Category Archives: reading

Books, France, underpants

you can readAny book that combines the love of reading with silly, imaginary book titles, clever rhyming, and underpants will always be loved by me.  I know I can speak for a small, not statistically significant group of kindergartners when I add that kids will love that book, too.  Here is that book.  Read it and smile.

For two more stories about stories, read this one.

You Can Read by Helaine Becker and Mark Hoffmann

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Re-reading my personal classics…

Most years, I experience Charlotte’s Web in bits of pieces, since I’m almost always volunteering in Mrs. P’s room just after lunch recess during literature time, and she always reads it to her third graders.  Other books pop up again and again, sometimes because I’ve sought them out, sometimes because the kids at school or the library remind me how wonderful they are.  It’s usually a good experience, since reading them again reconnects me with something from my youth when I first read them.

Because I recently re-read Counting by 7s (by Holly Goldberg Sloan) and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (by the always wonderful Kathi Appelt), I’ve been thinking about other books that do the work of capturing moments in my life I want to revisit.  And here they are…

  • A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – Whether it’s because of Meg Murry and Charles Wallace, or because it mentions tesseracts and led me into some great science fiction, re-reading this one is always powerful. There is loss – a lot of loss – and being an outsider and trying to figure out what the heck is going on and it all just seems like too much.   It’s both your worst family trip and your best one.  From there, I might head back into When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead or A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (E.L. Konigsburg) – This somewhat unlikely book for middle graders and teens is about Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s in heaven, waiting to find out where her second husband, King Henry II of England, will be headed.  How does this seem like something that would have fascinated me when I was young?  It’s Eleanor.  Well, Eleanor and the great writing, which made these long-dead historical figures seem real to me.  Reading about her made me think more critically about women and power and history, which could conceivably have pushed me in several directions that affected real-life choices for me.  After reading this one, I like to move on to biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt or other lesser-known rad women.  (See this blog post for more.)
  • The Dark is Rising sequence (Susan Cooper). This series actually starts with Over Sea, Under Stone, and I have to admit that I haven’t re-read it lately, so who knows what I’ll think of it now?  (I know I’ll still love it.) However, it was fantasy in the time before Harry Potter, and brought together a bunch of kids into a fight between Dark and Light, complete with connections to Arthurian legends and other fun stuff.  The Dark was really dark, and there were wizards, and that’s all you need to know if you haven’t read them.  I remember dreaming myself into the stories when I was a kid, and then thinking about what my mind made them into while I was at school the next day.  What an excellent use of “quiet work” time!

I’m sure there are more, many more.  Some books hold up better than others over the years.  Some characters remind you of who you used to be, and others connect with you in new ways.  It’s all good.

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Circus Mirandus – B3 Winner!

Our Super 64 was whittled down to two the week before spring break – The Lightning Thief vs. Circus Mirandus.  It was a long road for both, past favorites like The One and Only Ivan, The Terrible Two, Smile, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Calvin & Hobbes.

The winner, finally, was Circus Mirandus, by four votes.  New pencils and a fun bookmark marked the occasion, and I talked with the kids about a brief email exchange I had with the author, Cassie Beasley, the day before.  They had talked about loving her book because of the depth of the characters and the great story, although I’m sure they also loved that it was something their teacher read aloud, so they experienced it together.  Without that added boost, it might not have made it to the finals.  As their teacher noted, classmates might have voted for or against books they’d never read.  Everyone knew and loved Circus Mirandus.  I mentioned some of this to the author, who commented on the great list of books and being excited about winning.  She promised there were books on the way from her.  Yay for all of us!

I wasn’t much of a fangirl when I was a kid, but as an adult, I’ve occasionally written authors to let them know how much their work means to me.  Authors spend a lot of time alone with their work before editors, agents, critics, and regular people ever get access to it.  I wonder sometimes how it feels to have your words picked apart, even when reviews are good.  Does the work even feel like your own at that point?

I look at things I wrote years ago, and it can sometimes be strange to imagine that I was the person who wrote it!  Hmm, I’ll think, that really was pretty good, even if it doesn’t seem like I could have come up with it.  I have to think that most writers appreciate the feedback when it comes from people who truly love their work, and if they don’t, well, they just won’t respond, will they?   Enough said.

Well done, Cassie Beasley.  Thank you for Micah, Grandpa Ephraim, Jenny, the Lightbender and even Aunt Gertrudis.

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The Talented Two – Mrs. B’s Book Bracket finally reaches the finals

B3 logoSo, I’m a little behind in reporting on our 5th graders’ book bracket…

Like I mentioned in the last post on our book bracket, I was sick. Then Mrs. B was sick. Throw in a field trip or maybe a family emergency to mess up the schedule and you’d have a typical month of Thursdays during the school year, right?

But here we are.  After a second vote between Circus Mirandus and The Terrible Two because of a tie, Circus Mirandus won, with several kids apparently switching their votes. The Lightning Thief was the big winner against Holes. So for our final two, we’ve got:

Circus Mirandus vs. The Lightning Thief

A newcomer against an old favorite? A stand alone versus a series? Magic versus myths? What could be better? I can’t wait to hear the kids try to convince each other to choose their favorite. Ah, the joy of reading!

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March Madness, February Fervor and a book bracket…

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It’s already started. A few weeks ago, I surveyed the fifth graders and came up with a list of more than 64 books. Some of them had heard about the B3 (Mrs. B’s Book Bracket) from kids last year; rumor has it that one even asked specifically to be put in Mrs. B’s class because of it.

This time of year, everyone starts talking about brackets and the Sweet 16 and basketball, of course. Last year, I came across ideas for getting kids excited about reading by using bracketology, and I thought it could be fun in my volunteer book talks.

My son and I came up with more than 100 books and randomly paired them to create the first bracket. In the end, last year’s initial 64 was winnowed down to a final two of Peg Kehret’s Escaping the Giant Wave vs. Raina Telgemeier’s Smile. Peg Kehret won, buoyed by fan loyalty; her books are much loved by the third grade teachers in the school. Fifth graders have fond memories of listening to and reading her books, and she managed to hold off Timmy Failure, Amulet, Belly Up, Hoot, and The PS Brothers before beating Smile. When I messaged Ms. Kehret about her big win, she very kindly wrote a short note back thanking her Iowa readers. It made the win even more fun for the kids to actually hear back from such a gracious and kind victor.

This year, we started with a slightly different 64. We’ve already had the first vote, and it’s been winnowed to a TERRIFIC 32, which you can see below. Once we hit the SWELL/SWEET 16, I’ll give the kids an opportunity to advocate for their favorites, which brings a whole different level of fun. Books, fun. That’s what it’s all about, people.

b3 terrific 32

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The pile of books I just can’t face

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Where to begin? My shelves hold 43 books from the public library right now. Another five are on my iPad — checked out through Overdrive. I recently picked up two free advanced reader copies I’d really like to read, too. My library request list is at the maximum of 99. I’ve even got a back-up list going to use once my request list has dropped back to 80 or so. It would almost be funny if it didn’t happen every month or two. Sometimes the pressure of so many possibly great books is a little much, and I have a hard time choosing what I should read next.

But do I dare complain? It’s a problem which comes from privilege, really, having so many options and so many good options in front of me. I can’t possibly read everything I’d like to. Patrons I talk with at the library often suggest books they think I should or would like to read, but do I get to most of them? No. I stick with my middle grade, teen and picture books, although a good mystery can pull me away on occasion.

What to do?  I guess I’ll have to hold off on catching up on my TV shows and read during family movie night and use my early waking hours and lunches to catch up. Work, work, work. Joy, joy, joy.

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Reading and listening, listening and reading

book-692575_1280I’ve always considered myself a reader, since the first books I can remember – Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss, Golden books. After years reading novels and “literature” in school, my reading life as an adult has taken me back to children’s books. Mostly, I read for pleasure, but in my work at the library, it helps to be on top of what’s just come out and what’s popular for young readers and teens. Occasionally I do a storytime, so it’s also great to have some fun books to use for that.

Lately, though, I’ve been struggling a bit as a reader. I spent most of last week re-reading a Harry Potter in French, an exercise I do occasionally to try to hang onto vocabulary I learned eons ago. For reasons I have never been able to figure out, it’s actually easier for me to read in German than in French, despite the fact that I studied French much longer, so it was an enjoyable week, but I wasn’t always entirely sure what was happening. When I faced my stack of middle grade to-be-reads on Sunday, though, I couldn’t really connect with any of them.

I tried, oh, I tried, but even the one I finished kind of annoyed me. Somehow, every single one had a parent who was terminally ill, very ill, missing, an alcoholic, recently deceased, or in prison. (It was a big stack.  Some of those categories fit more than one book. Yikes.) The circumstances surrounding the characters were so unreal and fantastical (and they were supposed to be realistic fiction, I think) that I finally decided to take the whole lot back and start fresh. I had about 10 picture books coming in yesterday, so I thought I’d take a little break, maybe read some adult nonfiction – is this the third time I’ve come up on the list for Dead Wake or the fourth? Part of me wondered, though, if I’d hit the end of a long reading phase.

Then I went to visit two of my homebound patrons. J is losing her sight but still able to read large print. She was happy with everything I’d brought the month before but felt like every book she read might be her last. I suggested she think about having her son get her a CD player so she could try out some books on CD, but she didn’t think it would be the same. She didn’t want to lose the feeling of holding a book in her hands and escaping to another world.

Next I visited my favorite, who is 102 and only listens to books on CD. She considers herself as much a reader as I am. She misses the printed page, but she likes reading too much to let that get in the way. She’s willing to try about anything, although she’s often noted that she favors the male voice in narration and feels a little like a traitor to her sex for it. Since her tastes run mostly to inspirational fiction or family stories, it’s not as easy as you’d think to find books she’ll like — so many are narrated by women. I always schedule extra time when I’m visiting her, since we often talk for a while, mostly about books, but sometimes about why she’s an Anglophile or the Lutheran church or her past life working for the public schools. Even when I’m in a bad mood – like yesterday – I feel better after I’ve talked to her.

So, in the end, I can’t complain about my reading, writing, or listening life. Like everything else, this will pass. I’ll find the next wonderful book I can bother people about, even if it takes me a week or two or even more.

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My brain likes Harry Potter in German

harry stein der weisen“Ein Junge überlebt.” So begins the first chapter of Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen.

It’s been many, many years since I used any significant part of my brain to think in other languages, but every once in a while, memories of who I used to be come sneaking in, and there I am, looking for my language fix. Sometimes I can just run through a few phrase drills in Pronunciator – a language-learning app our public library offers. Other times I need a movie or a picture book or two – also free through the library. This time, though, Harry Potter called to me in German.

German was kind of a bonus language for me. The family I once summered with on the French-German border spoke a dialect which was almost entirely German. The village had only 466 people, and most of them were older, although to my teenage brain, that could have meant anyone over the age of 40. No one spoke much French unless they were talking to me. I could understand the TV and Mama’s chastising of the youngest –“Yves, tu es insupportable!!”– but I didn’t know what was going on most of the rest of the time.

After I got back to the U.S., I decided to take German for fun, thinking I might someday go back and visit the village. I ended up in a class with an instructor who never spoke English again after the first five minutes. He loved climbing on chairs to teach verbs and singing German drinking songs, which was a nice change from most of my other college classes. I made it through another few semesters, enough to qualify for a fellowship to spend a year at a West German university, even though I wasn’t a German major. (They were short on applicants that year.) I wouldn’t say that I did much reading or studying, but it was great experiential learning.

Well, that was many, many years ago — so long ago that I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to make it through a 335-page book. Short for J.K. Rowling, maybe, but not for me.

It was ganz toll — excellent. I’m sure I missed a few things, but I always knew what was happening. I didn’t have to look words up. Finding out how some passages were translated was interesting, and I even learned a few new words. I’m pretty sure I never knew what a Zauberstab (wand) was, for example. (I don’t think Goethe talked about them all that much.) But I have to think Zauberstab is at least as useful as a few other words stored in my brain. It also took me back to things I’d forgotten about those younger days, and I smiled a little more than usual. Danke, Harry.

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Some thoughts on summer reading….no specific number, not in any kind of order

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Want to kill the joy of summer reading? Start out with a required reading list. Being told you have to read it by August 27th isn’t going to make anyone love a book. You don’t even remember it until about August 18th and then you can’t find any copies at the library, because everyone else has also put off reading it, but you don’t want to buy it. Get stuck with a copy of Ivanhoe?   No way. Potential love of book: dead. (Full disclosure: I have never read Ivanhoe, but it did show up on a reading list once, which is why I resent it so.)

It doesn’t make it any better if you have a choice among, say, five books. What will you choose if you’re forced? The safe one, obviously, whatever that means for you. The one you’ve already read. The shortest one. The one that doesn’t have “classic” anywhere on the cover.

If a particular book isn’t required and you like reading, though, the joy of summer is something else entirely. Reading on vacation, on a car trip, or in the airport might mean picking up books you’ve set aside or saved for the trip. (Why did my best friend give me this one? Does she think I’m like the brainless main character, or does the romantic interest remind her of that boyfriend of mine who wore leather?) Or you could be revisiting an old friend in a personal classic. (Charlottle and Wilbur, anyone?) Or maybe you’re trying out something new for a change. (The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, perhaps?)

I check out a crazy number of books from the library. Our limit is 50 items at a time, and I’m often up to 40+. (I read a lot of picture books and children’s fiction, so it’s easy for them to add up.) My list of holds (limited to 99 at one time) often has close to 80 books on it.

Unless it’s a really special book, though, I don’t take the library books on vacation, because I’m afraid of accidentally leaving them in someone’s guest room or setting it down on a table and forgetting it. Vacation reading for me means going through the books I’ve collected, mostly paperbacks, which don’t have to be returned. If I don’t like them, I can leave them. If I do like them, I can still pass them on to other people to read.

One of the best things about not having a schedule for a few days, even if you’re staying at home, is being able to look at the books that have been collecting and figure out which one will come first. Will it be the second book in the Vango series? (Yes, definitely yes.) Am I up for trying a Harry Potter in German? (Also yes. More on that another day.)

For adults who love reading, the challenge is really how to fit it in rather than whether or not to do it at all. There are seasons of Mad Men and House of Cards to catch up on. Podcasts to listen to. Games to watch. Chores to do. Cat videos to watch. I sometimes only really get much reading done from about 2:00-4:00 in the morning when I’ve woken up and can’t get back to sleep. But I often find that if I start something then, I do finish it. Sometimes I have to go back a few chapters to figure out who people are, but if I’m loving something, it’ll happen.

The kids who most need to spend the extra time reading, however, are also the ones who will happily while away the day at the pool or watching tv or gaming– doing anything BUT reading. That time off in the summer actually hurts them academically. (You can find all sorts of research on this if you do any kind of search, and it’s summer, so I’m not doing it for you.)

How can we make it a good thing for them?

For starters, it’s not the worst thing in the world for us to shut off the devices – weird, I know, but no one will actually die from it – and let the kids get bored. In some neighborhoods, they might play outside, which isn’t a bad thing. In other places, they might be in a summer youth program or just at home, inside. Getting bored might actually spark some creativity. Give some second graders a deck of cards and no rules, and they might just come up with their own new game to play. Hand a kid a stack of scrap paper and a pencil and they might draw something or start writing their own story or graphic novel. They might finally pick up that book their teacher gave them on the last day. They could walk over the library for the program on insects. (As free-range and scary as it sounds, if you live close enough to a library and your community actually has sidewalks, it’s a pretty great thing to do.)

It’ll be good for your brain and theirs. Step back. Slow down. Listen. Look. Read.

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Annoying big city people and the stereotypically Midwestern…

jack (2)I’m open-minded. I’ll read just about anything as long as it’s well-written. But maybe I’m more biased than I’d like to believe?

I live in a big town – a city where I’m always meeting people who know each other, a place known for its “Iowa nice”, a metro area of 500,000+. I grew up in a smaller town – a university community with people from all over the world, a town with only one high school and less than 50,000 people. My parents were both born into Midwestern farm families, but grew up to travel to China, Australia, India and Austria in their work.

I’ve lived and traveled all over the U.S., Europe, and Africa. I will read stories about almost anywhere in the world – Asia, Peru, Canada, Oklahoma, wherever. I spent a semester in college reading travel literature, which fed my desire to see the world while also meeting the English credit I needed. I’ll happily travel to England to solve mysteries with Flavia de Luce or go to East Turkestan with Mehrigul in The Vine Basket. So I’m not unaware of what life outside my neighborhood is like.

But my latest read reminded me that I do have my biases, and I can’t relate to every character put in front of me. I don’t have a lot of patience for entitled kids and parents who live on the Upper West Side of New York City, for example. They may have some of the same issues that other kids have, but having spent a large part of my working life with families living in poverty, I’m just not all that sympathetic to not being able to annoy my parents into buying me $400 shoes.

Maybe this kind of story appeals to people who dream of living that life. Maybe it’s a look into a world that I don’t understand. I’m sure it’s hard to have to worry about getting my kid into an expensive private school or make sure my nanny doesn’t spend more time texting than paying attention to my kid. But I find myself thinking that the obsession with money and status isn’t all that interesting, and the characters – even when they’re funny – seem kind of shallow.  I wish I could find something redeeming in them, but I can’t.  Most likely, these characters are not written to speak to me, anyway. And that’s ok. I lived in New York City for almost a year, and I’m happier in Iowa.  I can travel anywhere from here if I want to, after all, and I can pick the characters who come with me.

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