I’m really not complaining, more just explaining.

Yes, I’m tired again.  And once again, my blog entries are suffering.  Days like these, I wonder how people manage to work as many hours as I do AND have children.  I really really wonder.  Because I certainly couldn’t pull it off!

Though it has been a particularly jam-packed couple of weeks, with one more overscheduled week coming up.  Here are some highlights of the week starting tomorrow:

I’m going to try out Gail Carson Levine’s new book on creative writing for kids with my student “John” tomorrow night.  He and I have been working exclusively on non-fiction writing, and he’s gotten pretty good at that, so now seems like a perfect time to try some fiction; and how fabulous that Levine’s book just came out and just arrived at the library.

Another highlight of the coming week is the second meeting of the Bagels n’ Books group for 4th and 5th graders on Tuesday afternoon.  Group membership has reached the nice round number of twelve (that will be the maximum, I’m afraid – perhaps I’ll have to start additional groups) and we’ll be discussing Edward Eager’s book Half Magic.  Should be fun!

Also on Tuesday, another infant and toddler storytime.  Since I worked this Saturday at the library, I was able to spend an hour or so cooking up a plan for this week’s storytime that (hopefully) will be engaging and fun for all.  I’m slowly building up my repetoire and gaining a sense of how many songs and fingerplays realistically can fit into a twenty-minute program.

And on Wednesday morning, the last morning session with “Josie,” one of my favorite students.  Josie has now finished Step 6 of the Wilson Reading System, and her parents think this might be a good time to phase me out so that she can sleep a little later on Wednesday mornings.  Josie and I have bravely and happily been meeting at 7:15 – before her school bus arrives, and before I need to go to work – and we’re both a wee bit exhausted!  I’ll miss working with Josie, though, since she’s a bright, engaged, hardworking, and happy kid.

So that’s my week in brief.  Next weekend I’ll get some sleep.  Then I’ll start looking for a new student…  : )

A new resource

I’ve discovered a great resource for locating new and fabulous children’s books.  While on Nantucket, I picked up a copy of the BookSense Autumn newsletter, children’s edition.  BookSense is an affiliation of independent book stores, and the newsletter contains reviews written by booksellers all over the country.  I took some time today and went through the newsletter book by book, looking up published reviews of each book in our library catalog.  Almost all of the books featured in the newsletter had received acclaim from journals such as Booklist, The Horn Book, VOYA, and School Library Journal.  And most of the featured books are so fresh to the market that almost no other libraries yet have them.

After considering all the reviews, gaps in our collection, and what consistently does well in our library, I ended up ordering about half of the books featured in the newsletter.  And I feel really great about what I ordered: some authors who are already favorites, some first-time authors who sound incredible, and, most importantly, I got a jump on these new books by following the advice of independent booksellers.  Definitely a powerful tool to learn about the best recent books.

The verdict is in…

Yesterday was the first Bagels n’ Books book group.  A great, enthusiastic bunch of fourth and fifth graders, a dozen bagels that rapidly and magically disappeared into eight mouths, and a lot of talk about The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  Guess what?  The kids didn’t like the book much.

These kids are well-versed in how to discuss literature, and though there were a few groans when I said it’s not enough to just say you don’t like a book, that you have to give specific reasons, they all provided clear and definitive reasons for why they didn’t like the book.  One girl said it was too easy and it didn’t take her very long to finish the book.  A boy chimed in that he read the book in, like, an hour.  Another girl said that there is no point to the book.  “Ah-ha!”  I thought to myself, “Maybe they haven’t delved deep enough into the book and that’s why they didn’t like it!”  But no, this girl went on to say, “I mean, I understand that it’s about Edward learning to love and getting back to Abilene, but what’s the point of that?”

A different boy, and the girl beside him, complained that the book didn’t have enough action.  They mentioned that Kate DiCamillo’s other books have action and excitement, and that The Tiger is Rising and The Tale of Despereaux are books that they enjoyed reading.  Other kids agreed vigorously to this comment.  One girl was brave and spoke up to say that she LOVES the book because of the language and style of DiCamillo’s writing; she also commented on the cyclical nature of the storyline and had as many bookmarks marking places in the text as I did.  Future English major, guaranteed.

I used Aidan Chamber’s technique of writing likes, dislikes, puzzles, and patterns on a big sheet of paper, trying to keep my mouth shut about my own opinions in order to let the kids fully express their thoughts.  Had we had more time together (our actual book discussion only lasted for a half hour), I could have gone on to guide the group to a deeper discussion of the book.  But I’m still not sure that I would have been able to change the minds of those kids who strongly dislike the book; and that was never my goal.

What fascinates me most is that a lot of the negative adult commentary I’ve read about the book has focused on it being too sad for children, too emotionally wrenching.  The kids yesterday really weren’t bothered by the sadness in the book, they were annoyed by the lack of action.  They had wanted a book that was going to take them on journey; I mentioned that well, Edward Tulane does go on a journey, and most of the kids just rolled their eyes at me.  “It’s not a REAL journey!”

Two things come to mind: this book is a very different type of fantasy than the fantasy that prevails in the publishing world today (I hesitate to say it: the Harry Potter type of fantasy).  Most of the kids in the book group yesterday are probably used to action-based fantasy with magic and heroes and sparks and blood.  Edward Tulane can’t speak or act, and thus passively endures all that happens to him, except for the growth within him of a heart and the ability to love.  His physical strength doesn’t change, and he doesn’t accomplish great physical feats in the process of learning to love; he simply learns to love.

The other thought that comes to mind is that any reader, young or old, has the ability to skip those parts of a text that he or she either isn’t ready for or just doesn’t want to deal with.  I do this all the time: when reading the sixth Harry Potter, I knew that someone was going to die, so I purposefully read the end first to find out who so that I wouldn’t be held captive by the suspense of the book.  Perhaps the kids in yesterday’s book group don’t want to read about loss and sadness, or perhaps they’re not ready for stories that deal with those issues in depth, and so the book seemed, to them, to be boring.  It didn’t address their concerns, and it didn’t appeal to them.

Notably, though, it was loved by one group member, the girl who was adept at locating subtleties in the text and who possessed the most sophisticated literary vocabulary.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say that she was ready for the text, and thus loved it.  Ready for the text, and also interested in what the text had to say.  “The right book for the right child at the right time.”  No one book can appeal to everyone.

At the end of the hour, I presented the book group members with seven books to choose from for our next meeting in October.  The choices were: The Tale of Despereaux, The Diamond in the Window, Love That Dog, Half Magic, Room One: A Mystery or Two, The Penderwicks, and The Search for Delicious.  The winner was:  Half Magic by Edward Eager, coming to the library on October 24th.

New library!

I got a really great treat today – a tour of the new library building-in-progress.  Mary, the library’s director, and Roy, one of the library’s trustees, took Lisa and me on a complete, bottom to top tour of the new library.  Over the next two weeks, Mary will taking all of the staff members on tours so that we can all begin to visualize the fantastic place we’ll be working in very soon.

The new building is so absolutely fantastic that I know I can’t begin to describe it accurately – but I’ll try!  For those of you who don’t know Harvard, the high school used to be housed in what is called “Old Bromfield,” a gorgeous old brick building with a slate roof and a cupola with trademark dragons.  Old Bromfield has been replaced by the new Bromfield high school building, and the older building has been vacant for a while.  To make the new library, the architects designed renovations to the Old Bromfield building, and they also designed a complementary addition that retains the spirit, lines, and integrity of the older building.  After my tour today, I think that this new library building will be the most beautiful, classy, and welcoming library building that I have ever seen.

The interior walls are not yet finished, but enough finish work has been done that I could really see what the new location will be like.  Every detail has been thought through, and there are ample spots for quiet reading and appreciation of the incredible view of Bare Hill Pond through giant floor-to-ceiling windows.  The children’s room will have its own large storytime room, which can accomodate smaller programs and movie showings in addition to book groups and storytimes and board game club meetings.  There are also two garden level doors off of the children’s room so that parents can escort their children out for a breath of fresh air in between study sessions or book choosing sessions.  And the younger children will have their very own corner, with a window seat and play table and the picture book and board book collections.  What a change from what we currently have!

The rest of the library is similarly well-designed: the large program room upstairs has a fantastic cathedral ceiling that has to be seen to be fully appreciated; the adult reading room is beyond stunning; and the young adults will have their own space that will hold comfortable spots to read and appreciate the ever-expanding young adult collection.  The circulation desk is open and welcoming, and the behind-the-scenes staff areas are an oasis of calm blue walls.

I am so excited about our move to the new building, and I only have one regret: some small part of me wishes that I could be a regular library patron and curl up in one of those inviting corners in a cozy chair with a great book, enjoying the view and perhaps the warmth of the gas fireplace.  But I’m more than content with the terrific children’s room and my own (!) office with the pond view.  Wow.  Harvard residents, you’ll be blown away when the new building opens!!


The hectic pace of summer is over, we’re gearing up for the move to the new library, and I’ve gone into organization mode.

Some people tease me a lot about my organization and list-making, but I’d like to make it clear that I’m not obsessed, really, I’m just more efficient when I’m organized and have a good list in hand.  Everyone works differently, and the key is to find your own personal style.  Back in college, I learned that if I spent fifteen minutes each day making my bed and tidying my room, then I got much more studying done.  Maybe it’s because I’m not distracted by mundane things.

So this week at the library I cleaned out the desk in the children’s room.  Arts and crafts things got put in the arts and crafts closet downstairs, ancient summer reading prizes got put into the boxes in the attic, and a few things got thrown out (nothing of value, I promise you!).  Now the desk has some empty space in the second drawer, which is just one more step on the road to the new library.  Less to do when it comes time to pack up and move.
And then there’s the issue of my lists.  I read an article in this month’s Real Simple magazine which states the case for getting rid of lists and living your life.  But it must have written by someone with a different list-writing style than I have, since lists for me are an enabler to life.  Each day at work I look at my list, rewriting it if necessary, and it helps me to stay focused, prioritize, and to silence the part of my brain that keeps whispering “don’t forget to do x, y, and z!”  If I write x, y, and z down, then I can focus on what I’m doing at the moment and not worry about forgetting something important.  Lists help keep me from becoming scattered, especially in a job where there are frequent distractions.

Lists and organization aren’t for everyone, but that’s not what matters, is it?  What matters is that we each find the way we work best.  And I’m really happy with my newly cleaned desk.

The hardest thing

Admit it, all of us have flaws – failings – things that we’re just not good at.  Most of us try to avoid situations where our failings are evident.  Why promote the negative, after all?  Much better to stick to the stuff you’re good at.

So when I talked to Mieke, my best friend from college, a while back and told her that my new job requires me to regularly sing in public, her response was, “Oh, my God, Abs.  Are you kidding?  Those poor people!”  Mieke, of course, has a fabulous voice, and sang all the time in college.  I, of course, have a horrible voice, and sang rarely.

But now I find myself needing to sing as part of my job.  In front of people.  Not just small children, but also their parents, some of whom can carry a tune very well.  And there’s really no way around it.  Story times for young kids need to have books AND fingerplays AND songs; it’s the way kids learn the rhythm of the language, which eventually helps them with reading multi-syllabic words.  Sometimes I’ll break out the boombox and play a song or two from a CD, but there are still times that I have to sing, and it’s pretty painful.

I read Stephen Fry’s autobiography last summer, and one of his phrases really resonated with me.  Fry talks about how he can hear music perfectly in his head, but that he can’t reproduce it; he says that he’s “not tone deaf, but tone dumb.”  That’s exactly what I am, since all those intricacies of the music are so clear in my head, and my inability to voice that music is utterly frustrating to me.

But now that singing is part of my career, what do I do?  I’ll admit to using the “my voice sounds rough because my allergies are really bothering me today” excuse a lot.  On particularly perky days I’ll play the role of cheerleader and say “I want to hear everyone sing this time!”  So far I haven’t yet admitted to being tone dumb, but that time may come.  And I’ve been practicing a lot, singing in the shower after my musical husband leaves for work.  I think I’ve gotten “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” down, but I’m still flummoxed by “The More We Get Together.”  And ”Five Little Ducks” is way, way tough.

Wish me luck.  My singing is definitely a work-in-progress.

The best day of the year

Recently, my brother wrote about the worst day of the year: (link no longer available, my apologies).  Today, though, was the best day of the year: the first day of vacation.  I love my job, don’t get me wrong, but even so there’s something about the first day of vacation that just can’t be beat.

So, on this first vacation in a year, there was absolutely no way that I was going to clean the house, no matter how badly it needs it.  Instead, I cashed in two of my tutoring checks and went shopping.  Yup, I actually had cash in my pocket, and I fully intended to use it.  Jewelry seemed like a good bet, but I was open to other options.  I ambled through some of my favorite stores in Concord center – Perceptions, Artful Image, Lacoste Gallery, Concord Hand Designs, the Concord Shop, the American Indian gift store, and the store that sells cool furniture and odds and ends for your home (next to Salone Arte).  I saw so many pretty things, and was almost tempted many times.  But I kept thinking to myself, “I’ve already got a beautiful glass pitcher.  I don’t need another,” or, “I could live without that pair of earrings,” or, “the house is just too small for another set of candlesticks.”  I was trying hard, but nothing could prompt me to pull that cash out of my pocket.

I couldn’t have imagined this a year ago, when I was miserable in my job and life seemed a tad difficult, but I’m happy.  I don’t need to buy things.  Not even that great Steiff bear in the Toy Shop window.

My husband had left me off in Concord center while he dropped off his amps and equipment for a gig tomorrow, and we set our meeting place as the Concord Bookshop.  So I gave up on shopping and went to the book store to wait for my ride.  Jim was late, and I wandered the aisles looking at books.  Jodi Picoult, my friend Judy told me she’s really great, maybe I should buy that.  Hmmm, no, I can borrow that from the library.  Kira-Kira?  Judy recommended that, too.  Nah, there’s a fresh new copy at the library.  A blank book?  Got plenty.

And then I was in the young adult section.  The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.  The dollars practically leaped out of my pocket.  I’ve been wanting to read this book for SO long, but haven’t wanted to take our library’s copy out of commission (and it just doesn’t seem fair to borrow another library’s copy).  This book has gotten phenomenal reviews, and its premise is totally unique: Death narrates the story of Liesel, a girl in Nazi Germany who steals books.
The Book Thief now lives on my coffee table, and so far I absolutely love it.  I also picked up a paperback copy of The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, for the same reasons that I bought Zusak’s book.  I may have lost my ability to spend money on frivolous things, but certain books can still make my heart beat a little faster.  And no, I have no idea what the meaning is behind the thievery theme in these two books.  I just know that, because of them, the rest of my vacation is going to be as good as today was.

And in the end…

…we ate cake and cookies and brownie cupcakes and got to visit with the town fire truck.
Yes, the end of summer reading is here, and the finale picnic was a LOT of fun.  The kids had a blast with the fire truck and all the fire truck’s accoutrements (hats and boots and coats), and we went through a huge amount of yummy desserts.  Rumor has it that some kids decided to forgo their proper lunch in order to have more room for dessert, but I take no responsibility for that!

So tomorrow is the very last day of summer reading, and I’ve already begun to put some of the summer stuff away.  By the close of the day tomorrow, there won’t be a trace of the summer reading program left in the children’s room, and we’ll all have to start turning our focus towards (gasp!) the school year.  I hope that everyone else has had as much fun this summer as I have; though a few months ago the organizing of the program seemed like a gargantuan task, now it’s just a collection of happy memories.  And, shockingly, I can’t wait ’til next year!  We’ll see what I can cook up for next summer…

Nanny McPhee

Quick note on this movie, for those of you who haven’t seen it (and might not be inclined to try, even!).  It’s not the absolute best movie that I’ve ever seen, but it’s still pretty darn good.  Emma Thompson is great as the hideously scary Nanny McPhee, and Colin Firth is at his charming, cutest best as a baffled father of too many.  And that raucous brood of misbehaving children – too fun.  Not to forget Angela Lansbury as the rather despicable aunt; she’s shed that “Murder She Wrote” persona and is entertaining again.

The movie was a hit at last Wednesday’s movie night, and I spotted many of the grown-up women in the audience with tears in their eyes (me, too).

More new books

Three more new books that I absolutely love:

The True Story of Stellina by Matteo Pericoli

This one has received rave reviews in many different journals, including Horn Book Magazine.  So I was expecting great things from this book, and it more than delivered.  It’s a very sweet, unsentimental tale of a baby finch in New York City that falls out of its nest and is taken in by a young woman, after she watches and waits for many hours for the finch’s mother to claim her baby.  The young woman and the finch live happily together in a NYC apartment, and eventually Matteo Pericoli and the young woman get married and the finch, Stellina, continues to live with the two of them.  Stellina lived to be eight, and Pericoli’s retelling of her life story is beautiful and touching.  His prose is spare and lovely, and his illustrations are absolutely gorgeous.  (I was very misty-eyed — runny mascara — when I finished reading this book at my desk in the library.)

The Art Book for Children by the folks at Phaidon Press

This isn’t a picture book (I’m cataloging it in the section of the library for third grade and up).  Art from many different eras and styles is represented in this book, and the authors do an amazing job discussing the background information on specific pieces of art, pointing out certain aspects of each piece of art, and then posing open-ended questions about that artwork.  I can see parents reading this along with their children, with ensuing lively discussions about art.  Wish I’d had a book like this as a kid…it wasn’t til my junior year of college that I knew how to look at art and feel confident in my own opinions about that art.

Built to Last: Building America’s Amazing Bridges, Dams, Tunnels, and Skyscrapers by George Sullivan

Admittedly, I haven’t spent as much time reading this book as I should, but my excuse is that it’s a fairly dense text and I have a LOT of books to process at the moment.  What I’ve seen and read, though, I like a lot.  This book is definitely intended for an older audience, probably fifth grade and up, and gives details about various construction projects throughout the US.  Being from the Boston area, I read the section devoted to the Central Artery (the infamous Big Dig project), and found the text well-written and the photographs informative.  At the beginning of each section, the main facts about the project are set apart for easy reference and comparison: cost, time to complete, etc.  In addition, there are boxes in each section with related interesting facts; in the Big Dig section, there is a discussion about a privy from the 1600’s that was uncovered in the course of the construction, and what was found in the privy (including an early bowling ball!).

These books, and many other new books, will be the books available for summer reading bookplates.  Any child who read more than 30 hours during the summer will be able to choose from these great new books and have a bookplate put into the chosen book with that child’s name and the total number of hours that child read over the summer.  Some kids have just reached 30 hours, others are aiming high and have already reached 120 hours.  I’m really impressed by their achievements, and I’m glad that I have a stock of such great books from them to choose from for this bookplate adventure!

Reflections on children, literature, libraries, and life…and cats.