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1. Author Visits

Mom has two author visits coming up. One this week and one next week. Both are call-backs, so she kind of knows what to expect. One thing she expects is fun! Rejection is the downside of writing. School visits are the upside AND her most favorite thing about being an author. Bar none.

school visit

Fifth graders and college students make for very different visits, which means Mom will pack up her school visit stuff  TWICE. I love when Mom packs up her bag.

bookbag2

Sometimes there are candies in there. Or gum. Or tissues.  And sometimes stuffed toys, depending on where she’s visiting. I ALWAYS check the bag out, just in case.

bookbag

Once I found (and ran with) a smaller bag from inside the bigger bag. It had a fork, a beanie baby, a paintbrush, and a baseball inside. Mom said, “I need them for a game.” and “You wouldn’t understand.” and “Eeeewww. They’re slimy with dog spit!”

gamebag2

Although I love the bag, I hate the leaving. Why does every upside need a downside? When Mom says, “I have to go,” I hear the word GO and head for the door.

Ready!

Ready!

She says, “Not this time.” and “I’ll be back in a little while.” and “Do you want a treat?” which is EXACTLY what I want. And that’s how the downside becomes the upside again.

milkbone toothbrush

 


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2. ESL Workshops - Something a Bit Different


Tomorrow I am of to Leeds for the very last visit of the Spring season. After that, I am back in the studio for quite a while.



John re-visited his role as Chauffeur recently and drove me to the tiny (and lovely) Scamblesby Primary School in Lincolnshire (it was just one of those places that was a nightmare on a train, even though it wasn't really that far). He dropped me off and then went to the coast.


It's a good system, but I get to do no train sketches of course. Not to worry though: I spent 2 days at a secondary school in Nottingham last week, working with ESL students at Djanogly Academy (I still have no idea how to pronounce that), so I got my train-drawing fix, as you can see.


Djanogly was a very interesting booking. For those who don't know, ESL stands for English as a Second Language. I had really small groups, anything from 4 to 12 students, because some of them had not been in England for more than a few months and had only a very basic grasp of the language. Some of their confidence levels were, understandable, quite low, although many of them were obviously pretty bright. 


I was really pleased that we managed to work so well together, and they all clearly enjoyed the session. I took lots to show them and forced myself to talk slowly and clearly (not easy for me!), keeping my sentences short and my vocab simple. They all worked really hard and produced some smashing drawings.



The staff were very complimentary afterwards, which felt great, as I was in completely new territory. They said that the students weren't used to sitting and listening for anywhere near that long, so they were really pleased with how focused and enthusiastic they all were, right to the end. 

I really enjoyed working with young adults too. Even when I am in secondary schools, I rarely get the older students. They are usually caught up with the exam syllabus, but Djanogly were having an Arts Festival, with various visitors and creative workshops going on, so students could opt out of regular lessons, or spend their lunchtime / after-school doing different activities. What a great idea.

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3. Folklore and poetry

books april3 2014 horizontal Folklore and poetry

For our class on April 3, we are reading four books and one article. I like combining these two genres because both need to be read aloud in order to really appreciate them.

Folklore has to have a strong voice, as it comes from an oral tradition where storytellers have individual styles, just as today’s popular singers have their own ways of putting songs across. Poetry, too, needs to be heard to appreciate the sound of the words — and spoken aloud to feel their combinations in your mouth. And of course poetry needs to be seen on the page because the line breaks, indentations, and even the leading are as important. Each of these four books is expertly illustrated, as well. So there is lots to analyze and discuss this week!

Representing folklore stand-alone picture books, Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile is a  hybrid of two story types: the trickster and the noodlehead. This story probably originated in northeastern Liberia where it was collected by Won-Ldy Pay. The second folklore book is Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal, Paul Fleischman’s compilation of tales from a variety of origins, all of the Cinderella story type — persecuted heroins with supernatural helpers.

Representing poetry, we are reading Poetrees, one of Douglas Florian’s themed poetry books, this time about trees. For our poetry compilation, we have the über-collection of poetry forms compiled by Paul Janeszco, A Kick in the Head. There are plenty of compilations for children that feature one poetry type — haiku, concrete poems, etc. This one has one of everything — or as close to everything as I’ve found for an elementary-aged audience.

Finally, we are reading Susan Dove Lempke’s Horn Book article, “Purposeful Poetry” from our May/June 2005 special issue on poetry.

We invite all of you to join our discussion this week in the comments of the individual posts linked above.

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4. Jane, the fox & me, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault


I am smitten with this graphic novel that hits all of the right spots for any tween who has ever felt alone.

Hélène has been dumped by her friends. Not only dumped, but they are actively making her life intolerable.  Huddled in the hallways of school, snickering when she walks by, writing on the walls of the girls' bathroom.  "Hélène weighs 216! She smells like BO?" There's nowhere to hide.

Hélène finds some solace in her reading of Jane Eyre.  She reads better when her old friends aren't on the bus.  If they are she can at least look like she's not listening even when she can't help but hear them.

Hélène doesn't want to burden her mother with what is going on. Her mother works so hard for the family, and Hélène doesn't want to add to her pile of things.  But her mother does have to take her shopping downtown when it is announced that Hélène's class will be going to the woods to nature camp for four nights.  Four night with Geneviève, Sarah, Anne-Julie and Chloé.  And bathing suits will be involved.

Not surprisingly Hélène is selected into the tent of outcasts.  Which is okay with her because at least it's quiet.  But a chance encounter with a fox and noticing the empathy in someone's eyes combine to shift Jane's world of exile.

Exquisitely drawn, this is a book to be owned.  And shared.  I borrowed it from the library, but then quickly purchased the English and French versions.  Jane's life is depicted in black and white, while the Jane Eyre portions are awash in blocks of color.  I would buy this book for the panels on pages 58-59 and 74-75 alone.  I look forward to reading the (original) French version to see what nuances might be different.  This is a quiet book, but it is not to be missed.

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5. YA Mythbusters

Okay, let's face it--a lot of books and movies don't accurately address teenage life. Like, I, for one, have never hit my head on a chandelier while drunk-dancing, which unfortunately means that I haven't been caught by a conveniently-placed Heath Ledger, either (womp). So let's examine a few of the misconceptions, shall we?


  • Bullying isn't as bad as it used to be.
    • *DISCLAIMER: My concept of "used to be" is drawn almost exclusively from nineties chick flicks.* Bullying is different, sure. It's needling. In a lot of cases, it's subtle. Lots of passive-aggressiveness, gossping behind backs, snide remarks followed by "Ehmahgawd, I'm just kidding! Lighten up!" Honestly? I've seen two primary kinds of bullying:
    • First: within cliques. You fall in with a group of people, and you let them step all over you and talk down to you. So that they'll like you. So that you'll have someone to sit by at lunch. You swallow their crap, you wake up the next morning and do it all over again, and eventually, you forget how to stand up for yourself. Or why you should.
    • Second: there are certain kids that a grade or an entire school will mark as "okay" to bully. Maybe they're not good in social situations. Maybe they don't shower as often as everyone else. Maybe the committed some stupid faux pas in middle school and people still won't let go of it. Whatever the reason, these kids get bullied. Their classmates bully them, and the worst part is, they don't recognize it as bullying it. Once, I confronted one of my friends about her stupid comments to a kid in band, and she replied, "Oh, come on. Look at him. He brings it all upon himself." Hell, even the teachers do it.
    • Example: there was this story a while ago about a group of kids that voted someone unpopular onto a dance court, and how the school/community wouldn't stand for it. It was a beautiful story, but why was that news? Because it's rare. At my school, they've voted someone unpopular onto basically every dance they've held since my freshman year, and our administration barely even addresses it. It's horrible and disgusting and people don't think twice about playing a prank like that, because your part is so small. One click on the computer next to someone's name. You laugh. They don't. You don't ever think of yourself as the antagonist in a story. We are not villains. We are not heroes. We are hormonal. Sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes we don't. 
VERDICT: BUSTED

  • Cliques aren't as bad as they used to be.
    • I have a friend who puts it like this: "They tell us not to label, but we can't help it. We put people in categories--it's biological. We label and then everyone tells us that labeling is bad, so we lie and say that cliques don't exist." To be clear, it isn't like Mean Girls. It isn't like there are the cool Asians and the nerds and the jocks, and no one intermingles. But there are definitely friend groups, and since my school is a very athletic-oriented one, most of them were formed around the teams you were a part of. And there's definitely a social hierarchy.
    • But then again, I've heard from friends at bigger schools that say that the social structures aren't as rigid as they used to be. It definitely depends on who you ask.
 VERDICT: I DON'T EVEN KNOW

  • Teens are lazy.
    • Here is a typical day for me:
      • 4:30 a.m. Wake up, write (this has been more sporadic this year, because damn, my bed is comfortable. And you could argue that most teens don't get up to meet a deadline. But a lot of sports teams have morning practices, and some classes are held during zero period. There's not a lot of sleeping in).
      • 6:30 a.m. Start getting ready for school: last minute homework, morning routine, etc (this also varies. Like, at the beginning of this year, my morning routine was pretty standard: makeup, hair, and so on. I gave myself a break on No Makeup Mondays and Sweatpants Fridays. Now it's No Makeup Everyday and I'm lucky if I wear real pants twice a week).
      • 7:45 a.m. Get to school, go to the coffee shop, etc.
      • 7: 55 a.m. - 3:10 p.m. School. There might be a study hall in there if you're lucky.
      • 3: 10 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. After-schools. Sports practices (though during tennis season, I rarely get home before seven. On game days, you get home anywhere between 8:30 and 11:30 or later. Games can be on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Thursdays. Except varsity football and boys' basketball, which have games on Fridays). When your sport isn't in season, you might be in the weight room, editing the newspaper, attending open gym, or doing some other extracurricular.
        • ALTERNATE: 4:00 p.m. - 9 p.m. (ish): this seems to be a popular work slot for most teens.
      • Whenever you get home, you finish everything else that needs to get done. I play piano, and I try to get in an hour or two of practice a day, but that's not always possible. We have two-three hours of Calculus homework 2-3 times a week. Three reading assignments for reading per reading. Spanish vocab tests, economics packets, and a lot of online work for science classes--all in all, anywhere from fifteen minutes to six hours of homework per night. Keep in mind that the six hours of homework could fall on a night on which we don't get home until ten or eleven.
    • So you see why it's frustrating when the protagonists in YA literature have no homework to worry about and don't seem to care about anything but their love interests? Jesus. Obviously I'd rather be thinking about Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones than conic parametric equations, but I also don't want to fail Calc. So drop some stuff, you suggest. Don't take on more than you can chew. You don't need to be in so many extracurriculars. BS. You do whatever you think it'll take to get into college. You snatch as many leadership positions as you can. You take every AP course even though you don't need most of them for the career you have in mind. And you claw your way along while trying to keep your class rank, in order to get scholarships.
VERDICT: BUSTED

  • Teens procrastinate.
    • Okay, so the psychologist Roy Baumeister once did this experiment during which he had two groups of students, right? He put one group of students in front of an oven full of baking cookies and gave them a bowl of radishes, saying the could eat as many radishes as they wanted but weren’t allowed to touch the cookies, and left them alone. The second group was allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. After thirty minutes, he gave both groups the same math problem. The group that got to eat cookies solved the problem way faster because the first group had already used up their store of mental energy. Willpower is a real thing, guys. After four years with a schedule like the one outlined above, you don’t have a ton of it. You replenish it with a good night of sleep and a good meal, right? But have to skip dinner at least a few times a week and get maybe five hours of sleep. My sleep deck is the goddamn Titanic. And it isn’t just me, it isn’t just because of writing—most of my friends are stressed. Like. I’m sitting here trying to remember if there’s one of us who hasn’t burst into tears at some point during this last year.
    • Another thing: all of our teachers, coaches, advisors, etc. tell us to prioritize. So we do. But prioritizing means that something has to come first, right? And everything else has to come after that, and that makes people mad. So prioritize really means this: Put my subject first. My sport. My club. And we’re in a stage of our lives where we really need to be liked, and when a teacher/coach/advisor is unhappy, we take it a lot harder than I think most people realize.
VERDICT: PFFT. EVERYBODY PROCRASTINATES

  • Teens are shallow.
    • So, I have a love affair with Buzzfeed. But this article pissed me off. At lunch on Friday, my friends and I talked about the gender gap, internalized misogyny, The Handmaid's Tale, and the tendency to fulfill expectations whether we want to or not. After school, we went out for coffee and talked about statutory rape, abortion, tried to figure out our political opinions, and acted out scenes from Frozen.
VERDICT: YOU DECIDE


  • And a personal peeve: High school dances are no longer a thing.
    • A lot of schools have done away with them due to low attendance, but the low attendance is caused primarily by rules about physical contact. For example, a few of our local schools saw a sharp decline in dance attendance after forbidding grinding. People don't buy tickets because the high school dance becomes more of a middle school formal, wherein you stand in your stupid little gender-segregated circles and jump around in time to the music. Less attendance = fewer tickets sold = less money to hire a DJ and buy decorations = crappy music and crappy decorations = an even small attendance for the next dance. So if schools do away with dances, that's usually why, not because we're too busy snapchatting/Facebooking/Tweeting/etc. But on the other hand, schools that do allow grinding tend to have pretty high attendance numbers. So are high school dances dying out? Should they? Meh.
    • Also: Jeez, CNN. Lighten up on the nostalgia. If you want, you can come to my school and relive your prom in our cafeteria, where on dance nights you walk in and smack into an almost-literal wall of heat slide around on the very literally sweat-soaked floors.
VERDICT: BUSTED


What do you guys think? Did I miss anything important? Leave below in the comments, and I'll do another post. Also, what do you guys think of having a Twitter chat about this? YA authors, do you have questions or want to do a fact-check on your contemp manuscripts?

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6. Chauffeur Driven to Norfolk...


This week I have been back in Norwich. Remember I spoke at the Reading for Pleasure conference there in November? 


Well, I visited a couple of local schools while I was there and one of them, Reepham Primary, has invited me back, which is a lovely vote of confidence (thank you Reepham!). 

It's a long way to go for one day though. I was originally spending a couple of days in another Norwich school too, but they cancelled on me at the last minute. Not ideal, despite the cancellation fee. But I couldn't let Reepham down, so I'm still going. 


Luckily another event has come up: Marilyn Brocklehurst at the much-admired Norfolk Children's Book Centre was supplying books for signing at Reepham School but, as it happens, she also coordinates the Norfolk branch of the Federation of Children's Book Groups. The Federation do all sorts of amazing things to promote reading, not least run the highly acclaimed Red House Book Award.




Marilyn arranged for me to do an author event for the Norfolk group on the evening before my day at Reepham Primary, which has definitely helped to get more value from all that travel time.

I was originally going to take the train but, with the changes to the plan, John volunteered to be my chauffeur instead (an ever-expanding job-description!). We got home last night and I'm declaring today a day of rest, so we'll be putting our feet up, probably with a book and a coffee, quite possibly in a nice local coffee shop. There might even be cake involved...

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7. Science units on watershed

Frogscientist 300x252 Science units on watershedLast month I had an email exchange with Molly Bang who wanted to know whether any teachers were using Pamela Turner’s excellent book The Frog Scientist to explore the herbicide atrazine and watershed issues. Everyone who knows Molly’s recent books is aware that she is concerned about environmental issues. I love that this concern goes well beyond her own books. She emailed me about this particular issue after reading this New Yorker article about Dr. Tyrone Hayes, the subject of The Frog Scientist.

I know a teacher in central Massachusetts who does a watershed unit with a combined 4th-5th grade class, and I’m hoping she will tell us more about that unit in the comments below. Pamela Turner, responding to Molly’s email, said she thought watershed issues might come up in middle school and high school science classes. She also mentioned that some recent blog posts have been critical of Dr. Hayes’s work, adding that Syngenta (the company that makes atrazine) has had to admit that they pay journalists to write pieces that discredit him.

What a mess! So the question is, are any of you tackling this in your classrooms? Do you use The Frog Scientist and/or other trade books?

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8. ANXIETY: no guts


An actual person I met on an actual train, not my mother who was never like this.

Here's an in-progress shot where you can see how rough my pencils are. They are pretty rough.

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9. Talking about information books

informationbooks Talking about information booksIn next week’s class, we’ll be talking about information books.

Things sure have changed since I was in elementary school. Instead of providing every fact known — or at least everything needed to write a report — information books nowadays aim to be as engaging as possible in order to get children interested in their subject. The idea is that it’s better to leave them wanting more and then provide a bibliography in the back of the book. I think this is a big improvement.

Three of the four books we’re reading do just that (Actual Size by Steve Jenkins; Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell; and Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier) and the other (Look Up! by Anette LeBlanc Cate) gives lots and lots and lots of information, but still provides a bibliography at the end.

The other new development is that many new information books provide information on several levels, often using different typefaces. Actual Size has large type with bolded animal names, and the youngest children might want that text alone. Page by page, just name the animal. But there is also smaller print providing measurements since that’s really the idea behind this book: how big are these animals? Look Up! delivers its information four different ways: the most important facts and narrative in a regular serif text, goofy and anthropomorphised comments in handwritten word balloons, boxed facts in sans serif type, and brief hand-written facts and labels that give more specific information. The word balloons tend to be light and jokey, and I could imagine kids who aren’t sure if they will like this subject gravitating toward these during their first time through the book. If they are hooked, then they can go back and read the serif text, and maybe the labels and boxed facts as well.

Every year, I find my that some of my ed students hate this kind of delivery, finding it draining and overwhelming and fearing their students will dislike it, too. Others, particularly those who know kids with attention issues, love it. From what I’ve heard about the appeal of these books, children are more apt to be drawn to this style, as long as they are not being “made accountable for it.” In other words, these books are meant to be explored rather than conquered. Reading every single word is not a requirement. But if the subject grabs a kid, then he or she might go through the book a second, third, and even fourth time, reading and noticing more and more.

Please join us in discussing these books at the links above. We’re also reading three articles related to Dave the Potter‘s Coretta Scott King award. You can find the articles at the links below, but we’ll discuss them here.

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10. Actual Size

actual size 240x300 Actual SizeWe are reading four information books for our next class, all picture books but for various ages.

Steve Jenkins’s Actual Size could be read with very young children or with older ones depending on how you choose to  share it. There is basic information in large type and details for older children in smaller type. The information at the end provides more information for the adults who may need to field some difficult questions from kids.

What affect does the collage illustration have? Was this a good choice to illustrate this book? I’ve heard about teachers doing some creative classroom projects using this book as a springboard. I’d love to hear if any of you have ideas to share.

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11. Me…Jane

me jane Me...JaneAs picture book biographies go, this is one of the more irreverent ones. What did you make of it?

What about the visual mix: McDonnell’s cartoon-style art, vintage stamps, Goodall’s childhood drawings, and photos? The year this was published, we had lots of discussion pro and con about the final photograph and the book’s editor actually responded in one of the comments. You can read that post here.

Would you share this book with children? What ages? I’d also love to hear from anyone who HAS shared this book.

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12. Look Up!

cate look up Look Up!Here’s an information book created by an enthusiast rather than an expert. Cate doesn’t claim to know everything about birds, but she does hope that her enthusiasm is catching. In fact, she uses every last bit of space in this book, endpaper to endpaper, to give advice in a lighthearted and nonthreatening way.

What do you make of the multiple ways she delivers information? Is it confusing to have anthropomorphized word balloons along with information about scientific observation? Who is the book for?

I would have to assume that no teacher would make an entire class read this book together. But if (for example) the class was in the habit of checking in on Cornell’s live nest cams every day after lunch, then I hope this book and a few other books about birds would available for anyone who was hooked on birds.

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13. Dave the Potter

hill davethepotter 300x235 Dave the PotterHere’s a biography of someone we really know very little about. What do you make of Hill’s poem? Do you want to learn more? Do Collier’s illustrations fill in some gaps?

The information at the end tells us more, but in fact we are still left with a mystery. Do Collier’s collages match the tone of the text?

We’re also reading some articles about this book. You can comment on the articles on that page, but I’d love to know how they affected your appreciation of the book.

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14. More books to discuss

mar6 2014 readings horz More books to discuss

Last week was our first week with book discussion on this blog rather than our usual posts from teachers. I didn’t exactly blow the horn to announce them, so this week I’m trying something different, hoping more of you see — and join — the discussions.

So… *horn fanfare* …we hope you will join us in talking about the five books we’re reading for Thursday night’s children’s lit class at HGSE.

For March 6, 2014, we have two picture books, two easy readers, and one book about how art works:

Last week we read these books, and we’d love to let the conversation keep going:

And now, let the wild discussions begin!

 

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15. Non-Existent Trains and Invisible Forests...


When I did my illustrator-in residence project for the ASCEL Conference last year, I met lots of librarians, which is always a pleasure, since librarians are almost as lovely as children's illustrators :-)

One of those I met, contacted me a little while ago and asked me to visit their library. So on Wednesday I took the train to Nottingham and spent a lovely day in Sherwood. There were no visible forests, nor merry men for that matter (probably a good thing at that time of day), though we did find a lovely deli for lunch and a lot of merry children from 3 local schools. 



It didn't start well though. When I checked the departures board at Sheffield station, to find my platform, I discovered that the train I'd booked didn't exist. Not just cancelled - never was! Bit of a blow. A chat with Customer Services informed me there'd been a landslide near Chesterfield on Monday and all the train timetables in that direction had been changed. Wonderful. 

Luckily, though half an hour late, I arrived just as the 60 children were filing into the library. Phew. My morning group was two Y3 classes, so I read stories, drew animals at the flipchart and generally played the goat (Giddy Goat, naturally). They were all lovely and I quickly forgot the stresses of the journey. 


After lunch (with cake - told you librarians were nice), I had a Y5 group, so I talked about my work and showed them some artwork, like this monkey's tea party illustration from Stinky!. I also took roughs and books-in-progress (including a sneak-preview of Swap!), then taught them how to draw characters in motion. They too were a smashing group and asked me some brilliant questions, which is always very gratifying (if I have to answer 'what is your favourite book' one more time...).

I finished the day with something a bit different: an hour with the homework club. Normally it's an after-school drop-in session, with 3 adult helpers on hand to give assistance with any homework children have. Since I was there, it was billed as a creative writing workshop instead. At the start though, we had just one boy (with the 3 helpers, the librarian and me - poor lad). 



It was okay though: I did him a personal illustration, adding all the elements at his direction, to use as the starting point for his writing and, thank goodness, before the drawing was done, five more children turned up. I showed them how to start a story in the most exciting way possible, and they all got stuck into a tale about a scorpion and spider who were trying to catch and eat a man in the desert.


The aforementioned lovely librarian bought each of the children one of my picture books as a special present to take home with them, which I of course signed, before heading off for the adventure of trying to find a train home.



It was a really positive day and a great start to the visit season (thanks Sarah!). It all kicks off in earnest on Monday - I'll be out every single day that week. Luckily I'll be taking trains in the opposite direction :-)

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16. A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd

Sometimes a book will just call out to you.  It tells you that it was meant for you and that you need to read it.  The first time I heard the title A Snicker of Magic, I was intrigued.  The first time I saw the delightful cover, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Felicity Juniper Pickle is a collector of words.  Not in the same way that some of us are, she is lucky enough to see words.  Words surround certain people and things, and when Felicity sees them, she writes them down in her always present blue notebook.  When her little sister Frannie Jo asks for a poem, Felicity can pluck them out of the air and combine them into a soothing rhyme for her.

There are two things that Felicity Pickle cannot do, however.  She cannot comfortably speak those words in front of anyone, and she can't stay in one place too long.  The first thing she can work on, but the second thing is all because of her Mama.

Her Mama is cursed with a wandering heart.  She loads her girls up into her beat-up van and travels around with them.  This last jaunt has brought the Pickles home to where Mama grew up: Midnight Gulch.  Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, but a few generations ago the magic seemingly up and left town right along with the famous Threadbare brothers.

But for Felicity, Midnight Gulch does turn out to be a magical place.  First of all, she acquires her very first friend - Jonah Pickett.  And Jonah, it turns out, has a secret and a bit of a magical identity as well.  As he takes Felicity under his wing, she sees the things that could be -- the things that she didn't even know she was longing for as Mama shuttled them around "Per-clunkity-clunk, per-clunkity-clunk" across the country.

Natalie Lloyd has created the kind of world that readers want to jump into.  This small Tennessee town should exist and feels like it does.  Perfectly quirky, the characters are interwoven, layered and kind. Turns of phrase verily melt in your mouth, and beg to be read aloud.  This is a heart-song book, if ever there was one.

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17. Talking about chapter books

julian joey omakayas Talking about chapter books

This week we are reading three chapter books — The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos, and The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. Each is the first book in a series and each has a strong central character, an element that I think is essential in early chapter books.

We’re also reading two articles to go along with these books. One is Robin Smith’s “Teaching New Readers to Love Books,” where, among other things, she describes reading The Birchbark House aloud to her second graders every year. The other article is an interview with Jack Gantos from the Embracing the Child website. I find that teachers tend to have a lot of questions about Gantos’s credentials for writing about ADHD, and he addresses them especially well here.

I hope you will join our discussions of theses readings in the comments to the individual posts linked above.

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18. The Stories Julian Tells

StoriesJulianTells The Stories Julian TellsThe Stories Julian Tells is the first book in an ongoing series about brothers Julian and Hughie, and their neighbor Gloria. This is an early chapter book, for readers who have acquired some fluency but aren’t ready to tackle longer books yet. The chapters are fairly short, there’s lots of conversation, the plot is easy to follow, and there is a clear central character.

What do you think of Ann Cameron’s writing? Is the story engaging enough for children who are still struggling a bit with reading? And how do you feel about a white author writing a book in which all the characters are African American?

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19. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

joey pigza Joey Pigza Swallowed the KeyThe Joey Pigza books are hugely popular with upper elementary kids. Joey Pigza is the first of the series and while it’s not spelled out, I think it’s pretty obvious that Joey has ADHD.

I like sharing this book with teachers because they tend to look at the situations so differently from the way Joey’s contemporaries — the real target audience — would. As you react to this book, it’s important to allow yourself to read it as two different people: you as a critical adult who is allowed to be horrified by the adults in the book (and maybe a little sympathetic, too?) AND as a child who is Joey’s age. If you allow yourself to read this through your student’s eyes, do you find that your reaction to the book changes?

Note that we are also reading an interview with Jack Gantos this week from the Embracing the Child website.

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20. The Birchbark House

erdrich birchbark house 300x216 The Birchbark HouseLouise Erdrich’s historical novel The Birchbark House is the first in a series, each book following a child from a different generation in an Ojibwa community.

Often, books for children contain a central character who is about the same age as the book’s readers. The Birchbark House would be a tough read for most children who are Omakayas’s age. There are beautiful descriptive passages that young readers tend to gloss over, and difficult vocabulary, including some Ojibwe words. For these reasons, it works best when read aloud to those younger grades — as Robin Smith discusses in her article.

What did you think of this book? And what about reading aloud in school? For those of you who are teachers, do you? And what books have you found that work best?

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21. Two articles related to chapter books

jackgantos Two articles related to chapter booksThis week in addition to our three chapter books, we are reading two articles.

The first is Robin Smith’s piece about her road to becoming a second grade teacher who loves LOVES books, and how she shares them with her classes: “Teaching New Readers to Love Books” from the September/October 2003 Horn Book Magazine.

The second is an interview with Jack Gantos that sheds some light on how he came to write the Joey Pigza books: “An Interview with Jack Gantos” from Embracing the Child website.

(If you would like to read more by Robin Smith or about Jack Gantos, there’s is plenty on the Horn Book website. Just follow the links.)

Tell us what you think of these articles in the comments below.

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22. Calling all English teachers in Malaysia and Singapore!


Helloooooo to all my fellow English teachers in Malaysia and Singapore. Please encourage your students to join the Scholastic Writers' Award 2014!

If you are in Malaysia, check out this link. And if you are in Singapore, check out this link. :o)

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23. Meeting My Beloved and his Black Leather Gloves...


Despite my occasional moans about the early trains I have to catch, I do enjoy the March school visits season.  I love interacting with the children. The one big drawback to being an illustrator is that it is easy to spend far too long on your own in the house.


Before the days of school visits, when I worked as an editorial illustrator and in the early days of doing the children's books, I used to get a bit stir-crazy. Being an illustrator might sound glamorous, but mostly it's just day after day in four walls, with only a computer and a drawing desk for company. In fact, I first met John because I decided I needed to interact with the world, before I lost the power of speech! 

I'd not long moved to Sheffield, so didn't know many people and thought teaching at the local art college might be fun and help me make new friends. It was actually pretty scary to start with, but I muddled through and ended up lecturing for about 7 years, going from 1 day to 3 days a week. 


I taught all sorts - Printed Textiles (that's what my degree is in), Life Drawing, Print-making (a lot of learning as I went along), Photoshop (even more learning as I went along!) and, of course, Illustration. John and I shared an office and discovered we were living on the same side of Sheffield. I had to get 2 buses to the college, so John started giving me a lift home after work and the rest, as they say, is history. 

I think this is one of the first paintings I have of John, from those very early days in the 1990's. We'd not been married long:


We've been married for over 20 years now, so some of it is a bit hazy, but I do clearly remember fancying him in his black leather driving gloves, during those lifts home from the college!


I didn't used to keep a sketchbook as addictively in those days, so this is a much later sketch: the slightly older model, with a few more dints (don't tell him I said that, will you?).

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24. What do You Get if You Cross a Frog with a Mouse?


You might think this question has something to do with the strange animal couplings from Jungle Grumble, but you'd be wrong. The answer to the riddle is... me, last week. 


Okay, hopefully I didn't bear any visual resemblance to either frogs or mice, but my voice certainly did. Yes, I know, again. Almost every year it seems to happen to me. I get a cold and end up with laryngitis. 

As usual for March, there have been so many visits booked in, I've just had to dose up on paracetamol and get stuck in. Normally I can blame the germy children I meet around World Book Day but, this year, I think I caught it off a friend the weekend before, because I got poorly on the very first Monday, 2 weeks ago. Groan.


By that Friday, the voice was seriously wobbly, but I was booked to do a talk first thing to a hall-full, at Sheffield High School. Luckily we got an emergency microphone rigged up so I could do the mouse-voice thing. Then, half-way through the subsequent illustration workshop, John suddenly appeared with emergency supplies: a big bottle of of TCP, so I could do some lunchtime gargling in the loos! What a hero. Unfortunately, I've been bathed in the delightful scent of TCP ever since. 


It does help though and is probably the reason why I've not gone completely silent this time round. I had only two days of visits last week, on Wednesday and Thursday. I had hoped that the few days of rest would sort it out, but no - still the same. Oh well. John is enjoying the luxury of getting a word in edge-ways. Also being told off at a far lesser volume than usual.


I hope you like this latest batch of train sketches. These are from the two days last week, done in my trusty Inktense watercolour pencils

I met some smashing children on both days and everyone has been very patient with my difficulties. It all seems to be going very well anyway, despite adversity. Maybe next week I will sound less like a squeaky frog...

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25. Three articles about Dave the Potter

BryanCollierFamily Three articles about Dave the Potter

Bryan Collier with his wife, daughter, and newborn baby daughter on Easter, April 2011.

In addition to the four information books we’re reading this week, there are also three articles from the July/August 2011 Horn Book Magazine related to Dave the Potter:

Personally, I love learning about the background of books and hearing how they are used. I also like hearing commentary tracks on DVDs after watching a movie. Does knowing more about the creating process help you appreciate the book more? Or does it take away some of the magic?

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