I’ve been involved with the Cybils (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards) on and off for the past eleven years, serving multiple stints as a first-round panelist in Young Adult Fiction, Picture Books, Graphic Novels, and Book Apps. This year, after a decade of brilliant service, longtime YA Fic category chair Jackie Parker is stepping down, and I’ve been asked to fill her shoes. That means Cybils season begins early for me this year! The call for judges went out today and I’ll be reviewing applications for my category (realistic and historical YA Fiction; YA SFF is a separate category) as they roll in. I’m honored to be serving in this capacity and look forward to exploring the blogs, vlogs, and podcasts of YA panelist applicants.
There have been a few other changes in the Cybils this year, including the addition of board books to the Fiction Picture Books category; an expansion of Nonfiction into two age groups; and a new Audiobooks category (also with two age groups), which is very exciting! You can read all about these changes on the Cybils website.
I’m sitting here tidying up my Goodreads and Netgalley accounts—a task long neglected. I’m terrible about submitting Netgalley feedback, in part because so much, so VERY MUCH, of my book recommendations come in the form of casual answers to blog comments, Facebook questions, speaking engagement Q&As, and word of mouth. You can’t always point to a permalink for that stuff.
But still. I’m turning up a lot of gems I’ve talked about in passing but never wrote proper posts about. But to quote Goldie Hawn in Overboard, there’s no time now.
So let me just share some capsule reviews of books I read during the past couple of years, books that stand out in my mind for one reason or another.
Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando. Read this as a first-round judge for the 2014 CYBIL Awards in YA Fiction. It was a standout for me that year–the story of two incoming college freshmen roommates getting to know each other via letters the summer before they move in together. At first their connection misfires—they come from quite different backgrounds—but gradually as they learn more about each other and grapple with their own doubts and hopes, they forge a friendship. What really struck a chord for me was the roomie who is oldest kid in a large family, ready to launch a more independent life but torn up over leaving her younger siblings behind. Since that was the year my own oldest-of-six was a freshman in college herself, at a school six hours from home, I loved the candid, at times heart-wrenching exploration of what that particular separation might be like.
Blue Gold by Elizabeth Stewart. This one’s a bit harder to write about because the prose is flawed, which is a hard thing for me to say in public. The thing is, my strong feeling the whole time I was devouring this book (also a 2014 Cybils YA Fic nominee) was: EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS. In three alternating narratives, we see behind the scenes into dramatically different worlds linked by the technology we rely on: a Chinese factory worker struggling to keep the pace of soldering smartphone parts together; a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo trying to keep her family together under threats from a local militia gang; and a North American girl whose imprudent cellphone photo becomes a tool for public shame. Powerful stuff, even if the writing is a bit choppy and inelegant.
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar. Gorgeous book. Couldn’t put it down and of course I had to go read a ton of Woolf afterward. What a beautifully rendered, respectful portrait of these two women and their circle—Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa. Vanessa’s complex, fraught relationship with her challenging sister was masterfully and lovingly wrought. And the gentle glimpse of E.M. Forster—wonderful. Highly recommended.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Victorian lady botanist working out a theory of natural selection on her own? Talk about having me at hello. And this was gorgeously written. I loved it and know I’ll return to it again.
Okay, that’s four. Enough for now. Only nine more pages of Netgalley ARCs to click through. 😉
Meanwhile, in Goodreads land, I’ve renamed a bunch of my lists and am attempting (again) to do a better job of logging picture books and incoming review titles. And a new addition: a “didn’t finish” list for books I’ve read at least three chapters of. Most often these are things I mean to return to when time permits, like Wolf Hall and The Buried Giant, both of which expired on Overdrive before I had a chance to finish. Other times it’s just a book (often nonfiction) that I read a significant chunk of but chose not to complete. Those chunks still inform my reading and thinking life, and I want to track them.
I did a Periscope yesterday on a topic that had been requested by a Brave Writer mom: How I make time to pursue my own interests and hobbies while homeschooling, writing, juggling doctor appointments, etc. Great topic!! Had a lot of fun with this discussion.
And here’s the book I mentioned in the scope: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. As I said, this was my second time reading it, so you know it was enjoyable. A comic yet touching epistolary novel in the voice of a beleaguered, earnest, overly frank, romantically inept English professor at a second-tier university. Now, you know I’m a sucker for an epistolary novel! This one’s academia setting gives it a unique flavor. You’ll never read letters of recommendation like these in the real world (alas).
What’s happening in my house today:
Receiving a fax from Grandma and Grandpa. Today’s lesson in technology brought to you by 1992. (I’m amazed the thing still works!) Huck really wanted to reply by putting his piggy bank through. Perhaps we’re still a tad fuzzy on how the tech works. (Let’s face it, it always seemed like magic to me.)
The recommendations in this post also appear on my Brave Writer Retreat Resources page, which includes books and materials mentioned in my other talks at the Retreat (Tidal Homeschooling and Read-Alouds).
The following comics and graphic novels are recommendations from my “Comics Make You Smart” talk, presented at the Brave Writer Retreat in July, 2016.
Part of this talk was broadcast on Periscope—you can view it here. Note: For now, what follows is simply a booklist—no mini-reviews. I’ll add those as time permits. I promised the retreat attendees I’d put together a post of all the comics I mentioned in my talk, so here it is for easy reference. Commentary to come later!
Gotham Adventures by Scott Peterson (my brilliant hubby)—Batman comics aimed at young readers. These came out monthly in the ’90s and are now available in digital editions. (The books at this link that say “by Ty Templeton” were edited by Scott; the others were written by him.)
This time next week, I’ll be in Cincinnati for the Brave Writer Retreat. I’ve known Julie Bogart online for over 15 years and we have Skyped several times, but this will be our first time getting together in person. Can’t wait! Looking forward to meeting other internet chums as well. This week I’m busily working on visuals for my talks. I’ll be speaking about Tidal Homeschooling, children’s literature, and comics. Can’t wait!
I also have a big post about skin care almost ready to go—hopefully tomorrow.
Five of my children are sick today—a rather vicious cold, much coughing and hacking. Scott is making me keep my distance because when I get a cough, it hangs around for weeks. And after Brave Writer, there’s SDCC and then my high school reunion. But mah babies! Okay, so they’re having a grand movie fest and playing loads of Terraria, and nobody needs me at the moment, but still. At least I have work to keep me busy. SO MUCH WORK. Fun stuff, though: no complaints.
I haven’t read much so far in July. In June I came down with a fierce case of I Need to Reread Riddlemaster Yet Again syndrome. Before that, I tore through a bunch of contemporary thrillers thanks to NetGalley. I need to write proper booknotes on them, but for now, if you’re looking for harrowing summer reading, these kept me glued to the page: The Girl on the Train, Security, Before the Fall, and Beware That Girl. Oh, and ever since I finished Connie Willis’s Passage, I keep going back and rereading bits of it. It has become one of my favorites of her novels.
Right now I’m a chapter into Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which has been on my list for ages. I may have to save it for the plane next week, though.
Mid-June. I can’t quite wrap my mind around that, even though the specter of MID-JUNE has dominated my life for the past six weeks. Big scary deadline for the grantwriting work I do on the side. Happy to say I shipped off this monster application (final page count: 153—which, yes, is as long as some novels I’ve written) a few days ago and ahhhhh, I can go back to being “just” a fiction writer for a while. (My agent and my very patient Knopf editor are happy to hear this.)
Mid-June also means: I get my girl back. We fetched Jane home from college over the weekend and all is right with the world. Of course, she’ll be winging off on another adventure in a few days, but only for a week this time.
Mid-June means less than a month until the Brave Writer Retreat, at which I’ll be speaking. And a week after that, it’s Comic-Con. But no need to jump ahead of myself. After a burst of busy, our week is slowing down and we’ll soon be ebbing into low tide. Huck and Rilla are enjoying Harriet the Spy so far. We’re three chapters in. Yesterday, Huck interrupted me to ask, “Was Mixed-Up Files fiction or nonfiction?”
Heavy sigh. “I was afraid you’d say that. I wanted it to be real.”
I’m embarrassingly far behind on email. Hoping to catch up this week. I had also been neglecting my booklist in the sidebar, but I cleaned that up today. I’ve read shockingly little this year, compared to my usual book gluttony. The grantwriting work is to blame for that, too. That, and some highly absorbing internet rabbit trails. I’ve read zillions of articles but I don’t keep a list of those, and then when I’m tallying up, it looks like I’ve barely read a thing. It’s funny what we count and what we don’t.
Speaking of funny, this conversation with Scott:
He was talking about George Washington and he said, “I guess I think of him as sort of…Stalin.”
And I gave him this look like what on earth are you talking about????
And he looked at me like why are you looking at me like that?
…is pick the next read-aloud. We finished From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—they loved it; more about that later—and today I had to choose a new book. You’ve seen many of these choices in the pile already this year. Sooner or later, everyone’s turn will come around. Either for read-aloud or read-alone, I mean. Mysterious Benedict Society is a delight but it’s a bit longer than I like for a read-aloud. I get antsy and like things we can finish in a month or so. Mixed-Up Files was exactly in my sweet spot.
Anyway, long story short, this time around we landed on Harriet the Spy. Good old Harriet. A key influence on me since, oh, age ten or so. Rilla’s age. Chapter one roped them in immediately. I wasn’t sure if Huck would be captured, but he was transfixed by Mixed-Up Files, and the Harriet-Sport dynamic seemed to engage him as much as the Claudia-Jamie relationship. Bossy girl, questioning boy. Hmm, I wonder what the appeal is? 😉
Would you believe I’ve never actually read Harriet out loud before? Am enjoying a chance to dust off my New York accent.
By the way, Dogsbody was a contender in this group but the consensus was that Daddy should read that one. There are protocols for this sort of thing. Scott reads My Father’s Dragon,Watership Down, Lord of the Rings, By the Great Horn Spoon, Cheaper By the Dozen, and all of my books. I get Understood Betsy, Betsy-Tacy, Charlotte’s Web, The Penderwicks, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (oh whoops! I just remembered THAT was supposed to be our next read-aloud), and The Secret Garden. HANDS OFF MY SECRET GARDEN.
A lot of the replies to my blog-topics post asked for more glimpses of our tidal homeschooling days, especially how I work with my teens and my elementary-aged kids at the same time. So here’s a peek at a fairly typical Tuesday morning. The broad strokes—the basic rhythms—of our days stay consistent, four days a week (with one morning given to group piano and [for Beanie] literature classes). The details (what exactly we read, do, discuss, sing) vary, but the shape is the same—sort of like a muffin pan. Yeah, that’s it. Our days are like muffins, alike in shape, but we vary the recipe quite a bit. Make sense?
So—during high tide, we do lessons from 9 to noon, more or less. Noon to 1 is lunch and (often) a read-aloud. From 1-3 the younger kids get gaming time (iPad, Wii) and then they play outside most of the rest of the day. The older girls spend their afternoons reading, writing, gaming, walking, and whatever else they have on tap. I work (write) in the afternoons, and sometimes pop out to teach weekly classes to other homeschoolers. For example, I wrapped up a six-week poetry workshop yesterday with a lively group of boys who always keep me laughing. Love those kids.
Anyway, here’s our Tuesday morning.
9 a.m. Beanie is outlining her Tempest paper for the weekly literature class I teach to her and a few friends.
Huck is playing with refrigerator magnets.
Rilla has drawn a scene from the story of Elissa of Carthage, and is now writing a description under the drawing, complete with Phoenician letters for the names.
Now Huck is noodling around on the piano.
Read Stone Soup to Huck. Rose stopped unloading the dishwasher to come listen—she says it’s one of her favorite stories from childhood.
While I read, Rilla finished her Elissa of Carthage passage. Beanie moved to another room for better concentration.
Rose finished the dishes and began making pretzel rolls for our teatime. Huck, Rilla, and I did our morning stretches and recitations. That word sounds so formal! What we do is quite casual. About four mornings a week, we gather in the living room for some singing, memory work, and movement games. It goes something like this:
—We move through a series of stretches (this is mostly for me) which include two planks. During the first plank, we skip-count by sixes; during the second, by sevens.
—Practice the Shakespeare speech or poem we are currently memorizing. Huck, Rilla, and I learn these all together, and usually the older girls wind up knowing them too, because they’re hearing us recite them all the time. This year, I’ve been using Ken Ludwig’s Midsummer Night’s Dream passages from How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. I had already had Pucks “merry wanderer” speech in mind for Huck and Rilla to learn this year—I earned a small scholarship for performing that one during college, so I’m extra fond of it—when I read the Ludwig book (last summer) and decided his approach meshes perfectly with mine. So: this year they’ve learned “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows,” the merry wanderer monologue, the “Lord what fools these mortals be” speech, and now we’re working on Puck’s final speech (“If we shadows have offended”).
—Then we sing an assortment of memory songs and folk songs. Today it was: U.S. Presidents song; United States song; Horrible Histories English Monarchs song. Yesterday was the same lineup plus Skye Boat Song—a family favorite. This is an informal (meaning not planned-in-advance) part of our day, and basically I just starting singing things and the kids join in. Our Presidents and States songs come from an old Singin’ Smart cassette (cassette!!) I bought back when Jane was little, circa 1999. I wish I could find the booklet—there were some other useful tunes in there. I remember the melody for the U.S. Capitals song and have been meaning to print up a list so my littles can learn to sing along. I’m a big fan of music for anything requiring rote memory. We lean heavily on Schoolhouse Rock around here. Last year our mornings were dominated by French songs, as you may recall.
—This week I started Huck and Rilla on the Latin vocabulary chants from Latin for Children Primer A. We are not doing the workbook—just the rhythmic vocab chants: amo, amare, amavi, amatum and so on. Again, this was something that worked really well with my older set and is a solid, painless way to implant a bunch of Latin roots. We also enjoy my friend Edith Hope Fine’s Cryptomaniacs workbook (Greek and Latin roots)—Rilla will be using that steadily next year.
Rose’s rolls are in the oven. She’s playing piano. Beanie is doing German on Duolingo. I send the littles outside with a snack.
Rose heads to her room to maybe do some math? She’s taking business math this year. Yesterday we slogged through the compound interest chapter together. I know you’re jealous. Beanie’s studying geometry, which I find much more entertaining.
I call Huck and Rilla back inside for some history. I read them the Elizabethan Era chapter from A Child’s History of the World—Walter Raleigh, Roanoke, Shakespeare. Long side-discussion of tobacco was sparked by a mention in the chapter. Also a lot of discussion about Roanoke because who isn’t fascinated by that story? I mention to Rose (who is back, checking on her rolls) that Gwenda Bond has a YA novel about Roanoke she might enjoy. This reminds us we need to return some books to the library.
Rilla has done a little Math-U-See, and Huck and I had an impromptu chat about the short E sound. He is reading incredibly well these days, devouring Boxcar Children books with ease. I picked up an easy spelling workbook a couple of weeks ago and pull it out occasionally to talk about sounds with him. Rilla is the first of my kids to need some deliberate, steady spelling instruction (she’s using a Spelling You See book this year and really enjoying it because it came with a set of erasable colored pencils, which (art supply) is the key to her heart. With Huck, age 7, I’m now casually pulling out some light spelling games to help him start making those phonics-y connections.
Okay, so that was going on but only for a few minutes, and now Rose’s pretzel rolls are ready. We hurry to the table to enjoy them while they’re warm. Tuesday mornings are our Poetry Teatime—which for us generally means Something Rose Baked and a glass of milk. I usually grab our battered Favorite Poems Old and New and read six or seven poems. Not a week goes by that they don’t beg for their favorite, “My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months”…some days I have it in me, and other weeks I’m not up to the performance. When you do that poem, you gotta DO that poem. 🙂
Huck and Rilla have gone off to play together. This usually means I will find my bed turned into a fort later. Last week, it became some kind of Monkey Kingdom and I had stuffed primates hanging from the miniblind cords all week.
I go grab a sweater from my room. Sure enough, every pillow in the house is piled high. I send Huck and Rilla to get their shoes on. Rose and Beanie are at the piano again, working out a duet—Beanie began taking violin lessons a few months ago and likes to try to work out simple accompaniment to the pieces Rose is working on for piano class.
Everyone piles into the minivan for a quick library run. We have a million things to return. Rilla found a new graphic novel, Jellaby: The Lost Monster, that looks fun. Rose recommended Sarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies for Beanie—a YA historical novel I read for the 2014 CYBILs and passed along to Rose when I finished.
Home for a late lunch. I forgot to read our chapter of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler! I’ll have to try to squeeze it in after dinner. This is because—in an unprecedented development—I went into Scott’s office (aka our boys’ bedroom) to give him a package that had arrived, and I stretched out on the bed just for a second and fell asleep. I never nap.
I guess I napped. Scott is amused. I’m totally discombobulated. Wonderboy is just arriving home from school and the littles are already deep into Terraria. Jane is pinging me from college. My afternoon has begun.
Thanks to everyone for the comments on last week’s post. It was fun to see what you’d like to hear more about. I think I take some of those topics for granted and assume people are tired of hearing me chatter about tidal homeschooling and whatnot. 🙂 I really appreciate your feedback and look forward to diving into the topics you raised.
I’m coming up bust on the most pressing question, though—details on the washi tape in that photo. I can’t remember where it came from! I’ll see if I can track it down. 🙂
I finished reading Ace, the Very Important Pig to Huck and Rilla last week. They really enjoyed it, although they didn’t find it quite as engrossing as our last pig book, Charlotte’s Web. I mean, it’s kind of hard to compete with Charlotte. But Ace is fun and funny and was a lighthearted, enjoyable read. It works really well as a readaloud, too, which can’t be said about every good book. It’s a funny thing that some truly wonderful books just don’t take off when I try to read them aloud. That happened with The Gammage Cup, which is a huge favorite with my older kids—all of Carol Kendall’s books are winners. For sheer enjoyability, her writing style ranks up there with L. M. Montgomery and Elizabeth Goudge, as far as I’m concerned. Delicious prose and endearing, quirky characters. But…I think the very thing that makes her prose so magical—long, complicated sentences with rich description, and a lot of interior life for the characters—renders it difficult to the listening ear.
My older girls tore through Gammage and its sequel, The Whisper of Glocken, on their own. (The Firelings is my personal favorite of Kendall’s books, but I think my girls would vote for The Gammage Cup.) But as excited as I was to begin reading it to Huck and Rilla, and as excited as Rose and Beanie were for them to experience it, we bogged down after a couple of chapters. Then came a busy week and we didn’t make time for it at all, which is generally a good indicator that I haven’t picked the right book. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, and I never have qualms about abandoning a book that isn’t making them beg for more. I’d rather they read it alone, later, and really enjoy it. I’m sure that’s what will happen with Gammage, because it’s so darn good.
Anyway, long story short (ha!), we had fun with Ace—lots of great voice fodder among the animals. Yesterday I again faced the exhilarating, momentous decision of The Next Book. I mean, this is just a huge event in my life, over and over. 🙂 My next read, our next read—oh the agony of decision!
I didn’t dither overlong this time around…a particular favorite had been on my mind, and it’s one I’m not sure I ever read aloud to the other kids. I think most of them beat me to it.
Actually, I’ve always thought of this as sort of a private book, one meant for solo immersion. But…it felt right. Huck may be a little young to care much about the quest Claudia is going to undertake. But he’s into it so far—the big sister/little brother dynamic, the exciting running-away plan, Jamie chewing up Claudia’s instruction note and having his teeth turn blue. Rilla, of course, is enchanted. Running away to an art museum (as Jamie ungrammatically puts it, to Claudia’s disgust)—well, if Rilla could live anywhere but home, an art museum would likely be her pick. She’s impressed with Claudia’s good sense.
I had to decide whether to let Rilla meet the Met as I did, through this book, or to show it to her on YouTube. Would a glimpse of the vastness of the building and the extent of the collection enhance her mental picture of Claudia and Jamie’s adventure, or is it better to create that picture completely in your own imagination? If you’ve not been to Manhattan yourself, I mean. In the end, conversation made the choice for me. We finished our chapter today and Rilla had questions, and next thing you know we were all watching Sister Wendy tour the museum.
I haven’t been to the Met since the 90s. I’m a bit NYC homesick now.