kids each night and all four of them immediately jump up and do whichever pose I read. It’s so cute, I love it! And yes, I’m hard at work on a second Cici Reno book as we speak! It will be part of the Yoga Girl series.

Thanks so much for letting me chat with you! I hope your readers enjoy Cici Reno #MiddleSchoolMatchmaker!



It's been a pleasure chatting with your Kristina.  I am looking forward to the second book in the series.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Road Trip Remembered

We've all taken trips; some more eventful than others.  There are travels where the destination is everything.  We can't get there fast enough.  On the flip side there are places we can't wait to leave; home has never been sweeter.  In many cases the getting there is far better than the arrival.  The best kind of excursion is a fascinating combination of transportation of choice, stops and starts full of unexpected, funny surprises, a much-anticipated journey's end, and a safe, satisfying return.

Without a doubt, from the dawn of mankind, it seems children's DNA has been wired for them to utter a single familiar phrase during a trek by car.  Certainly my sister and I must have said it at an early age because all our outings, short or long, included fun packs put together by my mom to keep us happily busy from start to finish.  In his newest title, Are We There Yet? (Little, Brown and Company, April 12, 2016) Caldecott Medal winner (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend) Dan Santat takes road trips to a whole new extraordinary level.

The car trip to visit Grandma is always exciting!
But after the first hour,
it can feel like an eternity.

Thinking about all the miles and hours ahead can be far removed from a child's definition of a good time.  In fact this boy's mind is so turned off and tuned out, it starts to wander.  And that is when the fun begins in earnest.  

He needs to look out his window, right now!  Left up your head and see what your wide-eyed parents are seeing.  The highway has changed into a desert filled with horses, their riders and an old locomotive fueled by coal with a cow-catcher on the front.  Next the boy is feeling a bit under the weather and with good reason.  Somehow the car has been snagged by the plank on a pirate ship.  

With every utterance proclaiming total boredom and let's face it, every excuse in the books for stopping, the scenery outside the car alters.  The child's moaning about the monotony is causing them to time travel; back and back, farther and farther until a resounding roar grabs his attention.  Good golly H. G. Wells, it's a Tyrannosaurus Rex!

A game of throw and catch enables the boy to start noticing and participating in the vistas outside the car.  It's a wild adventure until characters from every possible past end up with the family in a startling twist of hours, days, weeks, months and years.  Trying to give Grandma her birthday present has been the most amazing adventure yet.  


When the marvelous mind of Dan Santat ventures into the realm of "what-if" readers are guaranteed of an exuberant experience.  His finely honed sense of humor is apparent in each and every sentence; so is his profound wisdom as the story comes to a close.  Punctuation supplies pacing in the impeccable mix of dialogue and narration.  Here is a sample passage.

Hours feel like days.
I feel sick.
Days feel like months.
My butt hurts.


No one who sees the front of this dust jacket will be able to resist picking it up.  The design astutely gives us a glimpse of the normal drive with the astonishing results above the title phrase spoken by the boy which in turn neatly divides the two images.  What will have readers ready to open the cover, in addition to finding all the answers to questions formed by the top dinosaur escapade, is the look on the boy's and his mom's faces.  To the left, on the back, Santat takes us to the Sphinx.  Car tracks lead to the stopped vehicle.  Mom is in pirate attire.  Dad is looking at a map dressed as an astronaut.  A photographer robot beeps out the ISBN.  The boy with his monkey is slightly disgusted.  The book case is utterly perfect; the present carried by the boy.  And once you read this you will agree the entire book is a gift to readers.

The opening and closing endpapers are like stop motion frames of film.  There are thirty-six illustrations on each set of pages showing us the progression of a day first from darkness to dawn to the heat of the day with the sun moving across the yellow sky and then twilight to late night as the moon rises and sets among the stars.  The verso, dedication and titles pages become the beginning of the story.

Santat's pictures are a masterful blend of panels with large black frames and large pictures, edge to edge across two pages, placed on matte-finished paper.  Rendered in pencil, crayon, watercolor, ink and Adobe Photoshop the illustrations, in a stroke of genius, require us to turn the book around reading it backward (forward) as time moves backward in the story.  We are true participants.

You have to stop and look at each visual.  The details work as enhancements and extensions of the tale, telling us what the text does not.  (Be sure to look for Easter eggs.)  The expressions on the parent's faces are hilarious.  When the boy first discovers what is happening and sees the dinosaur you will feel exactly what he feels.  

One of my favorite illustrations spans across two pages.  It is a more elaborate depiction of all the persons from the past riding the dinosaur as they are on the front dust jacket.  Everyone is having the time of their lives except for the parents.  As a background Santat has a montage of eight sepia-toned snapshots from the past; everyone as ecstatic as those in the full color ride in the foreground.  


Are We There Yet? written and illustrated by Dan Santat reminds us to let ourselves be free enough to savor every second of every day.  He connects us to his characters with classic words and behaviors so we can laugh at and with them and at ourselves.  Share the happiness of this story as often as you can with everyone you can.  

To learn more about Dan Santat and his other books and illustrative work please follow the link to his website attached to his name.  At the publisher's website they have provided a link to a Road Trip Activity Kit. (My mom would have loved this.)  Dan Santat chats with teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner on All The Wonders podcast, episode 249.  On the podcast page is a link to Santat's Instagram account where you can view all his back-in-time promotional pictures.  Enjoy the book trailer.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

From The Wild

More than one million years ago their ancestors roamed our earth.  It is believed they crossed a land bridge first stepping in North America about 250,000 years later.  Dating back to Chauvet Cave in southern France some 26,000 years ago they left a paw print next to that of a young boy.   More recent evidence would suggest the relationship between them and humans could date back as far as 40,000 years ago.

Dogs are proof wolves and humans developed a close connection but the when, where, and how is still being debated.  In From WOLF to WOOF!: The Story of Dogs (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, April 12, 2016) written and illustrated by Hudson Talbott, a possibility is offered to readers.  Let's open the covers of this book as if we are turning back the hands on the clock of time.

Long, long ago...
before humans and dogs were friends...
in fact, long before there were dogs,
there were...

They lived their lives in packs.  As a member of a pack, their survival was easier.  Whether a wolf ate was never the issue but when they ate depended on their standing in the group.  Following a certain wolf pack was an orphan pup.

He was not being accepted by the leader despite his attempts at being a lookout.  This pup kept a sharp eye out for their enemies, humans.  One night he howled and howled because he spotted a child.

The boy was alone too, looking for food in the garbage left by other humans.  He threw the wolf a bone to quiet his voice.  The pup took it and ran feeling like the luckiest canine alive.

Days after it was consumed the thought of the bone brought the wolf back.  When a second bone was tossed his way he kept it.  During what may have been the first game of fetch, something amazing happened.  From that moment forward a partnership was formed.

Others living on the fringe noticed how successful the boy and his wolf pup were in surviving and surviving well.  The word pack and family became synonymous.  As time moved forward the bond between wolves and humans became stronger as each relied on the other for specific needs.  Some not all wolves evolved into dogs with specific jobs; as varied as the number of breeds and mixes we have today.  Those still in the wild are a reminder of a gift given.


There are some stories written as if we are gathered, sitting in the glow of an evening fire and listening to a tale told.  This is one of them.  Hudson Talbott entertains but also adds pieces of truth to the narrative; the nature of wolves, how dogs' jobs changed as humans changed and their diversity today.  Dialogue in the form of smaller text and thoughts in speech bubbles adds humor and happiness to the story.  Here is a sample passage.

A buddy at last!
Someone to help me find food.
With your nose and my spear,
we'll take on the world!

Great! 
Let's start
with that bone!

They became a great team, hunting and playing
together, and keeping each other warm at night.


The image on the front of the matching dust jacket and book case fits flawlessly with "a picture is worth a thousand words."  Hudson Talbott clearly and cleverly show the progression from wolf to dog.  The spot color of red in the title text and the dog's collar are a bit of design ingenuity.  To the left, on the back, an interior illustration is placed on the same yellow background.  It shows the initial incident of the orphan child throwing a bone to the lone pup.  The shade of blue on the front and in the sky on the back picture covers the opening and closing endpapers.

On the title page a howling wolf is show along with a dog that is seen several more times in the course of the story.  The modern dog offers commentary sure to bring a smile.  Rendered in watercolors, colored pencil, and ink on Arches watercolor paper the visuals reach out to the reader with complete charm engaging them in the story.

Talbott varies his picture sizes; two-page spreads, images crossing the gutter along with circular insets and a column, single pages or a series of smaller pictures grouped to show a sequence of time.  More than once he places circular, oval or arched images on a white background with elements crossing the frame to create more animation.  You get the sense that at any moment one of these illustrations could come to life.  There is a pleasing blend of soft texture and detailed lines in all his pictures in this book.

One of my favorite pictures covers two pages.  It is the defining instance between the pup and the boy.  The wolf covers most of the two pages, lying down, head on paws and with eyes closed.  Only a portion of the child's body is shown.  The background goes, left to right, from pale yellow to white.  I wish I could frame this picture.


From WOLF to WOOF!: The Story of Dogs written and illustrated by Hudson Talbott will certainly be read by dog lovers over and over again BUT it is a tale everyone will enjoy reading and hearing.  It's simply great storytelling.  I think you are going to need more than one copy.  I could even see using portions of this for readers' theater.  At the end of the book Hudson Talbott includes an author's note, additional resources for children and adults as well as websites devoted to the preservation of wolves and other endangered animals.

To learn more about Hudson Talbott and his valued work please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  At the publisher's website you can view a few more images.   There is also a feature at NPR Books, How Dogs Evolved Into Our 'Best Friends' The two links in the introduction of this post will give you more insights.

UPDATE:  Apri, 27, 2016 Hudson Talbott is featured in a wonderful Q & A at Brightly.