Archive for August, 2011

I feel like Mary Lennox

August 26, 2011 @ 4:27 pm | Filed under:

When my sunflowers were about a foot high, I planted morning glory seeds near the base of each stalk. Now that the sunflowers are spent, I’ve been stripping off their lacy, bug-chewed leaves and watching the morning glories climb. The drooping sunflower heads are heavy with their own seeds; the goldfinches are in heaven. Empty shells litter the earth beneath the green hearts of the morning-glory leaves. When all the sunflower seeds are gone, I’ll remove the dry brown flowerheads and the stalks will disappear behind a curtain of blue trumpets.

This is a tremendous amount of fun to be had for the price of two seed packets.

Late August

August 23, 2011 @ 8:23 am | Filed under:

I worked for hours in the garden this weekend, weeding and pruning, battling the dreadful August crisping. The blossom-tumbled flowerbed that is the envy of Easterners in January, when my cape honeysuckle goes on a spree and tomatoes spring up Phoenix-like from the ashes of the blistering autumn, is right now a dry, crackling place. I cut back all the dead growth and removed a few of the spent sunflowers. There’s nothing sorrier-looking than a dying sunflower, hunched over, staring gloomily at the ground. But those mournful flowerheads are loaded with ripening seeds, and the goldfinches are waiting…so my garden remains shadowed by these faded giants who stared too long into the flaming sun.

That all sounds very bleak, but actually things are looking much better out there after my ruthlessness over the weekend. Almost nothing’s in bloom, except the cheerful moss roses, but I discovered a vigorous melon vine hiding under the weedy mass of out-of-season primrose. No cantelope blossoms yet, but here’s hoping…

Other thriving things:

* Beanie started reading The Gammage Cup yesterday and says it’s the best book she has read in a long time. (Update: by the time I posted this, she’d finished it and moved on to The Whisper of Glocken.)

* We’re having “Moon Week” for Rilla this week. Spent a long while yesterday looking at moon apps on the iPod, talking about waxing and waning and gibbous and crescent moons. Scott is hunting all over for our copy of Owl Moon—it was right there on the shelf in the boys’ room last week. He did find When Moon Fell Down, a book we adore, and I think I know where The Moon Jumpers is. And on Huck’s favorite DVD, a Scholastic Storybook Treasures collection, appropriately, called I’m Dirty (the title story’s about a garbage truck), there’s a story called Stars! Stars! Stars! by Bob Barner, a lovely picture book (rendered with some gentle animation on this DVD) that has caught the imagination of both Huck and Rilla.

(Those are Amazon links but not affiliate links. I know I should link to IndieBound instead but I don’t feel like extra clicking this morning. But please do support your local independent bookstores.) 🙂

(About those Scholastic Storybook Treasures collections: Scholastic sent me a bunch of them to review, and I have to say they completely won me over, despite my longstanding resistance to books-on-DVD. I always think: why have a kid watch a book instead of reading it to him? But these are beautifully done. Think Reading Rainbow instead of animated storybook. The animation is slight—the art is the exact spreads from the original picture books with a little bit of movement added: the garbage truck rolls down the street, the shooting star streams across space. You can toggle the text on and off; I leave it on to help my emergent reader. I love the selection of stories—I’ll have to do a separate post about all the collections they sent me. I realized this is not much different that the book-and-cassette-tape sets I used to check out from the library for my older girls, but with much much better production values. And I sort of love that my littles are listening to stories I haven’t had a chance to read them yet.)

* Wonderboy started back to school last Wednesday. Same little class, same teachers. He’s enjoying. We’re adjusting. He had an audiology appointment yesterday and despite some serious wax occlusion he tested at very high comprehension levels in the hearing test: with the new hearing aids, he’s catching 77% of quiet speech and 86% of normal conversational speech. That’s huge. He was hearing barely over 50% with the old aids. This is very big.

* Jane enjoyed her summer course in C++ through Giant Campus Academy and has enrolled in their Computer Science class this fall. Starts next week. And she had a great week in Virginia. We are glad to have her back. 🙂

* Rose got Pokemon Soul Silver for her birthday last week, and she and Beanie and Rilla have been drawing and cutting out Pokemon paper dolls and making incredible collage backgrounds for them. I’m in awe, constantly.

* I’m struggling with Ragnarok. All those brawny, brainy gods are besting me. I took a break from reading over the weekend (and from blogging and social media as well) and spent some time slaughtering orcs in World of Warcraft instead. Sometimes there’s nothing that boosts the spirits more than battling orcs.

Book News

August 17, 2011 @ 4:11 pm | Filed under:

Sweet! I’ve been hinting about this for months, but I just got the green light to share the details re my forthcoming middle-grade novel. It’s called Not the Whole Truth and will be published by McElderry in 2012. I adore McElderry as an imprint and have been thrilled to bits over this news, and bursting because it takes so long to get through the contracts-pending stage to the OK now it’s official stage.

I’ve told you about my early reader, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, which will be published by Random House in 2013. That one has made it through copyediting and is with the art department now. This is a seriously exciting stage of the game: waiting to see who the artist will be. Suspense!

Meanwhile, I’m toiling away at the YA I’m writing for Knopf. Where “toiling” = “marveling that I get to write this book that I have wanted to write for a really long time.” And also: “toiling.” Because it is hard work. But good-hard, you know?

I’ve had another nice bit of book news but it’s too soon to spill it yet. But this bit, I’ve already gotten a peek at the art, and I’m feeling rather swoony.


August 16, 2011 @ 7:09 pm | Filed under:

I’m in my room working, or trying to work at least, but it’s so tempting to eavesdrop on the complex imaginary adventures unfolding in the backyard just outside my window. On these cool summer evenings, Rose and Beanie spend hours walking around and around the yard, spinning stories. Their bodies are walking but their minds are catapulting, cartwheeling, soaring, sailing. Huck is sitting in the spent vegetable garden, half on top of the watermelon vine that never watermeloned, sifting dirt from a grimy fist onto his beloved yellow dump truck—which he calls an I Team Ruck I Team Ruck (it’s never singular, and that’s ‘ice cream truck’ for the non-Huck-speakers out there).

Rilla floats: sometimes she’s flitting alongside the story girls, part of their web of battles and rescues, and other times she’s hunting roly polies. Sometimes she drifts over to Huck and annoys him by sproinging his curls, like Ramona did to Susan.

Wonderboy is in bed already, the sleepy puppy. He’s our early-to-bed guy. And Jane is off having adventures of her own in Virginia, our old stomping grounds. Getting there last week was an adventure in itself: a delayed flight, a missed connection, an airport rescue, a night with some of the nicest folks in Texas. I’m jealous.

I finished the Riddlemaster series. I’m still climbing out from it, not articulate about it yet. I liked the middle of the trilogy best, the Raederle book. Her “small magics” reminded me so much of Maggie the hearthwitch in Elizabeth Scarborough’s Unicorn Creed series—a set of fantasy books I read as a teen and enjoyed for their madcap humor and fumbling, flawed heroine. I have always envied Maggie’s hearthwitch powers: imagine being able to clean and cook by magic! Tasty food without cooking it! Apart from a singing voice like Eponine in Les Miz, that’s pretty much at the top of my list of Non-Altruistic Wishes. (You know, the non-world-peace kind.)

I’m struggling into the early chapters of Byatt’s Ragnarok. That’s not a criticism; it’s dense, twisty stuff, at once marvelous and intimidating, like a giant vine curling and twining into the clouds. I barely have a foot in the crook of a stem. Now that Riddlemaster isn’t haunting me, we’ll see if I can climb a little higher up the vine.

Comics Make You Smart

August 11, 2011 @ 1:51 pm | Filed under: ,

A friend pointed me toward a conversation in which a 6th-grade teacher explains why he “reflexively cringe[s]” when he sees his students head for the comics and graphic novel section of the school library. His first post, which suggests that graphic novels are “nothing more than the literary equivalent of Jersey Shore for our kids,” drew an impassioned response from comics advocates. (The entire comment thread is worth reading.) In his follow-up post, the blogger acknowledges that he is, as a result of the discussion, reevaluating his stance on graphic novels, but he’s still not entirely convinced of their merits—not without informed guidance from a teacher, that is.

He wrote:

Just like iPads, graphic novels AREN’T magical tools. One of the things that blows my mind is the blind faith that many people seem to put in the ability of graphic novels to save struggling readers.

My favorite comment of this entire conversation came in my email inbox from a teacher who described graphic novels as a “fanciful dance” that:

  1. Encouraged visual literacy skills.
  2. Taught students to interpret and analyze at a deep and meaningful level.
  3. Introduced students to video production skills.
  4. Engaged readers in critical self-analysis.

Listen to those words, y’all:  encouraged, taught, introduced and engaged.  Books don’t do those things.

Teachers do.

(His post continues here.)

I chimed in with this response:

Teachers *may* do those things, but books certainly can and do “encourage, teach, introduce, and engage.” I’m sure you could find examples in your own life, both as a kid and an adult, when you learned something from a book without the intercession of a teacher. I can certainly point to many examples in my own life and my kids’ lives.

Here’s one: I bought a book on weaving and learned to weave by following the instructions in the book. I made hand towels and scarves without ever speaking to a weaving teacher or expert. The book taught me how.

I have certainly been “engaged” by hundreds upon hundreds of books.

A quick list of topics to which I was “introduced” by a book would include beekeeping, westward expansion, political strife in Burma, candymaking, English gardening, Greek mythology, the Salem witch trials, and–this list could go on for days! I’m sure your own list would be a mile long. 🙂

Raina Telgemeier’s excellent middle-grade graphic novel, SMILE, has proved a source of great encouragement to my 12yo daughter as she copes with orthodontic work. SMILE, incidentally, is an example of a smart, literary graphic novel that engages readers and gets them excited about reading, sending them hunting for more great books.

Another of my children made a huge leap in reading fluency and comprehension at age six when she jumped from the Bob books (beginning reader series) to Tintin comics. Her older sisters were Tintin fans, and the 6yo would pore over the pictures and puzzle out the words, wanting to read just like the big girls. The art is what drew her in, but she desperately wanted to know what was going on in those word balloons. The vocabulary, as is often the case in graphic novels and comics, was quite sophisticated. The stories introduced her (to borrow your word) to countries and cultures all over the world. At the time, I was reading aloud to her from various children’s novels, but she read Tintin by herself, asking for help only occasionally. That child is now 10 years old and an avid reader–of prose and comics. Her favorite authors are Roald Dahl, Emily Rodda, and Brian Jacques–all prose novelists.

I know this is but one anecdotal example of a kid whose door to reading was a comic book. I have heard many, many similar stories. At the recent San Diego Comic-Con, I attended a panel on Comics in the Library in which four public librarians talked about (among other things) the ways they see kids reading and learning from comics. I was particularly struck by a comment from one of the panelists, who said he read comics almost exclusively as a kid–and went on to major in English, get his MLS, and become a librarian.

I’m glad you’re reassessing your thoughts on graphic novels—the Jersey Shore comparison was seriously off base—but it seems like you’re caught on the notion that books require teachers as intermediaries, and that too seems off base and contrary to the experience of, well, millions of kids and adults who have learned incredible things alone with a book.

No response yet, but I appreciate that he’s been open to the discussion with the commenters on his blog, and I hope he’ll read some of the excellent books they have recommended, including one of my own favorites, Gene Yang’s American Born Chinesea rather brilliant and deeply moving graphic novel about a Chinese-American boy struggling with identity and acceptance. I think this teacher’s negative feelings about comics are quite common among adults, especially those who sincerely wish to cultivate in students a love for reading and a nuanced engagement with literature. Comics may strike these adults as fluff, twaddle, mental junk food. In my experience, this negative stance nearly always means the adult hasn’t read many comics—or is possibly repeating disparaging things said by adults in his life when he was a kid immersed in the exploits of Metamorpho and Adam Strange, so enchanted by story and pictures that he didn’t notice he was acquiring an impressive vocabulary and a sophisticated grasp of story structure, character development, and setting.

Amusing side note: today’s mail brought a review copy of The Manga Guide to the Universe by No Starch Press. Jane has learned a ton about electricity, relativity, and statistics from previous Manga Guides. I would be so much smarter if I read more comics…

Related: Comics in the Library: SDCC panel recap