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1. Potty Training Books for a Diaper-Free Existence

And then there's potty training. It's a world unto itself, with special videos, portable potties, stickers, colorful underwear, and, of course, books. But the pay-off is huge: a diaper-free existence. We're big readers in our household, so why not read about it, too?

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2. Earth Day Reading | Board Books and Picture Books

I just love that Earth Day is in spring! It makes perfect sense to capture everyone's attention when they are ready to get back into the great outdoors after winter. Below you'll discover just a couple of the books that have caught my attention because of their appreciation of gardens, plants, and even weeds.

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3. Teaching difficult novels

greatliterature 243x300 Teaching difficult novelsIdeally, students would stop judging books by their covers and at least try to read what they are given.  Yet more often than not, I am faced with the question, “How do I get students to love the amazing books I love, or at least tolerate the books we are assigned since they’re the only remaining ones in a full class set?”

Here’s how I handle this situation.

Well, first things first.  I make sure students can read the book. Only when my students are able to fluently read the book (meaning the student does not have to look up more than 3 or 4 vocabulary words per page and can relate to you the basic plot after an individual reading) will they be able to take that comprehension into the next level of questioning and analysis. Granted, this happens most often with classics published for adults, but it can happen with trade books for children as well.

If the administration says, “Phooey to your research-based suggestion! Teach this work of literature — it will challenge the students to rise!” Then, I work to create two or three clear, attainable objectives for the book.

My students are not only 8th graders, but all of them come from a different language background and a little under 50% are still English Language Learners.  I am not denying my students’ tenacity, but I also don’t want to set them up for defeat.

So, in order to tackle this beast, I focus on just three goals.  I want students to (1) know and connect with the basic plot, (2) use the story to apply their skills to a specific element of literature, and (3) identify and connect story elements to whichever major themes I have for that book.

I know it feels oversimplified, but with these three goals, I am able to prune the extraneous.  With stronger readers, I can assign deeper prompts connected to my three goals and with weaker readers, I can create cloze exercises [link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloze_test], chapter summaries, and other supports to scaffold their mastery of these three goals.  Anything outside these goals, I nix!  Sure, I would love to hit every theme, motif, character motivation, and symbol in these novels — I’m a lit major!  Yet, for my eighth graders, I know that the best way to have lasting impact — to get pieces to stick to their ribs — is not to spread the story shallow, but to give them tools to dig deep.

Some would argue that I am not doing the book justice, and I admit that it is a risk.  Yet I am hoping that by creating manageable objectives for my students now, they will not be turned off by the books that they most likely will reencounter in their future education.

So now tell us, how do all of you handle this situation?

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4. 5 Baseball Themed Books for Young Fans and Readers

Among scores of spring themed picture books, families with young fans can celebrate the season with this diverse selection of 5 baseball inspired books.

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5. A Chat with Karen Benke : Author, Poet, & Creative Writing Instructor

It’s National Poetry Month this April and what better way to celebrate than a chat with author, poet, and creative writing instructor Karen Benke.

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6. Dayenu!

Pour the wine (or grape juice) and chop the nuts and apples. Here are some new books for Passover. (And here are two more.)

 

Preschool

balsley its a mitzvah grover Dayenu!Two Shalom Sesame series entries, written by Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer and illustrated by Tom Leigh, follow Sesame Street characters in Israel as they learn about doing good deeds. In It’s a Mitzvah, Grover!, Grover and friends clean up a playground after a storm, though Moishe the grouch hesitates to participate. In Grover and Big Bird’s Passover Celebration, Big Bird joins Grover and learns about Passover as they do mitzvot en route to a seder. The tone is un-preachy and preschoolers will recognize the friendly cast of characters. (both Kar-Ben, 2013)

glaser hoppy passover Dayenu!The rabbit family that celebrated Hanukkah in author Linda Glaser and illustrator Daniel Howarth’s Hoppy Hanukkah! now joyously observes Passover. In Hoppy Passover!, siblings Violet and Simon participate in traditions such as reciting the Four Questions and preparing the Seder plate. The rabbit-children’s infectious excitement comes across in both text and illustrations (though the cheerful, pastel-colored palette and bouncing bunnies may bring to mind another springtime holiday).
(Whitman, 2011)

 

Primary

adler passover Dayenu!David A. Adler follows up 2011′s The Story of Hanukkah with the The Story of Passover . The straightforward text touches on Jacob and the Children of Israel; slavery and Pharaoh’s cruelty; Moses’s encounter with the burning bush; the ten plagues; and the Red Sea escape. Jill Weber’s expressive, rich-hued acrylics play up the drama (ew, lice) but also offer reassurance and even some humor through small, eye-pleasing details. (Holiday, 2014)

glaser stone soup with matzoh balls Dayenu!Stone Soup with Maztoh Balls: A Passover Tale in Chelm begins with a stranger arriving in Chelm on Passover. Let “all who are hungry come and eat,” sure, but the villagers don’t have much to share. The stranger produces a stone, promising to make matzoh ball soup…and you know the rest. Linda Glaser’s well-cadenced text and Maryam Tabatabaei’s digital-looking art are as light as the Chelmites’ matzo balls (“…so light they can almost fly”). (Whitman, 2014)

kimmelman little red hen and the passover matzah Dayenu!Who will help make the Passover matzah? When Sheep, Horse, and Dog prove unreliable, stereotypical Jewish mother Little Red Hen (somewhat grudgingly) takes up the reins.  The good-natured cadence of Leslie Kimmelman’s text for The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah extends the mother-hen comparison, while Paul Meisel’s affectionate ink, watercolor, and  pastel illustrations keep things from going too far over the top. An author’s note about Passover and a matzah recipe are appended. (Holiday, 2010)

passover lamb Dayenu!Miriam, protagonist of Linda Elovitz Marshall’s The Passover Lamb, is looking forward to singing the Four Questions at her grandparents’ Passover seder. But when a newborn lamb on the family’s farm is abandoned by its mother, Miriam worries she’ll have to miss the seder to care for the unwanted baby. Her solution is unsurprising but charming; soft illustrations by Tatjana Mai-Wyss reinforce Miriam’s affection for the (particularly cute) baby sheep. (Random House, 2013)

portnoy tale of two seders Dayenu!In A Tale of Two Seders by Mindy Avra, a young girl has gone to six different Passover seders in the three years since her parents’ divorce. At the sixth seder, attended by both her mom and dad, the girl’s mother likens families to different varieties of charoset, a traditional dish: “Some have more ingredients…But each one is tasty in its own way.” The realistic story is accompanied by Valeria Cis’s pattern-filled illustrations. Charoset recipes are included. (Kar-Ben, 2010)

longest night Dayenu!A young Jewish slave describes the ten plagues and the Israelites’ hurried flight from Egypt in The Longest Night: A Passover Story. Illustrator Catia Chien’s dark, expansive acrylic paintings are well matched with Laurel Snyder’s impeccable rhyming couplets (although some illustrations, such as a full-page, open-jawed wolf, may be too intense for very young readers). The concluding spreads, featuring the parting of the Red Sea and a gorgeous sunrise, are a treat. (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2013)

strauss elijah door Dayenu!In a small village long ago, the once-close Lippa and Galinsky families feuded. With the rabbi, their children (who loved one another) enacted a plan to bring their families together for Seder so that Passover could truly be celebrated. How the whole village participates makes Linda Leopold Strauss’s The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale  a warmhearted story of reconciliation and togetherness. Strikingly painted woodcuts by Alexi Natchev illustrate the Passover tale. (Holiday, 2012)

weber yankee at the seder Dayenu!In 1865, a Jewish family in Virginia hosts an unanticipated Passover guest: a Yankee soldier. The “festival of freedom,” here celebrated by people with conflicting beliefs but a common cultural history, has great meaning. Elka Weber’s The Yankee at the Seder, a well-told tale based on actual events, is accompanied by Adam Gustavson’s richly textured oil paintings. Endnotes provide more information about the real-life figures and the Passover holiday. (Tricycle, 2009)

ziefert passover celebrating now remembering then Dayenu!Harriet Ziefert’s appealing Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then presents contemporary Passover rituals alongside a retelling of the festival story. Left-hand pages include “Now” information while right-hand gatefold pages open to reveal the “Then” side: additional details about the Passover tale. Karla Gudeon’s unfussy illustrations against natural-paper-textured backgrounds help illuminate events. The decorated endpapers are adorned with holiday symbols. (Blue Apple, 2010)

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7. Five questions for Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia Leitich Smith Five questions for Cynthia Leitich SmithCynthia Leitich Smith’s urban fantasy series the Tantalize quartet did indeed tantalize readers with its vampire-themed eatery Sanguini’s: A Very Rare Restaurant (and, of course, the vampires and other supernatural beings involved therein). Her latest novel, Feral Curse (Candlewick, 13–16 years), is the second book in the Tantalize spinoff series Feral, which brings various species of werepeople (a preferred term for “shifters”) to the forefront with intrepid werecat protagonists Yoshi and Kayla. Despite the palpable suspense as her characters face bewildering magic, anti-were prejudice, and scheming yetis, Smith keeps the tone light and witty — a catnip-like combination for fans of smart supernatural romance.

1. The Tantalize and Feral series are populated with vampires, werepeople, angels, and yetis — a motley crew, to be sure. Any other supernatural creatures we should look out for?

CLS: My inner Whedonite relishes geek-team protagonists in a multi-creature-verse. Along the way, I’ve also unleashed hell hounds, dragons, ghosts, and sorcerers. Writing the series finale, I’m showcasing diva demons and my heroes’ metaphorical demons within. Not to mention the diabolical governor of Texas. But pffft! You probably saw that coming.

2. What kind of shifter would you be and why?

smith feral curse Five questions for Cynthia Leitich SmithCLS: I’ve been saying werecats, in light of their starring role in the Feral series. But as of late, I’ve become intrigued by wereorcas and Dolphins. I’ve lived a largely mid- to southwestern, landlocked life, so even though most of our world is covered by water, to me it’s as alien and fantastical as anything we’d find in fiction.

3. Will Quincie, Kieren, Zachary, and Miranda of the Tantalize books cross paths with Yoshi and Kayla?

CLS: Isn’t that what finales are for? Yes, they’ll all be back in Feral Pride (2015) along with heaven’s bureaucracy, Italian-Romanian-Texan fusion cuisine, and — of course — senior prom.

4. We can’t resist asking: what’s your favorite item on the menu you created for Sanguini’s? (And would you actually eat it?)

CLS: Chef Bradley’s signature dish: chilled baby squirrels, simmered in orange brandy, bathed in honey cream sauce. And I might, absent Brad’s secret ingredient. By the way, it’s inspired by a real-life historical Romanian recipe involving mice.

5. If you could live in the world of another YA fantasy series, which would it be?

CLS: The world of Ellen Jensen Abbott’s Watersmeet books, after Abisina saves it.

From the April 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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8. Bunny Books: A Round-Up of Rabbit Books

Move over doggy and kitty books (unless you're a book about a cat that wants to be a bunny), adorable bunny books are in abundance and multiplying all of the time. Whether you're looking for an Easter basket filler, a simply sweet tale or something classic like The Velveteen Rabbit, we've got you covered—and twice on the "Velveteen" front.

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9. 2 Spring Must Read Junior Novels with Wonderful Girl Protagonists

If your young independent reader is looking for a great read with a wonderful girl protagonist, or maybe she's looking for a new series to latch onto, you can't go wrong with either of these two books or their prequels.

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10. “Where do you buy these?”

barnesnoble cherryhillNJ 300x231 Where do you buy these?

Barnes and Noble at Cherry Hill, NJ.

Eight years ago, the question shocked me: “Mr. Ribay, where do you buy these?”

The student was holding up a book. He had no idea where to buy a book. That was my first year teaching in Camden, NJ and the first time I had ever encountered someone who had to ask this question. But it wouldn’t be the last.

“Umm,” I said, “a bookstore.”

The answer seemed obvious, but later I thought about it further. Had I bought it in a physical bookstore? I probably purchased it online. This eighth grader couldn’t do that without a parent with a credit card. And where was the nearest bookstore? It was in the suburbs, and, again, this eighth grader probably couldn’t get there without someone willing and able to drive him.

Furthermore, the city’s public libraries left much to be desired. They actually closed down completely a few years later, making Camden the largest city in the United States at the time without a public library (thankfully, a couple branches eventually reopened as part of the county system).

camdenfreepubliclibrary 500x375 Where do you buy these?

The Camden Free Public Library

That simple, surprising question actually spoke volumes: Camden, the resting place of Walt Whitman, was a literary desert. It’s not that there weren’t people who still read and wrote, as there certainly were. I knew students who read well above their grade level, inhaling books like oxygen, and then offering profound comments that left me reeling. But the sad truth was that they were few and far between.

Many students in the inner-city do not grow up in literacy-rich environments. They may not have been read to regularly as children. Their houses might not have contained several shelves of books. They might not take regular trips to the library or a store that only sells books.

Eight years later, I now teach high school English at a charter school in West Philadelphia, but this question and its implications have remained in the forefront of my mind. Relative to the nearby neighborhood schools, our students perform pretty well, with a vast majority of each graduating class gaining acceptance to four-year colleges or universities.

Yet our average student still reads below grade level, our top students’ SAT scores are unimpressive, and a majority of our students couldn’t tell you the last time they read an entire book for fun.

I appreciate the complexity behind acquiring language and literacy. But it seems to me that on the whole these are the cumulative consequences of not being surrounded by books and learning to love them. It’s a simple truth overlooked amidst today’s mania for testing: if kids experience the joy of reading, they will read more and become better readers. A student bombarded with practice reading comprehension questions or scripted intervention curriculum for hours a day, year after year, learns only that they hate what they are being told is “reading.”

So, fellow educators, how do you get your students to love reading, to enjoy a book so much that they want to find a bookstore and go buy it? How did you ever get to that point?

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11. My Writing and Reading Life: Soman Chainani

Soman Chainani’s debut novel, The School for Good and Evil, debuted on The New York Times bestseller list, has been translated into languages across six continents, and will soon be a major motion film from Universal Pictures.

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12. Maureen Grenier Discusses Her Latest Soccer “Whodunit”

Maureen Grenier is a free-lance writer, editor and researcher, which gives her the time to write mystery stories. She has finished several and finalized three—two mystery books for children, which she also illustrated, and a murder mystery for adults. With plenty more to come from Grenier, we know you'll enjoy getting to know her in this interview about her "Viking Club Mystery" series.

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13. Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 Edition

This column is part of a series of recommended board book roundups, formerly published twice a year, now published every season. You can find the previous installments here. Don’t miss Viki Ash’s primer “What Makes a Good Board Book?” from the March/April 2010 Horn Book Magazine.

baker gallina grande Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionLa gallina grande / Big Fat Hen
by Keith Baker; translated by Carlos E. Calvo
Houghton     30 pp.
4/14     978-0-544-17398-9     $4.99

Baker’s Big Fat Hen debuted as a generously sized picture book in 1994. The popularity of the original was reinforced in 1997 with a board book edition, and the book finds new life in this Spanish/English bilingual board edition. It is unfortunate that both board versions employ a greatly reduced trim size; Baker’s brightly hued acrylic illustrations are still effective but somewhat less impressive on this smaller scale. Calvo’s translation of the traditional rhyme is fluid and rhythmic, although the ocho/bizcocho couplet and the “big fat hen” page do not exactly match their illustrations. Still, this is a valuable addition to the bilingual bookshelves.

barrett pat a cake Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionPat-a-Cake
by Mary Brigid Barrett; illus. by LeUyen Pham
Candlewick     16 pp.
1/14    978-0-7636-4358-4    $6.99

Don’t be fooled by the title: this is not an illustrated version of the ubiquitous nursery rhyme. Barrett takes the rhyme out of the baker’s shop and into the life of a toddler, inviting youngsters to pat puddings and puddles, acorns and oak trees, and finally parents and pillows. The rhyming text is complemented by Pham’s joyful illustrations, which feature a multi-ethnic cast of smiling young explorers. Additional book in the series: All Fall Down.

braun lift the flap Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionWho Can Swim?
by Sebastien Braun
Candlewick    14 pp.
3/14    978-0-7636-6752-8    $6.99

For animal-loving readers and listeners looking for a little variety, Braun moves beyond the usual parade of pets and livestock. In this stylishly illustrated offering, the repeated question, “Who can swim?” is answered as flaps lift to reveal not just fish, but also penguins, polar bears, seals, and whales. The final flap hides a happy toddler, complete with red floaties, representing for the young listener that “You can swim,” too.

huneck sally at the farm Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionSally at the Farm
by Stephen Huneck
Abrams Appleseed     20 pp.
3/14    978-1-4197-1030-8    $7.95

 

 

huneck sally in the sand Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionSally in the Sand
by Stephen Huneck
Abrams Appleseed    20 pp.
3/14    978-1-4197-1029-2    $7.95

Huneck first introduced readers to his big black Lab, Sally, and his distinctive artistic style in a series of picture books in the early 2000s. Happily, Sally is back in these adaptations of two of her early adventures (Sally Goes to the Farm, 2002; Sally Goes to the Beach, 2000). Sally is, for the most part, an endearingly realistic dog who sniffs, licks, digs, swims, and cleans her plate. Using a subdued palette that combines color washes and woodcut prints, Huneck has created a friendly and folksy landscape for young dog lovers to enjoy alongside Sally.

lin bringing in the new year Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionBringing In the New Year
by Grace Lin
Knopf    28 pp.
12/13    978-0-385-75365-4    $6.99

Originally published as a picture book in 2008, Lin’s introduction to the traditional celebration of the Lunar New Year is now available as a board book. The gatefold of the waking dragon featured in the picture book is missing in the new format, as are the decorated end pages, but the story of welcoming the new year retains all its charm and vitality. The illustrations have a festive energy that mirrors the family’s building excitement. Like the picture book, the board book closes with useful back matter for young readers or listeners.

siminovich you are my baby garden Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionYou Are My Baby: Garden [Petit Collage]
by Lorena Siminovich
Chronicle     12 pp.
3/14    978-1-4521-2649-4     $8.99

 

siminovich you are my baby ocean Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionYou Are My Baby: Ocean [Petit Collage]
by Lorena Siminovich
Chronicle     12 pp.
3/14     978-1-4521-2650-0     $8.99

Continuing the series reviewed in the fall 2013 roundup, Siminovich brings her “book within a book” concept to two new environments. The use of specialized terms for several of the babies (hatchling, spiderling, calf, kit) adds a vocabulary-building element to the books. Never fear; this educational element doesn’t detract from the fun of mixing and matching the babies with their grown-ups.

zuckerman creature colors Board Book Roundup: Spring 2014 EditionCreature: Colors
by Andrew Zuckerman
Chronicle    20 pp.
3/14     978-1-4521-1668-6     $7.99

Vivid photographs and generous white space are the hallmarks of this concept book. Zuckerman introduces ten colors and ten creatures with seeming simplicity. His layouts, however, feature animals off center, in profile, walking on and flying off the pages. These unexpected configurations add an appealing visual sophistication. Three additional books are planned for the series: Creature: Numbers, Creature: Baby Animals and Creature: Sounds.

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14. 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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15. LEGO Building: 5 Kid-Approved LEGO Books

All the excitement surrounding The LEGO Movie sparked a renewed interest in the venerable building toys at my house. The following books that include all kinds of tips, ideas and techniques to re-purpose existing LEGO pieces for all sorts of fantastic creations.

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16. 5 Picture Books to Help Build Depth in Emotional Intelligence and Wellness

When a child experiences big feelings or emotions, it can be confusing, deflating, and sometimes scary for parents and the child. The 5 books listed here can help parents and children talk about and navigate the sometimes windy road of emotions.

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17. The Art of Creating Fictional Worlds | Jaleigh Johnson, “The Mark of the Dragonfly”

"I should start by saying that world building, where I get to create a fictional reality from the ground up, is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s the foundation of a good story. Of course, you want a plot that keeps readers turning the pages—and amazing, memorable characters as well, but those characters also deserve a fully realized world to play around in."

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18. 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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19. A true Dutch treat

Fairy Godfather A true Dutch treatI hope you jumped on those Sutherland Lecture tickets yesterday because they are gone baby gone–I understand that even the waiting list is full. A big fan of John Green’s books, I am nevertheless nervous about being in an auditorium filled with John Green Girls, beautiful, complicated and ka-razy creatures that they are. Or do I infer too much? Come say hello–I’ll be the flustered chaperone in the corner.

In the meantime I am off to White Plains today to visit Brian Kenney’s library and speak to the Youth Services Section of  NYLA tomorrow morning. Then a weekend with our lovely Dutch friends in Rye, taking the adorable Julia, Mads, and Lizze to see Matilda on Broadway, for what else are fee peetvaders for?

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20. Best Selling Young Adult Books | April 2014

With the March movie release of the movie version of Divergent, it's no wonder that our best selling young adult book list features the popular book for teens, Divergent, by Veronica Roth. Our hand selected titles from the nationwide best selling young adult books, as listed by The New York Times, remain the same; featuring titles by super-talents John Green, Ransom Riggs, Stephen Chbosky, Markus Zusak and Rainbow Rowell.

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21. Best Selling Kids Series | April 2014

The New York Times bestselling "Pete the Cat" picture book series tops The Children's Book Review's best selling kids series list. And the list of hand-selected series from the nationwide best selling Children's Series list, as noted by The New York Times, features the same popular dystopian thriller series as last month from the likes of Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins, the adventurous Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan, and the relatable Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney.

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22. Children’s Book Trends | April 2014

This month's top ten hot spots on The Children's Book Review feature some great book giveaways; including our 6th anniversary Kindle giveaway. Amongst the familiar articles to feature in TCBR's top ten hot spots, the best selling young adult booklists from March and February have been perused by many.

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23. Night of Cake & Puppets

taylor night of cake and puppets Night of Cake & PuppetsThe last book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, publishes today. In honor of that occasion — and in case you need something to tide you over (and excite you further) until you can get your copy of Dreams — here’s a review of Taylor’s digital original Night of Cake & Puppets (Little, Brown, November 2013).

Laini Taylor’s YA fantasy trilogy Daughter of Smoke & Bone focuses on a never-ending war between chimaera and seraphim in the world of Eretz and the fraught relationship between a chimaera resurrectionist, Karou, and her star-crossed love interest, Akiva, a seraphim soldier. E-novella Night of Cake & Puppets takes place between the first two novels and focuses on two secondary characters, Karou’s best friend Zuzana and her love interest, “violin boy” Mik. This is the story of their meet-cute in Prague, and fans of this couple will relish a closer look at the beginning of their decidedly unstar-crossed relationship. While book two, Days of Blood and Starlight, does reference how Zuzana and Mik became a couple, Night provides all the details from that fateful evening.

Zuzana has had a crush on Mik for three months, but has up until now been too bashful to even talk to him — she doesn’t even know if he knows she exists. Zuzana finally takes the initiative one night at the theater where they both work on the weekends to enact her intricate plan for them to meet. She leaves a treasure map in his violin case in hopes that he’ll follow it to the locations where she’s left objects and clues for him to find. The treasure at the end of his hunt? Zuzana. Mik has a few tricks up his sleeve to surprise Zuzana, too.

As always, Taylor’s lush descriptive language paints a vivid picture for readers, and series fans will be happy to see familiar characters and settings. While Karou herself is not present in the novella, her humorous texts offer support to Zuzana. Karou’s ex Kaz makes an entertaining (unwanted) appearance. The story alternates between Zuzana and Mik’s perspectives, and their endearing insecurities allow their lovable personalities to shine. It’s a night full of puppets, magic, cake, music, and the hope of romance. While readers of the novels already know there will be a happy outcome to this story, the inherent anticipation during its unfolding makes the novella a satisfying page-turner. Carpe noctem!

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24. May/June Horn Book Magazine starred books

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I feel like the Fisherman’s Wife here–now that I have a window in my office, I want sunshine.

But we are getting accustomed to our new quarters, scary warnings in the cafeteria about noroviruses notwithstanding. We even managed a star meeting! The following books will receive starred reviews in the May/June issue of The Horn Book Magazine:

The Baby Tree; written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Paulsen/Penguin)

Gaston; by Kelly DiPucchio; illus. by Christian Robinson (Atheneum)

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom; by Angela Johnson; illus. by E. B. Lewis (Simon)

The Last Forever; by Deb Caletti (Simon Pulse)

We Were Liars; by E. Lockhart (Delacorte)

West of the Moon; by Margi Preus (Amulet/Abrams)

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker; by Patricia Hruby Powell; illus. by Christian Robinson (Chronicle)

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25. Harriet and Me

Where to begin with how important Harriet the Spy has been in my life? I guess I’ll have to start with my childhood. I was in fourth grade, at a school book fair. I’d forgotten to bring money that day, which was a problem because there was one book I was desperate to have. It had a bright orange cover with bold yellow type and a girl wearing glasses climbing all over it. And somehow I knew I was going to love it and I had to read it. AND IT WAS THE ONLY COPY AT THE FAIR. So I did what any right-thinking person would do under the circumstances: I hid it. Specifically, I put it at the bottom of a pile of very drippy-looking books (I’m guessing they were Winnie-the-Pooh; I detested Winnie-the-Pooh back then) and kept my fingers crossed that no one would find it and I could buy it the next day. Which I did. And Harriet has been a part of my life ever since.

It occurs to me now that this is probably the sort of thing Harriet herself would have done in a similar situation. And that in turn tells you why she’s a character who has endured for so long. She’s resourceful, quick, a little unscrupulous, and entirely recognizable. A real person, in other words. You might not like her (and I’m still not sure I do), but you know this girl.

That school book fair was the first time I remember Harriet being important to me. The second time came much later. I was a young assistant editor, starting out in children’s books. I’d been promoted and assigned a mass market series to edit. It was a steady-selling series for the publisher, and I was excited to be working on something so substantial. Needless to say, I took my responsibilities very seriously. This manuscript was going to be IN PRINT, after all. It was going to be a book! It had to be good! The future of the nation’s youth and the success of the series were resting on my shoulders alone! (I’m exaggerating just a bit, but I really did feel this way.) Unfortunately, the manuscript was about the worst thing I’d ever read. I couldn’t even articulate why it was so awful, but it was complete dreck, and I had to fix it. Or at least make it readable and enjoyable enough to sell ten thousand copies. And I had absolutely no idea how to do this.

Okay, I said to myself. Think about some other books, books you love. What makes them so great? That’s when I remembered Harriet. And I went back and read it — really read it, this time. I took it apart, technically. I began to understand how good it is. And even though the manuscript I was working on was a YA book and Harriet was a middle-grade novel, I learned things from Harriet about dialogue, structure, character, action, and pacing that I was able to apply, in a different way, to the problematic manuscript I had to edit. Harriet saved my bacon that time, and also made me think about books and reading and writing in a new way. It’s actually ironic that Harriet helped me edit a conventional YA romance, because Harriet is the complete opposite of that; it is in fact a wildly subversive novel. Which of course only makes me love it more.

What’s so revolutionary about it? Let’s start with the fact that Harriet is not a nice little girl. She does illegal things when she spies. If she doesn’t actually break into Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber’s house, for instance, she comes pretty close. She writes terrible things about people — not just the people she spies on, but also her best friends. The thing is, she’s not doing it because she’s mean (although she certainly has her mean moments). She’s doing it because she’s honest and because she’s compelled to do it. The note-taking is part of who she is, what she is training herself to be: a writer and observer. It’s work, and she takes it very seriously. And her friends accept this about her, even after she hurts them with her brutally honest observations. They know she can’t change. Even when she’s forced to apologize, she does it out of practical necessity, because she wants to keep her friends, not because she really means it. And then she goes back to doing exactly what she was doing before. She hasn’t changed one bit, and her friends know it.

Just think about all of this! It’s a giant raspberry to the school of thought that says, A-character-in-a-children’s-book-must-change-and-grow-throughout-the-course-of-the-story. Or to the school that says, A-character-must-be-essentially-good-and-lovable. In fact, any rules or precepts or cutesy-poo ideas you might have had about children’s books fly right out the window when you read Harriet the Spy. There is no great moral lesson to be learned, no transformative change that happens to the protagonist. Above all, there is no tidiness. Harriet is real life in all its messiness and ambiguity, populated by real people who are also messy and ambiguous.

There is yet another reason to love Harriet, and it’s another editorial story, this one about its origin. In the book Dear Genius, the great Ursula Nordstrom, the visionary editor at Harper & Row during its golden era, writes about how Harriet the Spy came to be published. It all started with a reader’s report from Charlotte Zolotow, who was then a senior editor, urging Ursula to read the manuscript. “You have to get this writer to come in and talk. This isn’t a book, but it could be,” she wrote enthusiastically. And on what did she base her enthusiasm? Pages of Louise Fitzhugh’s drawings and disconnected narrative, which seemed to consist mostly of Harriet’s spy entries. Somehow Charlotte was able to see past this jumble of words and envision a book. She and Ursula worked with the author and helped her find the characters and story that became Harriet.

In this age of acquiring manuscripts from debut authors that have to be perfect or nearly perfect to be signed on, I find this story to be an inspiration, and most of all a reminder: you have to keep an open mind about the creative process. It’s messy and unpredictable and risky. But the rewards of taking that leap of faith are boundless.

Just read Harriet again and see.

From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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