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<<August 2015>>
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1. School Visits (and the Genius Ideas I Learn from Them!) by Suzanne Slade

Every school visit I always learn something interesting from teachers and students. My last author visit was no exception because I discovered a genius idea called Genius Hour. During my presentation I’d shared the proof pages of my upcoming picture book, The Inventor’s Secret. Later, one teacher came up and said The Inventor’s Secret would be perfect to kick off her Genius Hour program.
I was excited to see her so enthused about a book I’d worked on for four years, yet I was a bit embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of Genius Hour. So she kindly explained—Genius Hour is a program where students work on a project of their choosing for one hour each week. The great part about this student-driven program is that children are highly motivated to learn about their topics.
Genius Hour lends to a wide variety of projects in one classroom, as each student selects the subject he or she wants to research. For example, at the school I was visiting—Meadowview School in Woodridge, IL—fifth graders in Ms. Wright’s Genius Hour program baked up cotton candy cookies, built battery-powered cars out of spare parts, and much more!

Meadowview students building a battery-powered car from leftover parts from science kits and spare toy parts.

Fifth grade Meadowview student decorating cotton candy sugar cookies with blueberry drizzle.

During my school visit this teacher also explained the message of persistence in The Inventor’s Secret would help inspire young inventors working on their own contraptions in school “makerspaces.”
Okay, full disclosure, I didn’t know what a makerspace was either! So I did a bit of research and found out makerspaces (aka fab labs or hackerspaces) are workspaces in schools and libraries where students can brainstorm, experiment, and create their own projects. Makerspaces are filled with various kinds of equipment, such as 3D printers, electronics, tools, computers, hardware, craft supplies, and more.
Now my son had tinkered on gadgets for years in our basement, which slowly aquired an assortment of tools, wires, and electronics equipment (including a 3D printer that he used to make his own inline skates), so I understood the enormous potential of a school makerspace.

 Since learning of makerspaces, I’ve enjoyed reading about school labs around the country and the incredible projects children are creating in them. Would you believe students at Fox Meadow Elementary in New York made models of Lincoln’s face in their makerspace using a 3D printer and files of Lincoln’s actual life mask from the Smithsonian 3D image library? How awesome is that? (FYI - A technology teacher at Fox Meadow, Peter McKenna, started a School Makerspace forum where teachers can exchange ideas and projects.)

Fox Meadow school makerspace

3D printed model of Lincoln life mask

Actual Lincoln life mask

So as another new school year begins, I can’t wait to learn more fascinating things from students and teachers during my author visits. I’d also be thrilled to receive pictures of your school’s creative projects, including the sling shot cars, electric circuits, or flip books your students make using The Inventor’s Secret free Teacher’s Guide.

Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of more than 100 children’s books (and former engineer who working on car brakes and Delta IV rockets.) Her latest picture book, The Inventor’s Secret, shares the fascinating, true story of persistence (and friendship) of two of the world’s most famous inventors—Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Use it to kick off your Genius Hour, inspire young inventors, or celebrate National Inventor’s Day (February 11.) Also, check out the book’s trailer and look for more teacher resources on Suzanne's website.

The Inventor's Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford
ISBN: 978-1-58089-667-2 HC $16.95
Available September 8, 2015
Find Out More
Genius Hour Livebinder 
Suzanne’s List of Genius Hour Resources 
Designing a School Makerspace 
Manufacturing Makerspaces 
Instructables - website with great DIY projects 
Make: - website with more great DIY projects

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2. Jonathan Ames on Anthony Powell


The novelist and occasional raconteur Jonathan Ames was asked by the Big Issue to name his “Top 5 Books for American Anglophiles.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he named a cadre of authors instead, Anthony Powell among them, and Ames had this to say, in particular, about Powell and his work:

About 15 years ago some snobby writer in New York told me he was reading Powell’s epic 12-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, and wanting to be this writer’s intellectual peer (a hopeless endeavour), I set out to read it as well. I spent nearly a year absorbing all 12 books, and especially enjoyed the beautiful edition that had been put out by the University of Chicago Press—the spines of the books, when all lined up, formed the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, which had been, in part, Powell’s inspiration for the work. A lot of Dance was rather boring but it was also quite wonderful to follow Powell’s characters over 70 years, and I saw resonance in my own life—how we keep re-encountering the same people over and over, how we keep struggling with the same issues over and over. Powell certainly intended this, as he wished to demonstrate in his fiction, I believe, aspects of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence.

To read up on the many works of Anthony Powell published by the University of Chicago Press, click here.

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3. The Opposite of Colorblind: Why it’s essential to talk to children about race

diversity102-logoIn this post, Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman discusses why avoiding discussions of race with young people can do more harm than good.

Many African American parents already know what “the talk” is. It’s not the talk that many white parents might expect—we’re not talking about the birds and the bees. No, this “talk” is the one where black parents have to sit with their children and discuss how they might be perceived by the world around them: particularly police, but also teachers, neighbors, and friends who are not from their racial background.

Though the burden often falls on parents of color alone to discuss these issues with their children, in reality all parents should address race with their kids in a conscious and meaningful way. Communities are also seeking ways to address interpersonal racial issues, Why It's Essential to Talk to Children About Raceparticularly in schools. Having the tools to know how to discuss racial matters is essential for children from all backgrounds. 

Research has shown that the “colorblind” approach—teaching children that it is racist to acknowledge racial and ethnic differences—is doing no one any favors, and in fact can reinforce racist attitudes and assumptions, and especially reify systemic racism. “Black children know irrefutably that they’re black by the time they’re about 6 years old and probably earlier,” one article noted in our research. Do white children know they’re white? If not, how do they think of themselves?

At Lee & Low, we’ve always believed that even the youngest readers have the capacity to understand and appreciate difference—that’s why many of our children’s books address issues like racism and discrimination. But you don’t have to take our word for it: many experts, educators, and academics have done work on this topic as well and their recommendations can help point parents and teachers in the right direction.

“Young children are hard-wired in their brains to notice difference and to categorize it. So it is vital during early childhood to put some context around making sense of differences,” said Shannon Nagy, preschool director in 2011 at Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School in Chicago.

Studies have also shown that not addressing difference does not make children colorblind—it only encourages them to absorb the implicit racial messages of American society. Children learn that race is a category even when parents try to teach them not to recognize race. Much like children learn to perform regional accents even when their parents are from another location, children learn Young children are hard-wired to notice difference.how the larger society around them views race, via inference and transductive reasoning. “In other words, children pick upon the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in U.S. society.”

Teaching children to be “colorblind” has led children (and adults) to believe that it’s rude or racist to even point out racial differences—even kids of color. This makes it exponentially harder to have frank discussions about racial issues when they need to be had.

“Nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents,” said a 2007 study. “It’s the children whose parents do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin.”

One study even had white parents dropping out of the project when the researchers asked them to discuss racial attitudes with their children, even when they went into the study knowing that it was intended to measure children’s racial attitudes.

Many argue that “the talk” should happen far more often than once, and that parents shouldn’t bear the sole burden to teach their kids about race—that it is a community-wide issue.

Erin Winkler provides several ways for parents and teachers to address the biases that children might pick up, including discussing The Talk should happen far more often than oncethe issue in an age-appropriate way, with accurate information that doesn’t shame or silence children for having questions. They also suggest encouraging complex thinking and taking children’s questions and biased statements seriously—“When children are taught to pay attention to multiple attributes of a person at once (e.g., not just race), reduced levels of bias are shown,” the author notes, and suggests that the most important thing parents and teachers can do is to give children information that empowers them to be anti-racist.

One New York City-area school asked, “Can racism be stopped in the third grade?” They began a “racial affinity program,” in which elementary-age kids were sorted by racial groups for discussions of questions that “might seem impolite otherwise,” and to then come together as a school community to discuss these questions and experiences in a way that fosters greater communication. Parents and students are mixed on whether this program succeeded, with Asian students noting that the discussions of race still focused on the dichotomy of black and white, and some parents uncomfortable with the idea of discussing race at all. The administration notes, however, that many of their students of color needed this program—mandatory for all students—to combat microaggressions between students.

Allie Jane Bruce, the librarian at Bank Street School in New York City, has been discussing race, biases, and stereotypes with the students in her school for three years, using children’s book covers as a launching point. “I’m constantly delighted by the new discoveries kids make, and by the wisdom and insight already present in 11- and 12-year-olds,” Bruce noted in her most recent series of blog posts about the curriculum, which she has named “Loudness in the Library.” She notes especially that kids at this age tend to feel very uncomfortable with discussing race at first. “The fact that race-related conversations are so very fraught is a huge part of the problem. We must be able to communicate in order to solve problems that exist at interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels. If kids in 6th grade already have the inclination to stay silent in conversations on race, how much stronger will that inclination be in adults? And if we can’t talk about race and racism, how will things ever get better?”

Parents, what does “the talk” look like in your home? Teachers and librarians, how do you approach discussions about race with your students and patrons?

Stacy WhitmanStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers.

1 Comments on The Opposite of Colorblind: Why it’s essential to talk to children about race, last added: 8/28/2015
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4. How I Created the Ink and Ashes Personality Quiz

internKandace Coston is LEE & LOW’s summer intern. She is one of five recipients of the We Need Diverse Books Internship Program inaugural grant. She graduated from Barnard College where she majored in music and took every creative literature class possible. In her free time, Kandace pursues her other interests, which include American Sign Language, handmade jewelry, and composing cinematic adventures!

I’ve always loved personality quizzes. As a teenager I was obsessed with brightly-colored magazines promising to reveal and explain different traits of my personality. I spent hours answering quirky questions, deciphering ambiguous logic, and debating results. Ink and Ashes coverOften the answers were frivolous and vague like a daily zodiac reading; but every once in a while I got an explanation that cut through my skepticism and perfectly pinched my persona. It felt as though an omniscient force was watching me from within the glossy pages. Those goose bump-inducing quizzes got neatly cut out and taken to school to entertain, and discreetly dissect, my friends.

When I was offered the opportunity to write a personality quiz for Tu Books’ popular YA mystery Ink and Ashes, I jumped at the chance. Creating the quiz would allow me to play haunting omniscient force! I was determined to craft a quiz so poignant and accurate it would induce goose bumps across the arms of every reader in the land! *Evil Laugh*. I immediately set to work in the dark lair of my cubicle.

My first step was to evaluate the six personality types I would use as results: Forrest, Nicholas, Claire, Parker, Fed, and Avery. I assigned each character a different color sticky tab and reread passages of the novel marking moments that revealed their different personality traits. I oversimplified each character’s persona by condensing it into three adjectives. Next I drew a line and plotted the two most opposite personalities, Nicholas and Avery, on either side. Everyone else seemed to fall in between these two characters. I plotted them appropriately completing the personality gradient.quiz picture 1

Next, I began building questions that centered around an outing to the mall. The mall served as a great theme because it’s a natural setting for character-revealing situations. I crafted six questions that related to the novel and are circumstances readers can identify with. I thought four multiple-choice answers per question would suffice but it proved problematic. More than two characters were associated with one answer which made the personalities indistinguishable and muddied the results. Although each character is distinct, they possess certain overlapping traits. For example Parker is smart like Fed, who likes video games like Avery, who embraces conflict like Claire, and so on. The characters’ intersecting personalities led me to a significant realization: they shouldn’t be plotted on a line, but on a triangle.quiz picture 2

With this new discovery I tried a different tactic. Instead of the quiz determining which character the reader was most like, it would determine which characters the reader was most unlike. The process reminded me of how doctors diagnose patients. The answers to questions would reveal symptoms of personality, and with each symptom the quiz would eliminate the character with contrasting personality traits. Through process of elimination the reader would be left with the character he/she has the most in common with. This seemed like a solid, plan until one of my Quiz Testers managed to perfectly eliminate all six characters with her six answers. This showed me I needed additional questions, more specific answers per question, and that this diagnosis-based grading mechanism was unnecessary.

After a few more adjustments to structure and questioning my quiz was finally complete. It turns out crafting a quiz doesn’t entail the wisdom of an omniscient force but rather focused trial and error. The quiz may not be perfectly accurate or provide poignant personality revelations but that’s not the point. The point is to engage fans of Ink and Ashes by giving them something fun to discuss and results to agree or disagree with. The quiz serves as another way for readers to see themselves in literature.

To take the Ink and Ashes quiz for yourself, check it out here.

1 Comments on How I Created the Ink and Ashes Personality Quiz, last added: 8/29/2015
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5. Bad Kitty Readalikes

Bad Kitty Gets A BathIf you like the Bad Kitty chapter books by Nick Bruel, try these other funny books about mischief and mayhem for ages 7-9.

Franny K. Stein, Mad Scientist Book #1: Lunch Walks Among Us by Jim Benton
Mad scientist Franny is having trouble making friends at her new school, so she begins to experiment with fitting in. The result of her experiment is not so great though. You could even call it . . . monstrous.

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon
Danny Dragonbreath and his iguana best friend, Wendell, attend the Herpitax-PhibbiasSchool for Reptiles and Amphibians, and deal with bullies, bad grades, nerves of steel, and of course, fire breath. See also the other books in the Dragonbreath series.

Great Critter Capers: The Great Hamster Massacre by Katie Davis
After years of begging their parents for pet hamsters, Anna and Tom’s beloved pets mysteriously die! Anna and Tom begin a humorous murder investigation throughout their neighborhood. See also the other books in the Great Critter Caper series.

Geronimo Stilton Book #1: Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye by Geronimo Stilton
Search for buried treasure, uncover a great pyramid of cheese, and uncover haunted cats with famed mouse reporter Geronimo Stilton and his sister Thea. See also the other books in the Geronimo Stilton series.

Babymouse Book #1: Queen of the World! by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Meet the wildly imaginative Babymouse as she rocks out, camps out, and breaks hearts. See also the other books in the Babymouse series.

Stink Book #1: The Incredible Shrinking Kid by Megan McDonald
Judy Moody’s little terror of a brother now has his own series full strange antics, from getting free candy to super stinky sneakers. See also the other books in the Stink series.

Cat Diaries: Secret Writings of the MEOW Society by Betsy Byars, Betsy Duffey, and Laurie Myers
At the annual gathering of the MEOW society, cats of all kinds gather to tell cat stories. Find out the stories of Chico, the smallest cat in the world, a Pirate Cat, and Georgio the chef cat.

Dog Diaries: Secret Writings of the WOOF Society by Betsy Byars, Betsy Duffey, and Laurie Myers
It is the first annual meeting of the WOOF Society, a yearly storytelling extravaganza where dogs from all over the world gather to share funny diary entries from their ancestors.

Chi’s Sweet Home by Kanata Konami
In this adorable manga, Yohei and his family learn how difficult it is to keep their mischievous kitten a secret from their landlords. See also the other books in the Chi’s Sweet Home series.

Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires
Binky prepares for his first trip into space, but begins to worry how his humans would protect themselves if he left for good. See also the other books in the Binky Adventure series.

Golden Hamster Saga Book # 1: I Freddy by Dietlof Reiche
Intelligent golden hamster Freddy aspires to escape captivity and to become an independent and civilized creature.

Fashion Kitty by Charise Mericle Harper
After a stack of fashion magazines falls on Kiki Kitty’s head while she is blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, Kiki turns into Fashion Kitty, a feline superhero who saves other kitties from fashion disaster.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
A pig named Wilbur befriends a spider named Charlotte, who tries to convince the farmer that Wilbur is no ordinary animal.

Amanda, STACKS Writer

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6. Ramie Targoff shortlisted for the Christian Gauss Award


The Phi Beta Kappa Society recently announced the shortlists for their 2015 book awards, and several books published by university presses made the cut. The awards include the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award (which honors the book “that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity”), and the Christian Gauss Award, described below:

The Christian Gauss Award goes to books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. The prize, created in 1960, honors the late Christian Gauss, the distinguished Princeton University scholar, teacher, and dean who also served as President of The Phi Beta Kappa Society.

Among those books shortlisted for the Gauss Award was Ramie Targoff’s Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England, which considers the boundaries that Renaissance English poets drew between earthly and heavenly existence, as they transformed the concept of posthumous love—so dominant in the days of Dante and Petrarch—and instead introduced a new mode of poetics that derived its emotional and aesthetic power from its insistence upon love’s mortal limits.

Winners—each of whom will receive a $10,000 prize—will be announced on October 1, 2015.

To read more about Posthumous Love, click here.

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7. Epic Character Questions Quiz

Writing PromptEpic Character Questions Quiz

PurpleFashionista86 posted these questions on the Harry Potter Message Board but they could also apply to any characters in any book series.

  1. Who is your favorite character?
  2. Which character would you go on a date with?
  3. If you were away, what character would take care of your pet for you?
  4. What character would you like to live with?
  5. What character would be your best friend?
  6. If you could take a character camping who would it be?
  7. If you had the choice to go anywhere with a character, what place would you go, and whom would you go with? 
  8. If you could be a character, which one would it be? 
  9. Which character would you want in your dorm?

Leave YOUR answers in the Comments!

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8. How a Writing Contest for Students is Changing the Immigration Narrative

LEE & LOW BOOKS has two writing contests for unpublished authors of color: the New Voices Award, for picture book manuscripts, and the New Visions Award, for middle grade and young adult manuscripts. Both contests, which are now open for submissions aim to recognize the diverse voices and talent among new authors of color who might otherwise remain under the radar of mainstream publishing.

In this guest post, we wanted to highlight another groundbreaking writing contest that’s bringing attention to marginalized voices and fostering a love of writing in students: the Celebrate America Writing Contest run by the American Immigration Council. Coming into its 19th year, the Celebrate America Writing Contest for fifth graders has been bringing attention to the contributions of immigrants in America through the eyes and pens of our youngest writers.

In this guest post, Claire Tesh, Senior Manager of Education at the American Immigration Council, discusses the mission of the Celebrate America Writing Contest and how it has helped to shape the immigration narrative.claire tesh

It is impossible to escape the negative vitriol and hateful rhetoric around the issue of immigration that dominates the headlines, talk radio, popular culture, and in some cases the dinner table. In an effort to educate children and communities about the value of immigration to our society The American Immigration Council teams up with schools and community groups to provide young people the resources and information necessary to think critically about immigration from both a historical and contemporary perspective, while working collaboratively and learning about themselves and their communities.

The American Immigration Council developed “Celebrate America,” an annual national creative writing contest for fifth graders, because they are at the age where they are discovering their place in the world both locally and globally. They are also finding their own voice, opinions and ideas through writing, creating and sharing.   Students at this age start making sense of current events; they have a better working knowledge of basic history, and have a sense of global awareness.

Thousands of Entries

“Celebrate America” began 19 years ago with just a couple dozen entries. Today it has grown to over 5,000 entries annually! Since 1997 a total of close to 75,000 students have participated in two dozen cities, in nearly 750 schools and community centers across the nation.

As the lead on the contest since 2006, I have read thousands of entries and have attended numerous events featuring the writers. It is difficult to pick just one example, but in 2008 the winning entry America is a Refuge really showed how much a 10-12 year old can comprehend about the issue. That year, the winner, Cameron Busby, explained to a reporter from the Tucson Citizen that “I want to be a horror writer when I grow up,” and in order to tell the story of America being a place people come to be safe and thrive, he used bits and pieces of some of his classmate’s true horror stories of their own or their family member’s immigration journeys. This excerpt shows the young writer’s entry and how he made sense of injustice and how America has always been a nation symbolic as a beacon for hope:

A small child holds out a hoping


a crumb of bread,

or even a penny just to be fed

Hoping America is a refuge. A 

child weeps over her mother’s 

lifeless body,

the tears streaming down her


Praying America is a refuge.

Part of the reason why it’s a popular contest is because it fits neatly with the fifth grade curriculum and it is easy for teachers to implement by offering timely lessons and expository learning opportunities from classroom visits by experts to interactive web-based games. The contest is unique in that it allows for any written work that captures the essence of why the writer is proud that America is a nation of immigrants and students can express themselves through narrative, descriptive, expository, or persuasive writings, poetry, and other forms of written expressions. The teaching and learning opportunities the contest brings to both the classroom and the community has made it very popular and most teachers who participate do so year after year.In the Classroom

Monica Chun, a teacher from Seattle who has participated in the contest for several years and whose student, Erin Stark, was a national winner in 2013, starts the assignment by asking students to ask their relatives at home a question: “Who was the first person in our family to come to America?” No matter what ethnicity or how recent or distant a family’s arrival be, every student is going to have a unique answer to this question.

Involving the Community

”Celebrate America” encourages youth, families and surrounding communities to evaluate and appreciate the effects of immigration in their own lives. The unique contest includes the following components:

  • Immigration attorneys or trained volunteers visit classrooms, whether in person or virtually. The visitors give short presentations about the history of American immigration and the contributions immigrants have made over the years;
  • Teachers complement the contest by implementing lessons about immigration, social justice and diversity into their curriculum;
  • The American Immigration Council provides classrooms with innovative, relevant, and interactive lessons and resources;
  • Communities organize events, naturalization ceremonies and other celebrations to showcase the local winners;
  • The winning entry from each locale is sent to the national office and judged by well-known journalists, immigration judges and award winning authors;
  • The winning entry is read into the Congressional record, a flag is flown over the Capitol in the winner’s honor and the winner reads their entry at a 700+ person event that celebrates immigration; and
  • In the submissions the youth voice brings hope that there will be solutions to the immigration debate.

The American Immigration Council believes that teachers, parents, and students are essential to building a collective movement toward a better future: in our classrooms, in our schools, and in the larger society.   With the community’s engagement, educators, parents and students can help bridge this divide and approach the issue of immigration with intelligence and empathy.

american immigration council

Contest Impact

The contest has an impact not only in the schools and communities that participate, but also in the halls of Congress. Each year when the winning entry is read into the Congressional Record, it is rewarding to know that our leaders are hearing words of wisdom from a young person who has big ideas and who has chosen to use their voice to invite others to learn about immigration and to celebrate America’s diversity.

When the winning entries are read to new citizens at naturalization ceremonies or at dinner galas in communities of all sizes, almost every attendee has tears in their eyes because the young readers are speaking from their hearts and they represent the future. Each and every year the young writers continue to surprise us with the depth and empathy in their writings whether it is their common sense solutions to an immigration system or the story of their own immigrant background. Any writer, no matter how old and how experienced, should look at these entries to get a sense for authentic voice and various styles of writing. The thousands of students who submit to the contest get recognized in their communities and the affect is exponential because students start in the classroom and their voice continues to be shared within their schools, within their communities and beyond.

The students participating in “Celebrate America” are America’s future citizens, voters, educators and activists and it is truly an honor to shape the contest so that it provides some of the tools to think critically about immigration and to learn to explore the economic and moral effects of immigration policy as they engage in the public debates. But, today as we try to navigate the complicated maze that is immigration law and policy, it is through their incredible choice of words, that they are our guides, our teachers, and our voices of reason.

For further information on eligibility and submission process:

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9. Back-to-School Poetry Generator

Back to SchoolWrite A Back-to-School Poem With Our Back-to-School Poetry Generator!

It’s that time again. Back. To. School. To get you in the back-to-school zone, for today’s Writing Prompt, your “homework” is to take the 25 words below and generate your own poem. The poems you guys came up with for the Spring Poetry Generator totally gave us spring fever!

You can add articles (little words like “a”, and “the”), verbs, or anything that will help it flow, but try to include as many of these 25 words as you can in your poem. Any style of poem works – rhyming, non-rhyming, couplet, haiku, free-form, or even random. It’s up to you!

  • school
  • rule
  • friends
  • books
  • looks
  • lunch
  • gross
  • desk
  • heart
  • bus
  • homework
  • homeroom
  • teacher
  • locker
  • soccer
  • race
  • leap
  • joy
  • playground
  • awaken
  • 7 am
  • weekend
  • bell
  • beautiful
  • pencil sharpener

Leave your poem in the Comments. We can’t wait to take a lesson . . . from YOU!

-Ratha, STACKS Writer

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10. Excerpt: The Dead Ladies Project


“Berlin/William James”

from Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries


Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience


“You’re in Berlin because you feel like a failure.”

I had met this man all of ten minutes ago and he was already summing me up neatly. I made subtle readjustments to my clothing, as if it had been a wayward bra strap or an upwardly mobile hemline that had given me away. More likely it was my blank stare in response to his question, “So, what brings you to Berlin?”

He has had to do this a lot, I imagine: greet lost boys and girls, still wild with jet lag, still unsure how to make ourselves look less obviously like what we are, we members of the Third Great Wave of American Expatriation to Berlin. This man before me was second on the list of names that everyone gets from worried friends when resettling overseas: Everyone I Know in the City to Which You Are Moving (Not Totally Vouched For). I had lasted about a week before I sent e-mails tinged with panic to everyone on my list. He had been the first to answer.

I must have blushed at the accuracy of his remark, because he immediately qualified it. “Everyone who moves to Berlin feels like a failure. That’s why we’re here. You’ll have good company.” Still embarrassed, I scanned the menu for one of the four German words I had mastered and, failing, pointed helplessly to a random item when the waiter returned. It would prove to be a strange Swiss soda of indeterminate flavor. It tasted like the branch of a tree, carbonated. It was not unpleasant. I had been shooting for something alcoholic, but I was already too laid bare to have admitting to a mistake and reordering left in me.

At this moment it seemed unlikely this American could commiserate. My own failings were too grandiose, the depths to which I had fallen too abysmal. I was narcissistic in my failings, and he looked like he was doing pretty okay. He sat across from me confident, knowledgeable. He had ordered in German. The people in the restaurant had greeted him by name. He talked about artistic projects he was working on. He was certainly sweating less than I was on this hot July day. Later a tale would unravel, one that mimicked the stories of so many of the Americans who had flocked here over the last decade. Unable to survive financially in New York without having to abandon their writing, their art, their music, they came to a city of cheap rents, national health insurance, and plentiful bartending jobs that could cover a reasonable cost of living. He had an apartment. It had hardwood floors. A failure, my eye.

In contrast, there I was, ten days into my new city and still stumbling around like a newborn calf. I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere. It was not a death wish, not really. Not anymore. I was hoping something in the environment, some sturdier, more German atoms, would replace them.

Because there does seem to be something about Berlin that calls out to the exhausted, the broke, the uninsurable with preexisting mental health disorders, the artistically spent, those trapped in the waning of careers, of inspiration, of family relations, and of ambition. To all those whose anxiety dreams play out as trying to steer a careening car while trapped in the backseat, come to us. We have a café culture and surprisingly affordable rents. Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand.

* * *

Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them. Let’s say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.

If that were the case, what to make of the fact that Berlin is built on sand? Situated on a plain with no natural defenses, no major river, no wealth of any particular resource, it’s a city that should not exist. It can’t be any wonder that Berlin has for hundreds of years—no, longer than that, past Napoleon, past the medieval days when suspected witches were lined up at the city gates and molten metal was poured between their clenched teeth, past the whispers of the Romans that those who inhabited these lands were not quite human, back to the days of the people residing here who are now known to us only by some pottery shards and bronze tools—been a little unstable. It would explain the city’s endless need to collapse and rebuild, even as the nation that engulfs it marches on confidently, linearly.

Perhaps its unstable nature is what beckons the unstable to its gates. The Lausitzer. The Jastorf. The Semnonen. The name-less and the preliterate. A shifting bunch of conquerors and the conquered. On through invaders and defenders, and populations reduced by half in war, disease, and the destruction of whoever pulled the short straw for being the scapegoat this century. The process merely sped up in the twentieth, oscillating madly through world wars and grotesque ideas, crashing economies and blind eyes turned.

It plays out seasonally as well here in the northern reaches of Germany. The lush highs of summer, everything green and tangled with a sun reluctant to leave its post at night and overly enthusiastically trying to rouse you from bed in the very early hours of the morning, crash endlessly down toward the darkness of the winter solstice. The trees that had been blooming in a state of fecund glory when I arrived in the city lost their leaves, revealing that the only things behind them were the endless concrete boxes of Soviet midcentury “architecture.” The sun shunned us and rarely peeked out from behind its thick cloud cover. When it deigned to, it gave off all the glow and heat of a porch light. The gray of the sky matched the gray of the buildings matched the gray of the thick coating of ice that remained on the sidewalks all winter. I fell on it one night, or early one morning, I guess, a little worse for wear, accompanied by a man I met at a bar, whose entire seduction strategy was just to follow me home, despite the fact that I kept trying to shoo him away like a stray dog.

I was six months into my Berlin residence. And from my akimbo position I threw the holy tantrum of a sailor-mouthed two-year-old. “Fuck this city. Fuck it. Why the fuck did I ever move here, god fucking damn it.”

“You’re strange,” said the German man, still resolutely standing by.

“Help me up.”

* * *

That’s when I took my William James essays off the shelf. I found in his works of philosophy a friend, a mentor, a professor, and some sort of idealized father. It was his works on the more mundane matters that I relied on—how to make changes in your life, how to believe you can make changes in your life, how to convince yourself to get out of bed in the morning, how not to be a worthless slug—rather than his more important pieces about war or whatever.

James is now a bit of an odd fellow in philosophy. More widely influential than widely known, his theory of pragmatism and his groundbreaking work in the field of psychology make him something of a hidden mover. If you do seek him out, it’s not generally in the way one reads Descartes or Kant or Nietzsche, as a refinement of the intellect or in the pursuit of one’s studies. One finds James when one needs him. He makes quiet sense of the world in all its glories and deprivations, its calamities and its beauties. As a philosopher, James is able to hold all of the sorrow and violence and pain of the world in his mind and remain somehow optimistic. It doesn’t wipe out the goodness of the world, it just sits beside it. It’s no wonder then that people get a little religious about this agnostic philosopher, this man who can restore your faith in the world without necessarily bringing god into it.

I sought out William James because I needed him. He and I were now separated by about a century of death, but we found ourselves occupying the same biographical eddy: bottoming out in Berlin.

* * *

Here is how William James found himself in Berlin: a failure. He had tried and failed to become a painter, failed to become a doctor, failed to become an adventurer. He was not yet a writer, but he was almost certainly still a virgin. He was in his mid-twenties and painfully aware that he had failed even in deciding what it was he wanted to do. He stood there, absolutely calcified with indecision and doubt, while his soon-to-be-famous friends like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made decisions and started careers, and his soon-to-be-famous younger brother, Henry, started his literary apprenticeship with the Atlantic.

Whereas he—well, he fled. First to Dresden and then to Berlin. He arrived under the pretext of furthering his education, but that may have simply been a way to convince his parents to pay for the trip because, despite his advancing age, he had yet to make an income. At any rate, he failed to go to class, ever. Instead he holed up in his Berlin guesthouse, learning German, training his telescope on the legs of the occupants of the all-girls’ school across the street, and failing to figure out a way to flirt with the pretty woman who played the piano downstairs. All the while in his letters to his brother he was alluding to a daily battle not to do himself in.

James lightly fictionalized this time in his life in Varieties of Religious Experience, passing off the breakdown to someone he knows who told him about it. (He’s French, you don’t know him.) In that work he described the sensation of his suicidal idyll as “desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one, and no other conception or sensation able to live for a moment in its presence.” And while his letters to his parents hint at some of this darkness, there he mostly chats about that other Berlin experience, the roast veal and the beer and the music and the philosophy.

Here is how Berlin responded to William James’s time in Berlin: they built a center in his name. At the place of his greatest misery and torment, they built a permanent structure. Although maybe at this point they couldn’t help it. After all the documentation they had to do of the horrors of the twentieth century, maybe now it’s an unconscious reflex to throw up a memorial on the site of every trauma.

Well, not really a structure, I guess. More like a small room. The minute I learned of the center’s existence, I sent off an e-mail to make an appointment. I expected a hall of philosophy on the university campus, maybe in that glorious red brick so many of the buildings in James’s time had been constructed with. I scribbled the address down on a piece of paper, and I took the train to the outskirts, to the University of Potsdam campus. It’s situated next to Sanssouci and its gardens, the former playground of the Prussian king. While the main path through the gardens is still marked with magnificent elm trees, most of the grounds have been allowed to go to seed. It’s not a tourist destination on par with Versailles, and so it is kept in only middling shape. There is a lovely rose garden, but that is surrounded by tangle and bramble. It’s been let go in the Berlin way, all of those straight German lines blurring a little into chaos.

Past the garden gates, into the campus, into the main philosophy hall, up the main staircase, down a hallway, to the left and then right, I came to my destination. It was a small door. The William James Center proved, despite its authoritative name, to be the work of one man. Herr Doktor Professor Logi Gunnarsson. Or is it Herr Professor Doktor . . . I should have remembered to look up the proper order before I left. “It’s Logi, call me Logi.” Luckily Dr. Logi is Icelandic and not beholden to the German titling system. The center’s archives are really just the contents of Dr. Logi’s office. A desk, a computer, some bookcases. Dr. Logi is slight and sandy, and he has the wonderful awkwardness that comes with too many hours spent in the company of dead men.

He is, he tells me, attempting to re-create William James’s personal library as part of his administration of the center, so that he can be surrounded by the same books that surrounded James. It’s a devotional act couched in a scholarly one. It’s an act I can understand. Dr. Logi pours me a cup of tea, and we chat about our good friend William James. Up for discussion, a traumatic encounter with a prostitute, alluded to in letters to his brother and in a journal. He did, it seems, either lose his virginity to the prostitute or, perhaps even more traumatically, fail to.

“The poor dear,” I say.

“Yes, quite. He was hopeless with women. It seems, though, that after he married Alice Howe Gibbens, the physical ailments he was treating in Berlin, the bad back and so on, disappeared.”

“Were they caused by the burden of a protracted virginity?”

“Perhaps. The poor dear.”

I am keeping Dr. Logi from professional duties, but I don’t care and it appears he doesn’t either. I imagine it might be a relief for him, as it is for me, to have someone to converse with about our favorite person. Or willingly converse, as I’m sure he inflicts William James on the people around him like I do.

“What do you make,” I ask slowly, “of the fact that his first book wasn’t published until he was forty-nine?”

Part of William’s freakout, Dr. Logi had mentioned earlier, sprang from an enormous need to be seen. By the public, by his friends, by his father. He wanted to “assert his reality” on the world, as he wrote in his letters, and it took approximately twenty years after writing that statement until he would.

“Surely not . . .” Dr. Logi starts, but then he does the math in his head. “I guess I knew that but had forgotten. I mean . . . And he could not have known he would eventually succeed.”

We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of the years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.

* * *

Whenever James was corresponding with a colleague or an inquirer, Dr. Logi told me, he would request from them a portrait. It was important for him to see the whole of the person, at least a bit of their humanity, and not only their written representation.

In that spirit, I have before me two images of William James. The first was taken around the time he moved to Berlin. He looks stricken, pale and withdrawn. It is as if he had recoiled into a permanent flinch. He looks off to the side, unable perhaps to meet the camera’s gaze. There is something fractured deep at the heart of him.

In the other, it is a few decades on. There is gray in his beard and his face is worn. He exudes charm, warmth, and wisdom. It is a William James in whose lap you want to sit and listen to stories. He is keeping some secrets, but he will share them if you draw near.

It is the distance between these two photographs that is so fascinating. Not simply in age but in substance of the man. Biographers are interested (I am interested) in the Berlin breakdown because of the distance traveled between the two Jameses and the quality of the end result. It’s a favorite myth in our culture that hardship makes you a better person, that it is merely the grindstone on which your essence is refined and polished. But the truth is that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition, and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted. That is the territory where mean drunks and tyrannical bastards come from.

Not so with James. He may have always been a little hopeless with women (he sent a series of hilarious and heartbreaking letters to his Alice in the months before their wedding, in a vein that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever gotten a little sullen after a bottle of wine and decided to start texting), and the weight of depression did occasionally re-descend, but he walked out of that phase with dignity and great compassion. He used his experiences, both the good and the ill, for the base of his incredibly humane body of work.

So then what’s the magic formula? Can his transition be distilled down to a scientific protocol to be reproduced at home in your own basement laboratory? Could we use William James’s example to turn our respective chemical imbalances into alchemical processes?

* * *

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zig-zags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles. Wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and an effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

It is difficult today to imagine the Berlin that James encountered in the nineteenth century. So much of the city was reduced to rubble and ash in the intervening years. I can look at photos and get a sense of who the city might have been. But when I’m out, actually walking around on the streets, it is an entirely different place.

Most of the surface of the city was bulldozed after World War II, and the unsalvageable and the unclaimed was dumped in Grunewald on the outskirts of town. The pile of junk that used to be houses, used to be bakeries and hat shops, used to be attached to human bodies, was covered in dirt, and the wild was allowed to reclaim it. Now it is something of a park or nature preserve, with hiking trails through the woods—the trees still looking suspiciously young—up and down this artificial hill. One of the only hills in this swamp-turned-into-a-city.

The Germans may look like proper churchgoing Lutherans on the outside, but they are all at heart tree-worshiping animists from way back, starting with the pagan cults in the Schwarzwald, to the nature idolatry of the romantic and counter-Enlightenment movements in the nineteenth century. It still bleeds through in their songs and in their art. A few decades before James arrived, Bogumil Goltz wrote, “What the evil over-clever, insipid, bright cold world encumbers and complicates, the wood-green mysterious, enchanted, dark, culture-renouncing but true to the law of nature must free and make good again.”

So maybe that is where James’s Berlin still resides, out in Grunewald, buried in some sort of purification rite inspired by a mysterious calling from deep within the German DNA. The wood-green making all of those horrors good again. It’s a calm place, soothing. But also policed by territorial wild boar.


To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.

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11. Goosebumps Movie Preview

Goosebumps logoGoosebumps Movie Comes to Theaters October 16!

I love the Goosebumps series so much because it’s just the right amount of scary and surprising! So it was a dream-come-true when I was invited to an early screening of the Goosebumps movie (rated PG).

Let me tell you, the movie does not disappoint! It is so cool to see all the monsters from R. L. Stine’s stories come together in one action-packed movie. Jack Black does a wonderful job playing R. L. Stine, and the whole cast really brings the Goosebumps series to life on the big screen! The movie features all my favorite Goosebumps monsters and shows Stine’s huge imagination and creativity to the fullest. I was hanging on the edge of my seat and wishing it would never end!

Goosebumps Movie

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

At one point in the movie, the R. L. Stine character says, “A good story has three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the twist!” I think that quote sums up the movie for me because it includes all of my favorite classic Goosebumps moments while also ending with a shocking twist! Sorry, no spoilers! You have to wait until October 16 when the movie comes to theaters.

Goosebumps movie

photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

If you were writing your own Goosebumps story, which monsters would you include? Would you keep all the classic characters or make up your own? And what fun twist would you throw in to take readers on your exciting and spooky journey?

Let us know the details of your Goosebumps story in the Comments below, and remember not to be too graphic or scary for kids younger than you!

Megan, STACKS Intern

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12. Diversifying Your Back-to-School Reading

In this guest post from the Lee & Low archives, professor Katie Cunningham discusses ways to diversify Common Core recommended texts. As we gather resources to begin the new school year, Katie’s post is a good reminder that each year offers a fresh opportunity to look at the books we use with new eyes to see if they are serving us, and serving our students.

We live in an increasingly diverse society. Nowhere is this more evident than in classrooms, in both urban and suburban schools.  Nationally, our classrooms are almost 45% non-White and the trend toward greater diversity is expected to continue. Our classrooms reflect this trend, but our classroom libraries do not. The New York Times found that despite making up about nearly a quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, young Latino readers seldom see themselves in books. Those of us in schools working with children from minority backgrounds know this to be true as we scan our bookshelves and find protagonists that are overwhelmingly white and living in suburban, privileged settings. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that in 2011, only 6% of children’s books featured characters from African American, American Indian, Asian Pacific/ Asian Pacific American, or Latino backgrounds.

Toni Morrison said, “National literature reflects what is on the national mind.” More than ever, we have a responsibility to reflect national population trends through our literature selections. As of 2011, teachers are being directed to the Common Core State Standards and its corresponding Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Performance Tasks, which has suggested texts for read-alouds and independent reading for students at grade level bands K-12.

While not required reading, there remains confusion among teachers and administrators about how to approach the list. As you scan the suggestions, you’ll quickly find a return to traditional texts like Black Stallion in fourth grade and Little Women in sixth through eighth grade. I’m of the opinion that reading traditional texts like the Preamble and Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (also in Appendix B) can give students cultural capital needed to be successful within the educational system.

Yet, while we can turn to the Standards for suggestions, we need to turn to the children in our own classrooms and ask ourselves whether they see themselves represented in books. Not only a responsibility, this is a moral imperative. We need to ensure a balance between traditional texts and books that offer contemporary portrayals of life and youth today, that reflect the lived experiences of the students in our classrooms.

The Uncommon Corps has started a campaign to better Appendix B and has a running Better B list worthy of checking out to hear what’s on the national mind. Teachers searching for a solution can also consider classic and contemporary multicultural pairings such as those below, especially when searching for titles that represent childhood. If we keep questioning what’s accepted as our national literature for children, we will rightfully start to see books that provide mirrors for every child in every class.

Classic and Contemporary Multicultural Pairings

CLASSIC: Henry and Mudge by Cynthia Rylant

CONTEMPORARY: Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic by Ginnie Lo; Elizabeti’s Doll by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen; Loose Tooth by Margaret Yatsevitch Phinney; Bird by Zetta Elliott

Bird cover

CLASSIC: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

CONTEMPORARY: Angel’s Kite by Alberto Bianco; Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Summer of the Mariposas cover

CLASSIC: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

CONTEMPORARY: Alicia Afterimage by Lulu Delacre; Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley

Cat-Girl-Cover FINAL

CLASSIC: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

CONTEMPORARY: Galaxy Games: The Challengers by Greg Fishbone; Chess Rumble by G. Neri; Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri

GalaxyGamesKatie CunninghamABOUT KATIE CUNNINGHAM: Guest blogger Katie Cunningham is an Assistant Professor at Manhattanville College. Her teaching and scholarship centers around children’s literature, critical literacy, and supporting teachers to make their classrooms joyful and purposeful. Katie has presented at numerous national conferences and is the editor of The Language and Literacy Spectrum, New York Reading Association’s literacy journal.


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13. Back-to-School Tips

Back to SchoolQuick Tips for Back-to-School

AmusedBrain4 has some back-to-school tips for freshman on the Reading Buzz Board, but they can really help for any grade, so take a look and see what you think.

Ahhhh, so school is just around the corner. I thought I would give some quick tips for those who are starting their first year of high school . . .

  1. Don’t sign up for more than 2 Honors classes your first year. You might regret taking too many.
  2. It’s okay to make new friends.
  3. Don’t stress yourself out over school work. I know it can get overwhelming but you don’t want to look back on your first year and remember hating it.
  4. If you have been studying for hours IT’S OKAY TO TAKE A BREAK. Go out with some friends, and eat lots of ice cream. Ice cream makes everything better!
  5. If you get a bad grade on something remember that someone else probably did worse.
  6. Make sure you eat lunch! (Even if you only have 20 minutes, grab a yogurt or some fruit.)
  7. Have at least one fun class like band or art or something you love.
  8. After-school clubs are worth it. It can be scary joining stuff but trust me, you won’t regret it.
  9. Try new things. Join the school play, or marching band, or something you’ve never thought of trying. Freshman year is a year for you to figure out what you want to do.
  10. Lastly, don’t let one bad teacher ruin your year. It’s just one class, and it won’t ruin your grades.

Do you think these tips will help you this school year? Whatever grade you are starting this year, tell us your tips in the Comments! Happy new school year!

Sonja, STACKS Staffer


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14. Culture War? What Is It Good For?

9780226254500 (1)

An excerpt from Jacqui Shine’s review of Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars at the LA Review of Books:

Though the allegiances of the culture wars tend to fall along predictable political lines, Hartman gives special attention to surprising moments of reversal and repetition. He notes, for example, that colorblind conservatism actually marks something of a reversion to an earlier colorblind liberalism, rather than the invention of a new ideological stance from whole cloth. After 1965, Hartman argues, a “reconstructed racial liberalism favored a proactive government that would guarantee black Americans not only ‘equality as a right and a theory’ but also, as the nation’s leading liberal Lyndon Johnson famously put it, ‘equality as a fact and a result.’” The fruit of this strategy was the rise of affirmative action, and “the line that divided opponents in the affirmative action debate … was the line between an older colorblind racial liberalism and a newer color-conscious racial liberalism that had incorporated elements of Black Power into its theoretical framework.” Thus, when conservatives took up the rhetoric of colorblindness to oppose racial quotas, they were repurposing an earlier liberal position. Hartman likewise stresses the peculiar politics of the national debate over pornography, in which “the logic of anti-porn feminism influenced the Christian Right,” and William Buckley Jr. found himself agreeing with Andrea Dworkin that pornography should be banned, though not about why.

Read the review in full here.

To read more about The War for the Soul of America, click here.

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15. Cybils Awards: Five Reasons to Apply as a Judge!

Everyone else is doing it, so I thought I'd post my five reasons why you should apply to be a Cybils Awards judge. As you would expect, there's a lot of overlap with other people's reasons, but I'll add my own spin on them, and with an emphasis on my category, Young Adult Speculative Fiction. For those who don't know what speculative fiction is, it includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, dystopian, steampunk, and basically anything else with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.

1. Read and discuss good books. Hopefully you don't need an excuse to read, but it doesn't hurt to be able to say, "Sorry, I can't do the dishes, I have to finish this Cybils book." Cybils judges engage in intense reading - and for Round 1, a LOT of reading - and intense discussions with a small group of people who share your book passion.

In YA Spec Fic, we've sometimes had upwards of 200 nominated books in Round 1, and while you don't have to read them all, Round 1 judges in YA SF can expect to have to read at least 40 books over a 3 month period. (Presumably, you'll already have read some of the category nominations). It's crazy intense, but so much fun! Round 2 judges have to read 5 to 7 books in a little under 6 weeks, but they get to read "the best of the best" and choose a winner.

2. Make lifelong friends. Those intense discussions with like-minded people? Turns out they're a great basis for a friendship. I've made lifelong friends from serving together on a Cybils panel. (And KidLitCon is a great place to meet up with them in person!)

3. Influence the books available for children/teen reading. Yup, awards do have an influence. And while the Cybils don't get as much media as, say, the ALA awards, we have a pretty big and dedicated following that includes teachers, librarians, and booksellers. The books you choose may end up on reading lists, getting purchased by a library, or in bookstore displays. Books that win awards and get that attention may be more likely to be reprinted or have a sequel or other books by the author published.

4. Get your blog better known. Did I mention we have a following? Round 1 judges are encouraged to blog about the books you read, and while Round 2 judges can't blog the finalists during the round, they can post reviews after the winners are announced. Throughout the Cybils season, we post review excerpts with links to reviews by both Round 1 and Round 2 judges to the Cybils blog, thus further aiding discovery of judges' blogs. During the summer, you can contribute themed book lists for posting on the Cybils blog. Being a Cybils judge can bring greater visibility to your blog, increase your traffic, and give you greater credibility with publishers.

5. Learn a lot. I mean, a lot. I sometimes think I know a lot about YA SF, but every year I'm blown away by the knowledge and expertise of my fellow judges, and every year I learn more from them.

What I'm looking for

As Category Chair for YA Speculative Fiction, I have the responsibility to choose the judges for my category. It's my least favorite part of the Cybils: I hate having to choose one person over another, but unfortunately we usually don't have room for everyone.

Here are some of the things that I look for:

1. A passion for speculative fiction. If your "about" on your blog says that you don't really like most spec fic, then I'll most likely pass. If you don't post about SF much, I'll think long and hard before choosing you.

2. Knowledge of spec fiction and its subgenres. Speculative Fiction is a very diverse genre. One day you might be reading a scary ghost story, and the next a futuristic dystopian. I look for people who have read broadly within the genre and can discuss the various aspects, literary elements, and tropes of the genre.

3. Critical thinking skills. I have to know that you can think critically about books and analyze the literary elements and readability of a book. Reviews are a great way to demonstrate this, but if you don't review books, hopefully you can submit other blog posts that demonstrate your critical thinking skills.

4. Open to diverse perspectives. I want to see that you have a demonstrated interest in diversity, and a tolerance for worldviews different from your own.

5. Diverse backgrounds. I mean this in two ways. First, I look for people who can bring expertise or experience with one or more under-represented groups, in what we usually mean when we say diversity. For example, do you blog about people of color, LGBTQA+ characters, differently-abled characters, different religious or worldviews, etc.? Second, I look for a variety of personal and work experience, so that the panel is hopefully made up of a good mix of librarians, teachers, parents, booksellers, authors, etc.

So I have I scared you off yet? Oops, I was supposed to be convincing you why you should apply! Please do apply, and if YA Speculative Fiction isn't your thing, we have plenty of other categories ranging from Easy Readers to Young Adult. We even have a book apps category!

Here's the information on how to apply!

Also, see the following posts for more reasons to apply!

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16. 10 Reasons to Read Diversely + Poster Giveaway

When we talk about reading diversely, the conversation often focuses on representation and social justice: making sure that our books don’t reinforce inequality by stereotyping, marginalizing, or erasing groups of people. This is urgently important.

But what often gets left out of the conversation is how reading diversely can be a matter of pure enjoyment.  For those of us who love books because they help us see the world through someone else’s eyes, reading diversely can be the icing on the cake of a spectacular reading experience.

Here are our 10 favorite reasons to read diversely. What are yours?

  1. The world is diverse, so why shouldn’t our books be?
  2. It’s boring to only read about people just like you.
  3. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.
  4. Diverse books inspire us to be the authors
    of our own stories
  5. Walking in someone else’s shoes builds empathy.
  6. Diverse books make us feel seen and understood.
  7. Reading diversely can help turn nonreaders into readers.
  8. Understanding different cultures helps us succeed in a global world.
  9. Magic happens when we step outside of our comfort zones.
  10. Diverse books redefine who and what we can be.

10 reasons to read diversely

Click here for a larger image. Want a copy of our Reading Diversely poster? Comment below with your name and email address and we’ll send one out to you! (US addresses only).

Why do YOU think it’s important to read diversely?


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17. El Deafo

el deafoNew El Deafo Book Trailer!

Have you seen STACKS Writer En-Szu’s awesome video for El Deafo by Cece Bell? If you love hilarious graphic novels about unusual superheroes, watch this video!

el deafo book trailer

Tell us what you think in the Comments! Are you already a fan of El Deafo?

Sonja, STACKS Staffer

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18. Looking for Nutrition Knowledge? Educate Yourself Here!

find the perfect balanced dietWhen it comes time for you to make a change to your diet, you may wonder where to begin, as there are so many things to consider when trying to obtain the proper nutrients everyday. The tips in this article can provide you with what you need to know to start improving your diet.

Niacin is an important part of a healthy diet. It helps in the maintenance of the skin, the gastrointestinal tract and mucous membranes. Niacin also assists in circulating the blood and nerve function. Niacin works in the body to release energy from fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in food for effective use in the body.

Quick & Simple Tips: http://www.thedietdynamo.com/nutri-headquarters/complete-reviews-of-nutrisystem/

There are two thoughts regarding whether eating meat is ethical. One sees it as killing a fellow creature and morally wrong. Another says that the farm animals that produce our meat only have life because they provide food for us and that when we eat meat with gratitude we affirm these animals’ lives.

In the grocery store, shop the outer areas and try to avoid the inner aisles. The outer walls of the grocery store is where the good stuff is. Fruits and veggies, fresh meat, fish, bread and dairy are all usually located on the outer aisles and areas. The inner aisles are usually full of preprocessed foods that can tempt you off course like cookies, chips, pastas, and others. Stay away from them to keep your shopping in line.

MSG is added to many processed foods to enhance taste. But MSG adds no nutritional value and it has been found to have many negative effects, including depression and headaches. Some people are more sensitive than others, but you should avoid MSG even if you are not hypersensitive. It may have long-term, cumulative effects.

Improve the overall quality of your diet by only eating organic products or raw vegetables. These foods are great because they will supply just the nutrients that your skin needs, and nothing extra that will yield fat or irritation. Additionally, you will feel better during the day and energetic while working or at school.

Find The Most Cost Effective Programs: http://www.thedietdynamo.com/nutri-headquarters/nutrisystem-plans-and-costs/

Eating the right diet that supports exercise levels and gives the body the required materials to rebuild itself, is a key component to physical fitness. Having the right amount of protein will allow for muscle growth. Providing enough carbohydrates will give the body fuel for the day. The right diet makes a big difference.

Nutrition is one of the key components to proper weight control. Knowing what to eat and what to avoid can help you lose weight or maintain your current weight if you have reached your goal. Fresh fruits and vegetables are great snacks that can help keep weight off and give you what you need in nutrition when it comes to vitamins and minerals.

Eating nutritionally can be difficult when you decide to make lifestyle changes regarding your diet. If you like to eat foods that make you feel comfortable you need to decide between them and healthy things. Sooner than you think you will desire the healthier options, just take control over your impulses. Now when you eat, you will be thinking about nutrition, which not only improves your physical state, but also your emotional one.

Nutrition is seen in the types of foods we consume. Eating foods high in fiber, vitamins, mineral and a proper proportion of fat, carbohydrates, and protein is considered the proper way to eat. Avoid eating food for the sake of eating it or to feel good. This leads to over eating and gaining unwanted weight.

As you have seen, when it comes to changing your diet, there are many things to take into consideration. They just vary person to person. All it takes to start changing your diet is some research, asking questions, work and patience for you to start seeing results. It will improve your life in the long run.

More Great Tips:


The post Looking for Nutrition Knowledge? Educate Yourself Here! appeared first on Health & Fitness Book Publishers.

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19. World Elephant Day


Tuesday, August 12th, is the inaugural “World Elephant Day,” initiated by a number of elephant conservation organizations, each working in collaboration toward “better protection for wild elephants, improving enforcement policies to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, better treatment for captive elephants and, when appropriate, reintroducing captive elephants into natural, protected sanctuaries.”

Caitlin O’Connell, the author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, recently posted at National Geographic about the loss of Greg, the iconic elephant whose rise and reign as a don among his peers was chronicled in her book. Finally reconciling that fact that she hadn’t seen Greg in four years with the increasing likelihood of his death inspired O’Connell to post a formal obit, of sorts, in which she reminisced on Greg’s presence, absence, and legacy. In part:

Four years after what most probably marked the passing of the don, I can’t ignore the impact that his absence has had on this male society, and just how similar their social dynamics have been to a human society after the loss of a great figure head. In 2012, the first season without the don, there seemed to be competing factions, Prince Charles leading one camp and Luke the other. The interesting thing in that dynamic was the fact that both these characters had been bullies and had previously shown no interest in taking the next generation under their elephantine wing. But in the absence of Greg, they both changed their tune and had amassed an impressive following. But by 2013, both of these building strongholds had collapsed with barely a trace of the loyal following they had built for themselves.

By 2014 it was hard to imagine that such a tightknit social group of male elephants existed. Long gone were the days of Greg’s conga line amassing on the horizon and coming in to spend hours together and the social club that was Mushara.

And now, here we are in the last quarter of the 2015 season, and there is barely a trace of the don’s social fabric that he has so carefully stitched together and vigorously maintained. It was hard for even me to remember the way things were.

A faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine, O’Connell has been chronicling the lives of African male elephants for the past twenty-three years, including Elephant Don and an earlier work, The Elephant’s Secret Sense, both of which are published by the University of Chicago Press. As one of our foremost experts on elephant behavior and communication, her posts for National Geographic‘s Voices blog are an excellent foray into the issues faced first-hand by these majestic creatures, as well as an anthropological chronicle of the day-to-day lives of a particular group of elephants living at Etosha National Park in Namibia. You can read more about Greg’s story in Elephant Don—in addition to her blog posts for NG and numerous popular books and articles about elephant communities, O’Connell runs a Tumblr, Elephant Skinny, filled with anecdotes and images that pick up where Elephant Don leaves off (most recently with the birth of Athena, daughter to Mona Lisa, pictured below).


To read more about World Elephant Day, click here.

To read more by Caitlin O’Connell, click here.

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20. August STACKS Star

Stacks starsMeet MerryAngel32!

August Stacks Star


This month’s STACKS Star is MerryAngel32! She loves to read horror books like Goosebumps and if she could be any fruit in the world, she would be an apple because it’s crunchy, sweet, has small seeds and is so “easy-peasy” to cut. One thing she would love to give every child across the world is access to a free library so that everyone can read books! Read more about MerryAngel32 in our STACKS Blast newsletter!

Now, I have two super-serious questions to ask you:

1. Would YOU like a chance to become the next star?
2. How well do you know Harry Potter?

This month’s questions are all about Harry Potter and I want to see how many of you know, like, really, really know the books, characters, and movies. If you know all the answers to the questions, then you might become the next STACKS Star! I will be picking a random user who answers these questions correctly:

  1. When is Harry Potter’s birthday? (Hint: It just passed.)
  2. Where is Harry’s first bedroom located in the Dursley’s home?
  3. How many siblings does Ron Weasley have?
  4. What do Hermione Granger’s parents do for a living?
  5. Who is the real Half-Blood Prince?
  6. Besides English, what other language does Harry speak?
  7. Who is the youngest Quidditch player of all time at Hogwarts?
  8. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, who are the last two competitors standing inside the maze?
  9. What does Hagrid do to Dudley after he sees him eating Harry’s birthday cake on Harry’s 11th birthday?
  10. What is Voldemort’s real name?

Good luck everyone and leave your answers to these HP questions in the Comments! Don’t forget to update your profile and avatar to make it look your best in case you are the next STACKS Star!

Sandy, STACKS Staffer




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21. Two Authors Share What “Voice” Means To Them

New Voices Award sealThis year marks our sixteenth annual New Voices Award, Lee & Low’s writing contest for unpublished writers of color.

In this blog series, past New Voices winners gather to give advice for aspiring writers. This month, we’re talking about what “voice” means to an author.

When discussing the various elements of writing craft, “voice” seems to be the most difficult to pin down. You can’t plot it on a chart or even clearly define what the word means, and yet it is one of the most important elements of a story. Editors (and readers) are always looking for strong, distinct voices. It is an invisible string that echoes throughout a story and pulls the reader in. And when an author or character’s voice is nonexistent or inconsistent, it is the first thing we notice.

Voice builds trust between the author, characters, and readers. To develop a strong voice that will ring true, an author needs to understand both the story and him/herself as a writer. What is the tone of the story? Who are your characters? If a key feature—gender, age, cultural background—of the main character changes, would the voice change? It should! There are many ways to approach “voice,” and below, Linda Boyden and Paula Yoo share their techniques.

Linda Boyden, author of The Blue Roses, New Voices Winner 2000New Voices Winners (1)

The Blue Roses was my first published book. I had written many picture book manuscripts prior to it, most of which are still gathering dust and mold, but now I see how that process was vital for me to evolve as a writer. I developed the voice of this main character, Rosalie, by experimenting.
I wrote many versions of the book. I considered writing it inthird person, having one of the adult
characters do the narrating for about a nano-second; in my heart I knew this was Rosalie’s story and no one else’s, but that didn’t stop me from more experimenting. I tried having her voice be that of a child, but Papa’s death would have been too harsh an experience for a child to deal with objectively. Instead, Rosalie narrates as her adult self, after having had enough time to smooth the edges of her loss. So experiment until you understand the heart of your character; that’s where you’ll find their true voice. 

Paula Yoo, author of Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds, New Voices Winner 2005

For me, voice comes out of nowhere. I can’t predict when I will find the “voice” of my story. Voice is not only the way my main character narrates the story (his/her style of speaking, their point of view, their personality) but also in the tone of the entire story (humorous, tragic, touching). Sometimes I find my “voice” AFTER I do a ton of research and preparation, such as figuring out the story beats and plot twists and the character’s emotional journey/arc. Sometimes the voice finds ME first—I’ll just start writing a story from the point of view of a character that has taken over me because he/she has something important and unique to say. Ultimately, I think “voice” for me comes from my heart. What moves me emotionally when I write? What about a story or character makes me laugh or cry? For me, “Voice” is the heart of my story—what emotions do I want to bring out in not only in my readers but also in myself? You can write a book that has the most original and surprising plot, the most compelling and fascinating characters, and a unique setting. But if there is no EMOTION, then that book falls flat. That’s where “Voice” comes in—“Voice” determines the emotion behind the story. I wish I could give a more specific answer with facts and evidence, but when it comes to writing from the heart, there is no formula.


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22. Bunk’d, Jessie Spin-Off Show

BUNK'D - Disney Channel's "Bunk'd" stars Karan Brar as Ravi, Skai Jackson as Zuri and Peyton List as Emma. Bunk’d: Disney Channel’s New Jessie Spin-Off Show

Emma, Ravi, and Zuri Ross leave their extravagant New York City penthouse and head off to Camp Kikiwaka, a rustic summer camp in Maine where their parents met as teenagers. The Ross kids are complete fish out of water in their new setting and must band together for support.

Emma and Ravi step into new roles as CIT’s (Counselor in Training), learning how to be resourceful, responsible role models to their campers. Lou, the cheerful head counselor, and Xander, the camp heartthrob, step in to show them the ropes. Meanwhile, Zuri makes new friends with her fellow campers.


Photo credit Disney Channel/Greg Gayne

Together the Ross kids and their friends must navigate the hijinks and curveballs thrown by the owner of the camp, Gladys, who with the help of her sneaky niece, Hazel, is out to get them because of her decades-old rivalry with their mom. Nevertheless, along with their new friends, Emma, Ravi, and Zuri adapt to their new “home away from home” and settle into their exciting new lives at Camp Kikiwaka.

Have you seen this show yet? Are you a fan? Is it as good as Jessie? Leave a Comment and tell us what you think.

Sonja, STACKS Staffer

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23. the two-minute tiger: notes from the Woodland Park Zoo

Last week, I had the pleasure of going to Washington for a handful of book events. The book events only took up about an hour and a half per day, and I spent the rest of my time wandering and pondering and enjoying being away from home.

One place I went over the course of my wanderings was the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. I've been thinking a lot about education—the teachings we communicate intentionally and directly ("a triangle has three sides!") and the ones we communicate indirectly and often accidentally ("success means knowing how many sides a triangle has!") Over the past few years, I've become particularly interested in the indirect messages we teach kids about nature. The zoo is a great place to watch this direct/indirect split in action, as parents are constantly aiming to educate their kids in words, while communicating a second set of unspoken messages with their behavior.

Parents take their kids to the zoo to teach them about animals, but they end up teaching them an entire orientation towards life.

With that in mind, here are some of the indirect messages I picked up while standing by the tiger pen:

"Animals are fun."

In general, people go to the zoo for entertainment—not for religious purposes, or to hunt the elk, or because the only way to get to their grandmother's house is to walk straight through the tiger pen. We go because it's fun, or because we want it to be fun, and feel anxious when the animals are not acting as fun as we need them to be.

An almost universal reaction to the tiger amongst toddlers and young children when coming upon a sleeping tiger in the tiger pen was to tap on the glass and sing "Wake up, tiger, wake up!" And even though the adults were too well-behaved to do the same, one could sense they shared the children's desire for the tiger to get up and dance, or at least to move around—make it fun.

Watching this interaction repeat itself over and over again, it struck me that the modern urban human's behavior around a tiger is almost the exact opposite of how humans would have acted around tigers throughout most of our history and pre-history. A child from a rural village, encountering a sleeping tiger on her way to get a jar of water, would almost certainly do everything she could to pass undetected and make sure the tiger stayed asleep. A modern, urban child does everything she can to make the sleeping tiger notice her, entertain her, giver her some sign of her specialness—wake up, tiger, wake up.

"One minute is a good amount of time to look at something."

The average time that any given party stayed to observe the tigers was one minute. After the one minute mark, most parents would begin to herd the children on to the next exhibit whether or not the children seemed bored with the tiger.

In the thirty minutes I was watching, not a single party stayed longer than two minutes. I got the sense, from watching the adults, that they deemed it right and proper and somehow responsible to move on after a minute or two—as if to stay longer would be awkward, creepy, or otherwise suspect.

I found this pattern especially interesting. We feel anxious if we observe any one animal at length, when there are still ninety-nine more exhibits to see—and to spend an entire morning watching only the tiger would be an act of blasphemy, of not-getting-one's-money's-worth of the worst degree. We're driven by a need to check every box, even if we'd be happier checking only one or two. We skim instead of reading deeply. We don't know how to observe animals at length, nor do we have any practical reason to do so—and so we move on, baffled and more bored than we care to admit, to see if the next one will be any more amazing.

"Learning about animals means learning to name and count them."

Many of the parents at the zoo seemed keen on stimulating their child's verbal and math skills, prompting them to repeat the names of the animals, or to see how many they could count—not how to track them, hunt them, cook them, pray to them, or interpret their behavior. In short, not how to have any sort of meaningful and necessary interaction with them. It struck me, as I watched this name-and-count pattern repeat itself again and again, that the children might as well have been counting Tupperware.

Indeed, the entire message of the zoo seems to be that animals are very wacky and fun to watch and it is so very sad that they are disappearing, but at the end of the day, they have no relevance to our "real" lives—neither as a threat, nor a food source, nor a source of the divine or mundane information necessary to organizing our days. At best, they are a vehicle we can use to learn about counting or colors or some other "educational" subject, but we could just as easily be counting something else.

"The interesting animals are the ones in the cages."

...Not the native squirrels, crows, hummingbirds, racoons, snakes, and possums that roam, scurry, and flap freely throughout the zoo grounds and which nobody has bothered to put in an enclosure.

"It is sad that animals are going extinct (but not sad enough to depave the parking lot.)"

The zoo is full of placards informing guests of the tiger's dire situation and suggesting we can help by changing which brand of cookies we buy (a table staffed by zoo volunteers displayed a range of Nabisco products, the company having signed some kind of rainforest pledge.) The message is that there is nothing we can do directly to help wildlife; we can and should continue to live as before, while mitigating our guilt by buying slightly different things.

I'm no psychologist, but I wonder what effect this kind of splitting has on children's emotions—I wonder what kind of effect it had on my emotions: to invoke a terrible, sad, guilty thing like extinction, get people feeling awful, and then offer impotent and abstract "solutions" (buy Nabisco!) while continuing to perpetuate the very thing (the economy, the culture, the disconnect) that is contributing to mass extinction in the first place.

How much healthier, saner, and more empowered would we be if there was a zoo volunteer standing next to that extinction placard handing out pickaxes so that kids and their parents could break up the concrete together? Instead, the adults at the zoo seem weak and ineffective, unable to do much in this world except buy popsicles and take pictures and possibly donate a dollar or two to the save-the-tiger fund. Nothing heroic. Nothing that inspires confidence or awe. What does it mean that most kids never see their parents making any serious attempt to address the most pressing crises of our time? That even earnest attempts to make things better often take the indirect forms of clicking or writing or buying, and only rarely of doing something physical—building, planting, fighting, slogging through mud.

"Being kind to animals means not tapping on the glass (let's not talk about whether it's kind to put them behind glass in the first place)"

Another way to state this: 'The problems with the way our culture deals with the wild are too large to tackle; therefore, let's just do our best to be as 'nice' as we can to animals within the absurd and insane constraints we've imposed upon them.'

As above: what does this kind of splitting do to a kid's psychology? What does it say about good and evil when the adults in your world bulldoze a creature's habitat and lock it in a pen, then inform you that you are being "bad" when you try to speak with it the only way you know how?

This is not a problem exclusive to zoos, of course; zoos are just a convenient microcosm. But the questions they raise are universal: What does it mean to be kind within a profoundly unkind, unjust, and evil system? Why doesn't the zoo have a special pen with an ethics committee inside who can answer these kinds of questions?


With so much that is confusing and contradictory in the messages we send kids about nature, the question remains: is there a better way to go to the zoo?

If there is, I imagine it would mostly consist of hanging out in the small patch of forest near the zoo parking lot, eating blackberries and picking mushrooms, watching the squirrels to see where they nest, checking to see if the saplings we planted last year have grown. Taking naps, building forts, and peeing on the ground. Smelling things and chewing them, getting bored and un-bored, learning to "do nothing" without feeling anxious about it. Learning, in short, to be sane.

I would like to be sane in the way I just described. I can imagine what it would be like. But it takes practice, and a long, slow undoing of the many assumptions, pressures, and anxieties our culture puts on us. Why am I typing up these mind-words instead of sitting outside in the rain? I don't know; I am trying to figure it out. What I can say for certain is this: while I am glad to have seen a tiger, I am gladder when I visit the giant oak tree that grows near my house, or when I go to watch birds by the river. The thing we need to feel and respond to is right here, wherever we are, not in a zoo or on another continent. And maybe the beginnings of answers are to be found there too.

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24. Excerpt: Players and Pawns


“The World of Chess”

from Gary Alan Fine’s Players and Pawns: How Chess Builds Community and Culture


Chess is not the oldest game of humankind. That honor goes to an Egyptian board game dating back to 3500– 4000 BC. But chess’s longevity is remarkable. While claims of the true beginnings of chess are various and the origins are shrouded in mystery, consensus exists that the game as we recognize it began on the Indian subcontinent in approximately 700 AD, although Persia shaped the early game as well. As with so many origin stories, one can find political motives. For instance, some claim that chess originated in Uzbekistan or even in China.

Chess is considered a war game, or at least a game that models warfare or prepares soldiers, although some legendary origins (Myanmar or Sri Lanka) suggest in a more pacifist fashion that the game was developed to provide a less bloody equivalent to conflict. Given the passion of Napoleon for the game, such sublimation was not inevitably effective. When the game spread to the Islamic world, which rejected gambling and gaming, chess was permitted because it was considered preparation for war. In the Soviet Union, the game was treated not as a bourgeois diversion but a form of proletariat culture.

Over the years, the rules of chess evolved. By the Middle Ages, chess had gained admirers in Europe. Its popularity is evident in writings about chess as morality by Pope Innocent III and Rabbi ben Ezra, both around 1200 AD.9 The second book printed in English, The Game and Playe of the Chesse (translated from the French), addressed chess as morality. The medieval attention to chess is evident in that the names and movement of the chess pieces changed substantially during this period. The most salient change was to increase the power of the vizier, making it the most powerful piece on the board. This transformation, first labeling the piece the queen and then increasing her range, occurred between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Some suggest that this change reflects the authority of women in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Perhaps these explanations are shaped by scholarly wishful thinking, but it is clear that chess changed substantially during the late Middle Ages, and as a result, games prior to the introduction of the powerful queen are rarely studied. Although chess has continued to evolve, a game played after the introduction of the powerful queen is essentially the same game that we play today. The first international tournament was organized in 1851, and by 1886 the world had its first undisputed chess champion, Wilhelm Steinitz.

Depending on one’s definition, today there are many chess players or a great many. A large proportion of Americans, although surely nowhere close to a majority, can play chess at some level. According to Susan Polgar, a prominent grandmaster, there are forty-five million chess players in the United States. Other estimates are slightly lower, but most hover around forty million. In chess hot spots such as Russia, eastern Europe, Iceland, Cuba, and Argentina, the proportion is far higher. Polgar guesses that there are seven hundred million players worldwide. Some skepticism of that figure is warranted, but chess is indeed a global game.

We must distinguish between those who are knowledgeable about the basic rules and those who have a commitment to the game: those who play chess and those who participate in the chessworld. Here the numbers diminish. Though we do not have firm figures for the number of serious players, as of 2010 the United States Chess Federation (USCF) had a membership of approximately eighty thousand. Some of these members are not active, and many others play chess outside the auspices of the organization (particularly in scholastic chess, where some state and city organizations run their own tournaments). The USCF claims that there are approximately ninety thousand active tournament players. In the last fifteen years, there has been substantial growth in the number of young (scholastic) chess players. Chess is now treated as an activity that provides cultural capital. Playing the game is said to increase a child’s cognitive development. In an age in which many parents wish to cultivate their children, chess is treated as a valued training ground, even if it is not perceived as one of those life skills that will continue into adulthood. Estimates of the number of children playing chess run as high as thirty million. But whatever the number, it is striking that the largest number of members of the USCF are third and fourth graders. According to one source, 60 percent of the members of the USCF are age fourteen or younger. While the politics of the organization are set by adult members (one must be sixteen to vote in federation elections), many of the organizational resources are contributed by scholastic members. As a result, it is not surprising that battles have been fought over whether to use resources for high-visibility adult chess or the more popular scholastic chess. Some scholastic chess tournaments are profitable, and the growth of youth chess provides employment for adult teachers.

On many demographic dimensions chess holds up well. A visit to a large tournament finds an impressive number of African Americans, South Asians, East Asians, Hispanics, and eastern European immigrants. A large tournament has the feel of a United Nations of leisure. Such diversity is rare in leisure or voluntary activities. While chess is largely a middle-class pastime, some participants hold working-class jobs or are from working-class homes. And many children participate at adult tournaments. It is common to find a nine-year-old playing— and crushing— a sixty-nine-year-old, an oft -remarked reality that leads to adults being reluctant to play children, who are often better than their ratings suggest. One tournament I attended had participants from five to eighty-seven, a range that was not especially remarkable. The only exception to this demographic diversity is gender. Chess has long been— and still is—male dominated, and the participation of women declines with age and with rated ability. In elementary school as many as 40 percent of players are girls, but there is only one woman in the top one hundred US chess players. In most domains, at least 90 percent of chess players are male, an even greater percentage than in Little League baseball, Dungeons & Dragons, or high school debate. Because of the highly gendered structure of chess and to avoid awkward syntax, I use the male pronoun. Perhaps before too long, readers will find my pronoun usage odd and inappropriate.


When one examines any activity, an inevitable question emerges: what kind of thing is this? Put another way, what is the “cultural logic” of chess? What framework of meaning explains this community? What conventions are embraced? In what domain of activity do we place it? This is the human desire for labeling and categorization. Compared to other games, chess is incredibly deep. No two games are the same, and the seemingly unending choices have lured many players. Chess edges close to infinite possibility. The number of legal positions in chess has been estimated at 1040 (the number of stars in the universe is estimated at 1024), the number of possible games is 10120, and chess databases contain over 3.5 million games.

Is chess so multifaceted? Why and how do these figures resonate with chess players? In the diversity of metaphors, chess exemplifies generic features of human association, including focus and attention, affiliation, beauty, status, collective memory, consumption, and competition. These are topics to which I return.

Perhaps the most obvious metaphor, and hence the one that I address least, is that chess is a game, a form of voluntary activity, grounded on rules and on rivalrous competition. One might say that “game” is not a metaphor but a description. Its voluntarism links chess, like all games, to play, but games have a structured organization that “pure play” lacks. The model of human activity as game, a common metaphor, suggests a strategic approach to everyday life. Chess is a game of strategy and tactics. But it goes beyond the domain of the game, even if other activities (sex, business, or politics) can be treated as symbolic games because of their strategic dimensions.

While chess is a game—a minor aspect of life— it can be treated as much else. Metaphors abound. In a riot of metaphors, Pal Benko and Burt Hochberg argue that the game takes many forms, depending on style. Chess can be a fight, an art, a sport, a life, or a war. Folklorists Marci Reaven and Steve Zeitlin, touring public chess spaces in New York City, found competing visions of chess: an unsolved mathematic problem, a language, a search for truth, a dream, and even “a ball of yarn.” Some speak of chess as a race and the chessboard as a piano. The personification of pieces is common, particularly in scholastic chess. Pawns desire friends, pieces are runners, they look for a job or are unhappy and crying (field notes). The range of cultural images that define this pastime is extensive. Such diversity suggests that activities do not have a singular meaning but can be framed in multiple ways to connect with the needs of the speaker and desires of the audience.

Treating chess as a game of war 23 leads to military metaphors. In one account, the rook is a panzer unit, the knight a spy, the bishop a reconnaissance officer. As the population of chess players is overwhelmingly male, violent and sexual metaphors are common, as when the defeated are judged as weak, soft, or effeminate. Opponents are pinned, hit, stomped, crushed, sacked, or killed. More explicit is the claim of world champion Alexander Alekhine that during a match “a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk.” While not many chess players speak so graphically, grandmaster Nigel Short was not alone when he remarked, “I want to rape and mate [my opponent].” In his rant, Short provides support for a Freudian analysis of chess as a sublimated form of homosexual eros and parricide.

Freudians believe that the unconscious appeal of chess results from oedipal dynamics, leading to sexual and aggressive themes. Reuben Fine pondered why many strong chess players display psychiatric disorders, seeing danger in the metaphorical dynamics of the game. Fine argued that chess is often learned by boys at puberty or earlier and that the pieces represent a symbolic keying of ego development (the king is a phallic symbol representing castration anxiety; the queen represents the mother). Those drawn to chess are said to have difficulty balancing aggressive and sexual impulses because of a weakly developed superego. Players are susceptible to developing neurotic traits, echoing grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi’s observation that “no Chess Grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness.” Others point to unconscious aggressive and sexual themes. Any competitive chess player knows the stories of madness, including those of Paul Morphy (“the pride and sorrow of chess”) and Bobby Fischer. However, these examples do not tell the whole story. Focusing on atypical cases such as Morphy’s or Fischer’s paranoia is an inadequate basis for generalization. Much psychoanalysis of chess is based on speculative Freudian assumptions with little empirical support; perhaps this is related to the fact that many psychoanalysts, notably Reuben Fine, are serious chess players. The evidence is more literary confection than systematic proof.

Besides these tendentious images, others build on morality or images of the state. The great Dutch historian of play, Johan Huizinga, argued that “civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” His assertion applies to the vast array of political metaphors of chess. Chess reveals not only sexual and aggressive dynamics, but social order. Th is is one reason that authors select chess as a background (or foreground) for understanding human relations: Nabokov, Cervantes, Borges, Tolstoy, Ezra Pound, Edgar Allan Poe, and Woody Allen. As early as 1862, the well- known chess editor Willard Fiske, writing as B. K. Rook, connected pieces and society:

We [rooks] are generally considered as the most upright and straightforward of all the denizens of Chessland, from our habit of moving. . . . We have long been the fast friends of the Kings. . . . Of the Bishops there is little to relate. Each of the chess races possesses two individuals of this name, and yet so strong is the hatred of those belonging to the same stock that one of them can never be induced to go into a house that has been occupated by the other. . . . The most erratic members of our state are undoubtedly the Knights. . . . The Pawns are the most numerous members of our body politic.

Lewis Carroll’s imaginings in Through the Looking-Glass have something of the same flavor. The twelfth-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam proclaimed, “We are in truth but pieces on this chess board of life.” To Pope Innocent III (1161– 1216), a chess player himself, was attributed a morality on chess (now thought to be written by John of Wales) that asserts, “This whole world is nearly like a Chess-board, one point of which is white, the other black, because of the double state of life and death, grace and sin. The familia of the Chess-board are like mankind; they all come out of one bag, and are placed in different stations.” Harry, a well-regarded teacher of my acquaintance, expressed the same theme: “The thing I love about chess is that at the beginning of the game, ever yone is equal. Everyone is a citizen, and then through the game, we see what they can do. Chess represents our democratic values. It provides a metaphor of society” (field notes). Pieces stand for political positions—whether democratic or monarchical—in a way easily recognized by children and adults.

As a result, chess is used metaphorically, by the public as well as players. Away from the chessboard, we speak metaphorically of a stalemate, selecting a gambit, or keeping an opponent in check. The political metaphors were even more extensive in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Jenny Adams emphasizes how the game extended politics, reflecting a medieval social hierarchy, sometimes considered an instrument of reform. The English playwright Thomas Middleton in his drama A Game at Chess satirized abortive marriage negotiations between Charles, the son of James I, and Donna Maria, the sister of Philip IV of Spain.

Nowhere is the sociopolitical culture of chess more evident than in the names of the pieces. Chess is a global game in which the pieces have had different meanings over time and in various languages. The names of chess pieces in English and other western European languages were changed from their Middle Eastern designations, as medieval society treated the game as a mirror. The vizier became a queen, the horse a knight, and the elephant a bishop. The allegories of chess were revised. In contrast, even today Russian mirrors the Arabic; there is no queen, but a “ferz,” a counselor. While Russian chess has a “king,” the word used for king is korol, not czar. Perhaps the most problematic example of political labeling is the bishop, borrowed from the Catholic hierarchy. In Russia and throughout much of Asia, the bishop is an “elephant” (borrowed from Indian tradition); in Hebrew and in Dutch the bishop is a “runner,” and in France, the bishop is the fou or “fool.” An account of the naming of chess pieces reveals much about the societies in which they are used. At moments of transition, as in the Middle Ages, names are “in play.” At the time of the American Revolution there was an attempt to rename king, queen, and pawn as governor, general, and pioneer. After their revolution Soviets wanted to use the name commissar and to turn black into red, with its pieces representing the proletariat. Such changes, however, could not overturn the inertia of collective knowledge. These fights over metaphors indicate how tightly linked chess is to the social structure of its location and how its location affects its image.

While some activities fall neatly into human categories— sculpture is art, chemistry is science, tennis is sport—chess can plausibly be seen as all three, each with its own conventions, like any established and collectively recognized social world. Conventions—norms of proper activity— are to be found in all institutionalized domains. Chess action can be striking, systematic, or strategic. The former world champion Anatoly Karpov claimed in an oft-quoted remark that “chess is everything— art, science, and sport.” Perhaps chess is not everything, but each of these categories has been treated as the primary basis of the game.

While some activities fall neatly into human categories—sculpture is art, chemistry is science, tennis is sport—chess can plausibly be seen as all three, each with its own conventions, like any established and collectively recognized social world. Conventions—norms of proper activity—are to be found in all institutionalized domains. Chess action can be striking, systematic, or strategic. The former world champion Anatoly Karpov claimed in an oft-quoted remark that “chess is everything— art, science, and sport.” Perhaps chess is not everything, but each of these categories has been treated as the primary basis of the game.


The rhetoric of chess as constituting an art form is extensive. There are styles and schools of chess, and beautiful moves and combinations. World champion Emanuel Lasker asserted, “There is magic in the creative faculty such as great poets and philosophers conspicuously possess, and equally in the creative chessmaster.” The brilliant Ukrainian grandmaster David Bronstein wrote, “Chess is a fortunate art form. It does not live only in the minds of its witnesses. It is retained in the best games of masters, and does not disappear from memory when the masters leave the stage.” Discussions of symmetry and beauty are seen not only in the writings of masters but in descriptions by amateurs: “It’s kind of hard to see, but there’s beauty in it. The symmetry of the pieces and the idea of threatening, sometimes it all just comes together and it gets distracting at points, but sometimes I really just sit back and go ‘Wow, look at this game.’ It’s like a perfect balance, an absolutely perfect piece of art. . . for instance the idea of a checkmate that’s six moves away is just beautiful.” In simpler words, a high school player remarked, “I like chess because of the way it flows together and it’s like meticulous and artistic. And [my friend] said that’s why he liked music” (interview). I have heard players liken chess to improvisational jazz in the way that combinations of pieces emerge over the course of a game. The rhetoric of competition as art is hardly unique to chess. In examining lifestyle sports, such as surfing, skateboarding, or windsurfing, Belinda Wheaton points to activities linked to the participants’ sense of self. She notes a similar attention to artistic expression, stylistic nuance, and creative invention. For those in the upper echelon, chess also constitutes a lifestyle community, although one with less threat of injury than so-called extreme sports.

Much beauty is found in the elegance of a perfect and inescapable solution to a complex problem. As William James posited, solving problems is deeply gratifying and reveals aesthetic satisfaction. If beauty exists in a competitive environment, it cannot be an individual achievement but must be relational. The philosopher Stuart Rachels observes: “Great chess games are breathtaking works of art. . . . Perfect play, however, cannot guarantee a beautiful game. For one thing, it is not enough that you play perfectly; your opponent must also play well.” Another player writes, “It only takes one brilliant mind to conjure up a brilliancy, but it takes two minds . . . to produce the position in which the fireworks can be let off .” The challenge of a patzer does not produce beauty for the skilled player.

The specific metaphor used by chess players to describe a moment of artistry is brilliancy: a cut diamond on a square board. Brilliancy results from the awe experienced from a simple and perfect answer to a daunting and complex problem— a victory, but not only a victory. The concept is so central to the world of chess that many elite tournaments award a “brilliancy” prize for the game or position with the greatest aesthetic appeal. Brilliancies result from a novel combination of pieces that produces a position that colleagues find startling, even spiritual. Each piece supports and defends other pieces of that color while attacking the opponent’s pieces. As Reuben Fine remarked, “Combinations have always been the most intriguing aspect of Chess. The masters look for them, the public applauds them, the critics praise them. . . . They are the poetry of the game; they are to Chess what melody is to music.”

Often the brilliancy derives from the victor’s sacrificing or placing a piece in danger; only later do obser vers recognize that the stratagem led to victory. “The bigger the sacrifice, the more beautiful.” It is because of his willingness to sacrifice his queen that thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer’s defeat of former United States Open champion Donald Byrne at the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York is called “the game of the century.” The brilliancy was not recognized when the move was first made but only after the game was analyzed and revealed in time.

How is the beauty of chess experienced? How do players become engrossed in chess play? Part of the beauty of chess is its experienced quality. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speaks of “flow” to capture the capacity of people to focus on an activity so closely that they lose awareness of time, external surroundings, and self-consciousness. Such experiences become autotelic, as the boundaries between self and activity fade. This is when we are most creative, productive, and satisfied in our work, leisure, and personal lives. Csikszentmihalyi selected chess as a key example of a focused activity. Players report performing best when the flow experience is maximized and they “dig in” to the game. It is not only the logic of pieces on the board that contributes to treating chess as art, but experienced emotions. Liquid moves replace concrete choices.


Players commonly view chess as a science, and many of the greatest chess players (as well as those less gifted) have jobs in technical or scientific fields. Adolf Anderssen, Emanuel Lasker, and Max Euwe were mathematicians; Mikhail Botvinnik was an engineer, and José Raúl Capablanca also studied engineering. As one player explained, “They are all math guys.” Reuben Fine estimated that about half of the greatest players had mathematical or scientific backgrounds.

The metaphor of chess as science relies on the commonsense image of science as value-free, objective, and rigorous. In chess some assert that there is always one best move in a given position. For these players, worrying about “chess psychology” is wasted time if the proper move can be found through rational deliberation. As one informant explained, players review their games because “they are looking for the truth.” At any point there is only “one truth in the position” (field notes). For many players and some philosophers there is “truth in chess.” Computer programs such as Rybka or Fritz are popular in that they support this comforting illusion, no matter the action of an opponent. From this perspective one should play the board, not the opponent. Bobby Fischer was a leading exponent of this view, avowing, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.” His position has a powerful logic. The rhetoric of science proclaims that long-term strategies and short-term tactics can be developed through close study of the principles of chess. Aron Nimzowitsch’s Chess Praxis treats chess as a science by stressing fundamental principles, such as “centralization” and “over- protection.” Such a systematic presentation of chess theory emphasizes logic and objectivity, training the mind to apply general principles to vaguely defined situations. Chess is a game of perfect information, in which chance or information unequally distributed among the players should not play a role (as in poker or bridge), and this enshrines science. Each player has the opportunity to see the same things, even if background or training does not permit that seeing.

Chess theory has evolved over time in fits and starts. Of course, much theory cannot be easily detached from stylistic preferences or accepted conventions of play, tied to local chess cultures. Innovation is necessary for grandmasters to dethrone their predecessors; the tactical and strategic answers that worked in previous models are translated into an approach that is alleged to be objectively superior. As games are won and lost, newly “correct” and “objective” approaches to the game are discovered, and advice is reframed. This model suggests that chess theory is metaphorically likened to a science with experimental tests. However, as scholars of science studies indicate, a simple-truth model of scientific progress is not persuasive. Science advances through changes in practices that are defined as legitimate and embedded in social relations. The rational and objective basis of science cannot be separated from cultural context, politics, and scientific reputations and is often contested as chess styles rise and fall.

Max Euwe and John Nunn note that “succeeding generations of experts have contributed to the development of chess play, but it was the style of some outstanding individual which moulded the thinking and style of play of his time.” Perhaps this lays too much emphasis on the genius, rather than the community of competitors, but they rightly indicate the dynamics of change. This is what international master Anthony Saidy terms “the battle of chess ideas.”

Styles of play did not develop steadily and cumulatively but often advanced in revolutionary paradigm shifts that served as strategic replies to dominant paradigms. The objectivity of theoretical principles is often blurred by the confounding factor of creative genius and calculative ability found in the best players. Further, chess theory, like scientific knowledge generally, is in part “Whig history,” a theory of continual progress that interprets the past in light of the choices that characterize the activity in the present.

In the chessworld, as in science, knowledge is acquired socially. Advancement depends on challenges over the board. Players participate in local and extended networks of knowledge, but always based on the recognition of community. Chess is a set not just of ideas but of ideas that become recognized through social relations and shared practices.


Chess games are competitive, like the world of sports. While the more prestigious images of chess as art or science are common, the agonistic aspects of sport are also evident. As the Great Soviet Encyclopedia suggests, chess is “a sport masquerading as an art.” Chess can be symbolically “bloody,” as pieces live and die. This reality thrills players, motivates improvement, and shapes status hierarchies. Many players attribute their love for chess to the cutthroat competition. Former world champion Anatoly Karpov remarked, “Chess is a cruel type of sport. In it the weight of victory and defeat lies on the shoulders of one man. . . . When you play well and lose, it’s terrible.” Indeed, checkmate is derived from the Persian for “the king is dead.” As a master-level player describes the hypercompetitive approach of top players at a local club, “The masters at the top . . . [are] very competitive, and [have] big egos. . . . Their whole attitude. . . [is] that I am going to crush you. And I will be extremely rude. And I will do whatever is necessary to crush you.” Another player explained to me, “Chess is like hand-to-hand combat. It’s so visceral. How can I hurt you?” (field notes). Such metaphors are so common as to be unremarkable.

Why is chess so competitive? The answer is found largely in the institutional framework by which club play is organized. In Britain chess had been funded by the Sports Council, intercollegiate chess at Harvard was once overseen by the Department of Athletics, and in Chicago public schools, scholastic chess is administered by the Department of Sports Administration. Some high schools offer athletic letters for chess players. To capture the fan loyalty of sports, entrepreneurs organized the United States Chess League in 2005 and receive funding from poker websites. Sixteen teams of strong players, including grandmasters, play each other in competitive but unrated matches. Teams include the New York Knights and the Saint Louis Arch Bishops. Of course, chess is often a simple pastime for fathers and sons or friends on lazy afternoons, merely a more complex version of Candyland, a board game for preschoolers. While casual games are part of the subculture, they are markedly different from tournament play, where the logic of chess as sport is evident.

Local clubs and tournaments are organized under rules established by national organizations such as the USCF. Players in tournaments can gain or lose rating points that measure their skill in comparison to other players. Ratings range from zero (novices start with an assumed rating of 600 but can lose rating points) to over 2800 for a top grandmaster. As of 2004, the average rating for a member of the USCF (including the many scholastic and occasional players) was 1068. Ratings are perhaps the primary motivating factor of organized play and serve as a form of identification. A rating locates one in a competitive hierarchy and determines in which tournaments one can participate and in which division one can play. The outcomes of tournaments affect ratings, based on a complex and changing mathematical computation. Rating points are assumed to be generally accurate, reliable, and universal indicators of a player’s chess skill, even though, as I discuss in chapter 6, they can be misleading. But in practice, ratings translate into status, prestige, and respect.

The chess rating system is distinctive among leisure worlds in shaping player identities, organizing status rankings, and encouraging or dissuading participation. Comparing chess to other organized sports helps decipher the effects of different evaluative systems. For example, baseball players are judged by a set of statistics (batting average, home runs, runs batted in, fielding percentage, stolen bases) that describe their competence in different skill sets. These sorts of statistics diminish competition among teammates, since they emphasize specialization. Chess does not create separate measures for different facets of the game, but players are assigned a single rating. This is a powerful example of “commensuration,” or “the transformation of diff erent entities into a common metric,” affecting personal investment, social comparison, and status competition. Often, as in ice skating, the determination of these measures is altered to achieve what members of the community consider a “fair” distribution.

Chess is famously an activity of the mind, with only the slightest movement of light wood pieces. Yet lengthy games may involve bodily stress, and players are known for lacking physical fitness, even if prior to long matches some adopt exercise regimes. As I discuss in chapter 1, chess is a game of body as well as mind. To play chess requires an awareness of body, and even if competitors do not require muscle, endurance is essential.

Still, sport has multiple meanings, and chess can, at times, fit the metaphor of sport. The patterns of play suggest an aesthetic appeal that links chess to art worlds. If it is neither quite a material art nor a performance art, the beauty of a well-played game is recognized.

Likewise, we link chess to science. Over the centuries, chess has developed a body of systematic knowledge labeled “chess theory.” As in Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, there are periods of revolution, periods of active incorporation, and periods of normal play. Finally, chess involves brutal competition. Ultimately chess depends on embracing a culture and a status system based on uncertain outcomes in the form of victories and defeats. While we may speak of chess as a leisure world, ignoring those professionals who earn a living from the activity, it creates solidarity, a desire to demonstrate commitment to a local community.

To read more about Players and Pawns, click here.

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25. Fly Guy Would You Rather

fly guySuper Fly! Fly Guy Would You Rather . . .

In the Fly Guy series, boy meets fly, and a beautiful friendship is born. Fly Guy is extremely smart and even knows how to say the boy’s name (“Buzz”). They have hilarious (and sometimes slightly gross) adventures together in school, at restaurants, picnics, and even when Fly Guy gets married to Fly Girl, Buzz and Fly Guy are eventually reunited. So take a buzz at our Fly Guy Would You Rather below.

Would you rather . . .

1. Be a fly guy OR lightning bug?

2. Go swimming in someone’s soup OR chocolate pudding pie?

3. Be able to talk to animals OR transform into animals?

4. See Fly Guy team up with Spider-Man OR Ant-Man?

5. Have a FLY fly up your nose OR a LADYBUG?

6. Have a Fly Guy video game OR a Fly Guy movie?

7. Have the next book be American Ninja Fly Guy OR Fly Guy Dances with the Stars?

Leave your answers in the Comments below and let us know what you think of the Fly Guy books!

-Ratha, STACKS Writer

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