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Vacation Reading

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One of the things vacation has always meant to me was time to luxuriate in reading, and this last week was no different.

I took with me three books and finished them all.

Nina LaCour's Everything Leads to You was utterly and completely wonderful. I loved the world she created (indie films in Hollywood, with ties to the past) and her characters and I especially loved the various relationships (friends, lovers, shifting relationships). My only problem with the novel was that it ended and I had to leave that world. I suspect I'll be back.

The world Sarah Combs created in Breakfast Served Anytime was equally vivid, although it felt familiar in some ways because it was a summer "geek camp" on a college campus, not unlike the CTY camp my daughter attended for several summers. This was not a typical YA novel in many ways, but then, the characters weren't typical either. My favorite aspect of Combs's novel was how grounded it was in Kentucky, whether the issue was getting kids to want to attend college there instead of seeing the world, or the coal as a source of prosperity or environmental degredation, or city vs. rural. Many of the issues also come up in Vermont, but with slightly different twists (substitute wind turbines for coal) and the young adult perspective on them felt quite accurate.

Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls was the third novel up. It says so much about this novel that I, who am not particularly close to my sister, totally bought into the relationship. I'm not a great spooky story reader, but I loved this one. In some ways, perhaps because the setting is somewhat similar, it reminded me of Jennifer Donnelly's debut, A Northern Light. There is something about flooded towns, too.

We had a week's vacation, and I was finished with the books I brought by day four. Luckily for me it rained on day five, and we visited a book barn. There I found a book I'd been wanting to re-read for a number of years--Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, which I enjoyed so much when I read it as an undergraduate. Of course, after thirty-five years, I'm noticing different things, but it's no less enjoyable, particularly for the way she talks about writing "costume Gothics." There are some similarities to Atwood's later novel Cat's Eye.

And now I'm home, with a whole stack of library books before me, as well as a writing project (picture book) to tackle.

What have you been reading lately?

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D-Day plus 70 years

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World War II was not, alas alas, the war that ended all wars, no matter how much people living then talked of "never again" "jamais" or "nie wieder."

But if we want to consider the price of war, this is a good day to do so, and there's no better way to bridge the distance and know that price than to read Ernie Pyle's description of the aftermath of D-Day:

"Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out – one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked.

Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes. Here are broken-handled shovels, and portable radios smashed almost beyond recognition, and mine detectors twisted and ruined.

Here are torn pistol belts and canvas water buckets, first-aid kits and jumbled heaps of lifebelts. I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down."

That's some of the best, most effective writing I have ever read, because it brings the story home. Every single detail speaks of the massive, yet personal loss of life, all to stop what must have looked like the unstoppable spread of fascism.


The best way to honor that loss is to prevent totalitarianism from ever rising again, in whatever form it takes.

Ernie Pyle's complete story is here.

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Review: Woodland Litter Critters ABC

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Woodland Litter Critters ABCWoodland Litter Critters ABC by Patience Mason

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A fun twist on the ABCs, running from Andy Acorncap to Zippy the Zygodactyl (a good word to know). The critters names may be imaginative, but they are left in the woodland shade by the illustrations, created from items found in forest litter from Florida to Maine. A useful endnote should inspire young readers to create their own Litter Critters after a walk in the woods near them.



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Children's Librarian Extraordinaire

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Vermont has a long, proud history of supporting libraries and our Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award is one of the oldest childrens' book awards in the nation. In recent years, that award has been joined by the Red Clover Award for picture books and the Green Mountain Book Award for YA literature.

In addition, summer reading programs continue to flourish and children's and YA library services have never been so vibrant.

None of that would have been possible without Grace Greene, Youth Services Consultant that the Vermont Department of Libraries for the past 28 years--which is impossible, because she can't be a day over 40. Grace's passion for books and children and reading is deep and infectious and it certainly influence my life.

I first met Grace during a brief stint as a children's librarian in a nearby town. I will never forget how nervous I was, because The Head of Children's Services (picture of Big Brother looming in my head) was visiting. Grace must have suspected the nerves, because after I answered one question completely at random, she settled me down, asking about the picture of my daughter. For various complicated reasons, a possible career as a children's librarian didn't pan out for me, but Grace and I stayed in touch.

When I became the administrative assistant in Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, I let Grace know that I'd be happy to review relevant children's and YA titles for what were then biannual Materials Review Sessions held around the state. She welcomed me and soon I was receiving regular packages of books to review. At first, they all had to do with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, but over time, variety was added and I found my skills at assessing these works in 150-300 words expanding.

After nine years, I left Holocaust Studies as well, but the packages kept on coming. Soon thereafter, I became a member of the Green Mountain Book Award Committee, and there I got to work with Grace much more closely than ever before, as we met for four or five meetings a year over six years. The breadth of her knowledge, her frankness, and her well-thought-out opinions impressed me as much as her infectious laugh. I'm not a person who looks forward to most meetings, but those were a blast, talking about books, assessing which would be best fits for a list, sometimes arguing about books.

Now Grace is retiring and the Materials Review Sessions have come to an end, for very good, and valid reasons. And although I continue to read widely (because I am a writer and writers read), I will miss those packages, the thrill, the suspense as I wait to see what I've been given this time. The surprises have been many, including Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart, which I might not otherwise have read for months and which I will now be using in a course on Writing YA Fiction that I'll be teaching this fall.

It is often said that books can change lives. So can book people. Grace is one of them. I may not have become a librarian, but our friendship, our shared passion for books and children and teens has helped me become the writer I am today.

May we all have such friends in our lives.


Photo: Vermont Dept. of Libraries.
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PENNE2014Poster(Poster: Lisa Jahn-Clough)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing the three winners of the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Awards read from their winning manuscripts, and I am here to tell you: They knocked it out of the park as well as Big Papi does down the road at Fenway.

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Mackenzie van Engelenhoven, Rebecca Roan, and Pamela Sonn are writers to watch out for. Their picture books (Rebecca and Pamela) and YA novel (Mackenzie) will doubtless be out in the world soon, and deserve to be. These are three seriously talented women.

Listening to them read, reminded me of being where they were a year ago. That's an extra shot of inspiration to finish the tweak-ish revisions I still need to do, so that my own winning manuscript can start taking Next Steps.

Dear Language Arts Teachers

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Dear Language Arts Teachers,

This morning an experience brought into focus something I deal with on regular basis. You see, I am one of you, an instructor in a professional writing program at a small professional college. Our students are not interested in a liberal arts education. They come to us because they want to work as writers, whether for game design companies, news media, or as publishing professionals.

This morning I heard someone read a heart-warming story of appreciation written by a fourth grader. The short personal essay was imaginatively organized and expressed deep gratitude. However, it also contained several very simple, yet cringe-making errors: “her and me sat together” and a basic subject-verb disagreement that I no longer remember because all I could think was, ‘doesn’t she know that’s wrong?’”

I happened to be sitting beside my local superintendent, and couldn’t help mentioning the errors to him. He explained, “It’s okay. They’re allowed a certain amount of free expression.”

That was when the penny really dropped.

While I wholeheartedly agree that students need to be allowed to give voice to whatever their thoughts are, not expecting them to master certain fundamental rules of our common language—to learn when they should code switch from what they would say to what they should write—is unreasonable.

I know what you’re thinking—this child was only in the fourth grade. However, I teach at the college level and I see these very same mistakes from my college seniors.  Including senior professional writing majors.* It’s not that I see such errors in works of fiction, where they might be appropriate to character. It’s that I see them in everything from personal essays to sample cover letters for job applications.

That twenty-one-year-old students  make the same mistakes as nine-year-old students is significant. In some cases, I suspect they have never been taught. In some cases, I suspect they were taught—once, probably in elementary school—but that the teaching was never reinforced. And in some cases, I suspect they were taught, but that they were allowed that “certain amount of free expression” and took it to mean that what they learned in Language Arts class did not apply when they were writing for themselves.** This does them a disservice when it could make a difference between receiving a request for a job interview because their cover letter and resume were flawless and never receiving that request because of basic mistakes in grammar and spelling.

Should grammar and spelling be the first things that matter? No. Persuasive content is most certainly more important. But that is not the same as saying grammar and spelling don’t matter at all. As author Kate Messner points out in Real Revisions: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers, (Stenhouse, 2011), it’s the last step, but it’s a crucial last step.

My fellow teachers, please encourage your students to make that crucial last step. Those of us who teach them after you will be grateful. So will they.

Sincerely,

Me

*Deliberate use of a sentence fragment for effect.

**Deliberate use of a conjunction at the start of a sentence. In this case, these sentences form a quasi-list.

At the Turn of the Year

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When I was a teenager, I used to say, with more than a hint of sarcasm, that thirteen was my lucky number.

I have to say, 2013 felt like a luckier year than most.

In the winter and spring, the manuscript of the novel I had been working on for the last six months won not one, but two awards. Nothing could be more validating! I continue to be grateful to the Norma Fox Mazer Award and Pen New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award committees.

I finished my second and final year of graduate work, writing a critical thesis in the first half of the year and a creative thesis in the second half. Coe Booth proved the perfect guide through both the critical thesis and revisions on most of the novel I drafted the previous semester. Martine Leavitt was equally perfect when I decided to challenge myself and start a new project for my creative thesis. As a result, I now have another fully-drafted novel to revise after graduation.

I was also privileged to be asked to serve as Co-Regional Advisor for the New England chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It was great fun attending the annual August conference in August in LA and meeting everyone else who makes our professional organization work, along with catching up with some of my fellow VCFA people, who hold similar positions in their regions.

Despite the many hours I devoted to writing every week, I did manage to get some gardening done, and to make some jams and jellies. There's more of that in my future, along with more visits to New York City, where my daughter is now living. When I was down in October we had a great time, taking in Comic-Con and going to a Broadway show, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the exhibit on Children's Literature that's currently at the New York Public Library.

I'm looking forward to finding more balance in 2014, taking time to catch up with family and friends who have been long-neglected as I focused on the MFA. But I'm also looking forward to maintaining a regular writing schedule, and finishing projects and getting them out on submission. I'm also looking forward to the three classes I'm teaching this spring--writing about food joins the spring schedule of copyediting and senior portfolio.

Whatever happens, I feel as if, in the past year, I have come into my own. I am a writer--words are my life.

It's a wonderful feeling.

I hope you feel the same as we step into the new year.

Of Trees and Ice

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A week ago, two days before Christmas, an ice storm hit the area where I live hard. We were without power most of Sunday and again most of Monday. Others lost their power for mere hours, others for days.

However, I want to focus not on what happened to people, but to the trees in our front yard. We have four sugar maples, planted near the road, a birch, a crab apple, a poplar, a pine, and a silver maple. The sugar maples and birch came from my parents' woodlot, about an hour east of us. The crab apple was purchased at a local nursery that specializes in fruit stock that does well in our growing zone. The pine was a gift from a neighbor. The poplar we bought from a catalog when we first moved into our house, because it was guaranteed to grow quickly and we wanted shade fast. The silver maple was a gift from family in Connecticut, courtesy of the Arbor Society. It's native range is somewhat to the south of us.

They fared diversely. The sugar maples and the pine are absolutely fine. The crab apple lost the top of the center trunk, which was dead anyway. The birch, like birches all over, and like the birches in Robert Frost's poem, are bent. The poplar and the silver maple, however, did not bend. They broke. The poplar has very few full branches left. One of the silver maple's multiple trunks bent over the spot where my car is usually parked (my husband wisely decided to move it) and hovered there for a day before it cracked, split, and fell.

Throughout the past week, whenever I looked at our trees, one word came to mind: resiliency.

Our trees responded differently to a coating of ice, even though they were in the same yard and most of them were the same age. Their response depended on their kind.

There's a metaphor in that, one I don't want to belabor, but one I think we could do well to heed.

Children's Book Week

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In honor of Children's Book Week, the New York Public Library posted its list of 100 Great Children's Books. So did the U.K.'s Book Trust. The two lists have a few titles in common.

  1. The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

  2. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.

  3. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.

  4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

  5. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

  6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

  7. Matilda by Roald Dahl.

  8. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.

  9. The True Story of the Three Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.

  10. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

  11. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

  12. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.

  13. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.

  14. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

  15. The Borrowers by Mary Norton.

The thing that strikes me is that while the common titles are fairly well distributed across age groups through about age 12 or 14, the one thing most of them have in common is some degree of belonging to the fantastic, from outright fantasy to something more like magic realism.

The other thought that occurs is that 15 books is not too many--if every child read these 15 books, it would make for an enjoyable shared common ground, which as far as I'm concerned is one of the nicest things that reading does.

I'm pleased to say that I have read every one of these fifteen books, and most of the others in the two different "100 best --" lists. The biggest gap in my book knowledge is Enid Blyton, and it's one I intend to fill post-haste. How about you? How many have you read and which ones do you want to read?

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Reading Raves

Nation (Terry Pratchett), Men of Salt (Michael Benanav), Paper Towns (John Green), Lavinia (Ursula K. LeGuin), Weight (Jeanette Winterson), The Wizard, the Witch & Two Girls from Jersey (Lisa Papademetriou), Beastly (Alex Flinn), Hogfather (Terry Pratchett), London Calling (Edward Bloor), Before I Die (Jenny Downham), My Mother the Cheerleader (Robert Sharenow), Antsy Does Time (Neal Shuesterman), Against Medical Advice (James Patterson & Hal Friedman), Wait for Me (An Na), Doppelganger (David Stahler), The Year We Disappeared (Cylin Busby, John Busby); Little Brother (Cory Doctorow); King of Screwups (K.L. Going), Tyrell (Coe Booth), Goth Girl Rising (Barry Lyga), Bad Apple (Laura Ruby), The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Hold Still (Nina LaCour), Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green & David Levitahn), Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto (Eric Luper), Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray), Front & Center (Catherine Gilbert Murdock), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett), Tales of the Madman Underground (John Barnes), Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King), Sex: A Book for Teens (Nikol Hasler), The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Greg Taylor), Crazy (Han Nolan), Pull (B.A. Binns), Pearl (Jo Knowles)

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