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!

The Owl Service

My current book is The Owl Service by Alan Garner, the classic 1968 winner of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award.  Though I’m really enjoying the book now that I’m more than half-way through it, I have to admit that I’ve really struggled with the Welsh colloquialisms and the Welsh names of people and places and the allusions to Welsh myths.  We’ve placed this book in the juvenile section of the library, based upon its content, but I’m wondering now if it really belongs in the young adult section.  It would take a precocious fifth grader to wade through all the Welsh vocabulary and stick with the book long enough in order to get fully involved in the story.

Has anyone else out there read this book recently?  I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book, and about who is its actual reader.

(As a postscript, my summer reading time is currently 24 hours; looks like I’ll meet my goal of 30 hours by the end of summer reading, August 18th!)

Young Adult Literature

Lisa and I spent a couple of hours yesterday going over reviews of newly published young adult books, deciding what to order, what to watch and maybe order in the future, what to forget about entirely.

Young adult books are, by many accounts, the healthiest area of the publishing field; one young adult author I know told me that it’s the fastest growing sector of the market.  I’ve also heard, from another author who had written what he thought was an adult novel, that his agent told him he’d have a better chance of being published if it was a young adult book, and that the book would last longer if it was categorized as young adult.  All very interesting, and very promising.  The books that Lisa and I looked at yesterday cover a broader range of subjects than I remember from eight years ago (when I was at Simmons) and are getting to be less “issue books” and more quality books.  In addition, we discovered a lot of great non-fiction books for young adults.

I’m especially excited about Respect: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Respect and Dealing When Your Line is Crossed by Courtney Macavinta and Andrea Vander Pluym.  Lisa discovered a review of this book somewhere, and requested a copy from another library, so we’ve been able to preview it.  Though at first it  seemed controversial (hence wanting to preview it), it is a thoughtful guide for teenage girls in how to assert themselves in a positive way, respecting themselves and their own opinions while still being kind to other people.  Particularly great is the chapter on Sex — I was a little worried at first that this chapter might get some knickers in a twist, but in actuality it stresses the emotional aspect of sex over the physical aspects.  The authors gently teach their readers that self-respect is a key element of sex, and ultimately their advice might keep girls from getting into situations for which they’re not yet ready.  Best of all, as in the rest of the book, the authors suggest specific wording to use in awkward situations/conversations (like the “If you loved me, you’d sleep with me” conversation).

Needless to say, we ordered this title today, along with forty-nine others.  A big order, yes, but it should keep us for a couple of months before we put in another big order.  Keep your eyes out for these new books to be hitting the library’s shelves in a couple of weeks (when our cataloger’s back from a well-deserved vacation!).


After renewing the book more times than I can count (a major benefit of being a librarian!), I FINALLY finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  I wish that I had some incredibly intelligent and informed comments to make about the book, but, alas, I don’t.  Although that is telling in itself, since I usually have more to say about a book that I’ve just read than other people care to hear.

But I’ll squeeze a few comments out of myself…

Though there were exciting plot twists and turns in the book, mostly I found it to be just plain dull, and tortuous to slog through.  It’s almost as though J.K. Rowling has lost her spirit, and doesn’t really care about Harry and the gang anymore.  The first few books in the series aren’t very well-written, but there’s a certain joy and vivacity in them that’s missing from The Half-Blood Prince.  Hopefully Rowling will regain her stride a little in the upcoming final book of the series; maybe the light at the end of the tunnel will inspire her to recapture some of the freshness that’s missing from books five and six.

So now it’s time to move on to OTHER books.  Here’s what’s on the docket:

Spy Force: Mission: In Search of the Time and Space Machine, by Deborah Abela

Can’t say I’m expecting a whole lot from this one.  I’m reading it because books about spies seem to be “hot” right now, and I’m previewing this particular one before I order the series for the library.  It hasn’t gotten the best reviews, so I’d rather read it for myself and make my own judgement before investing the library’s money in it.

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner

We just ordered a new paperback copy of this 1967 work, and I remember really enjoying it when I read it in graduate school.  Time to cleanse my reading palette with something of quality!

The Pilot’s Wife, by Anita Shreve

My good friend Judy gave me a copy of this book a few weeks ago.  I’m looking forward to reading it.  And it’s adult literature, what a concept!

New Boy, by Julian Houston

I heard Houston speak at The Concord Bookshop back in April or May, and I was very impressed by him and by the book passages that he read aloud.  Impressed enough that I bought a copy of the book and had him sign it, despite my complete moratorium on book purchases for myself.  (Our small house just can’t hold another book…)

I’d love to hear what other people are reading right now; drop a comment and let me know what you’re enjoying this summer!  And also check out my brother’s blog (follow the link on the right to “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist”); he has periodic entries about his summer reading.

Small revelation

My husband and I rented the movie Dead Poets Society last night, which he had never seen and I hadn’t seen since it first came out in 1989.

Now that I have a certain amount of knowledge about literary theory (which I did not have in 1989), I had a small revelation that this movie is in part about the conflict between traditional New Critical teaching methods and the more modern and flexible Reader Response teaching methods.  Granted, there probably weren’t too many teachers in 1959 who would have been aware of Reader Response theory, but since Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration was published in 1938, the chance is there that Mr. Keating could have known of her work and of this theory.

Having spent my last semester at Simmons doing an independent study on Reader Response theory (and having spent three and a half years teaching reading at the elementary level), the benefits and drawbacks of RR have been a preoccupation of mine for several years.  On the one hand, it’s an enormously empowering way for a reader to read a book.  When I was in high school in the early to mid 80’s, the prevailing theory was still New Critical, and we students had to search to find the “one true meaning” of the text; our own personal opinions were valueless.  Class discussions were limited to theme, plot, etc, and to trying to read the teacher’s mind and say what the teacher wanted us to say.

But my first experience with Reader Response theory (in my first class at Simmons) also demonstrated how dangerous it can be from a teaching standpoint.  This particular professor of mine, who shall remain nameless, tried to run a RR style class focused on Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Maestro.  Though she ostensibly wanted us to explore the text in a RR way — with value given to our thoughts and opinions — in truth she had a distinct teaching agenda and a definite direction that she wanted the discussion to take.  When the class did not go in the direction that she was aiming for, she definitively and clumsily tried to force us back; though we the class had been thinking that we had some power, in truth all power still belonged to the teacher.  Since this was a class full of empowered graduate students, not cowed high school students, we rebelled and called her out; the next full class was devoted to a discussion of how the previous class’s discussion had gone wrong.

As a result of that experience, I have never been fully sold on RR theory.  In my opinion, it takes a truly exceptional teacher to successfully run a RR centered class.  A teacher who is open-minded, flexible, and not ego-centered.  A teacher who is willing to consider alternative directions of class discussion.  I was lucky enough to have such a teacher at Simmons, Cathy Mercier, but I often wonder how many such teachers exist.  RR in the wrong hands is really New Critical theory with a nice coating of sugary frosting that makes students think their opinions matter as much as the teacher’s opinions.  (At heart, though I know it labels me as a bit passe, I think I’ll always be a deconstructor myself, though I am very intrigued by childist theory.)

But to get back to the movie.  Robin Williams as Mr. Keating plays a flawed teacher.  Inspirational, but still flawed.  He was a pioneer in the world of stodgy good-ol’-boy New Critical teaching, but his execution of the new type of teaching was still driven by a distinct agenda.  Granted, his agenda was far more palatable than that of his collegues, but he wasn’t perfect.  Did his imperfections drive Neil to suicide, as the administration and Neil’s parents wanted to think?  Probably not, but that perception definitely set back the cause of RR teaching at that fictional school.

So in the end, I’m still left with the same questions that have haunted me for a long time:
How many teachers exist who truly listen to and interact with their students, assimilating the thoughts of their students and then taking discussions to a newer, higher level?  (A note here: though I’ve never sat in one of my sister’s classes, I’m guessing that she is one of these rare teachers.

How problematic is the age disconnect between adult teachers and child learners?  And what of the difficulties of adults trying to imagine what their child selves would have thought about a certain text?  Once we are grown, can we ever truly recapture the thought processes of our youth?  And, if the answer to the last question is “no,” how does that affect the ability of the adult to teach the child?

Crunch Time

I’m afraid that I haven’t paid as much attention to this blog as I should in the last two weeks; the start of my first summer reading program is just days away, and it’s definitely crunch time.

Just when I think I’ve caught up, I think of one more thing that HAS to be done RIGHT NOW.  Yesterday it was assembling large envelopes for the raffle items that have the logos of the donating stores on them.  (One of the raffle items, just arrived, is pretty awesome, by the way: a baseball autographed by the actor and Red Sox fan Mike O’Malley, star of the show Yes, Dear.)

Today, hopefully, I’ll finish up all those nagging last minute items: making the raffle tickets, creating posters for each of the summer’s events, stamping all those museum coupons with our official stamp, confirming the ice cream pick-up time…ugh, I’m getting a stomach ache just thinking about the list.

With luck, next summer – my second summer on the job – will be smoother and easier.  With luck, all the kinks will have been worked out by next year.  With luck, I won’t be this stressed out and exhausted next summer.

Wish me luck, I need it!

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