Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Boulder Bookstore

Yesterday, my family spent some time in the Boulder Book Store.  We were going to see our optometrist, Dr. Graham, a block away (*, but we were about an hour early for our appointments (did we plan it that way?).  So we headed down the mall...

     Boulder's fabulous book store is a terrific place to spend some time, stopping next door for a great Americano or cup of tea, and then heading in to fill your shopping basket with new titles or must haves.  There's something about an independent bookseller that makes buying a book so much more fun, more intimate, than hitting the local "big box" bookstores (by the way, The Boulder Bookstore donated $200,000 of free books to local teachers in December).
     The Boulder Book Store's location, smack dab in the middle of the Pearl Street Mall, makes it a perfect location to kill some time.  And, the building is quite unique and has an interesting history (check out  Whenever we're in downtown Boulder, we always walk in to check things out (sometimes to shop and sometimes just to peruse the shelves).  It's a great place to people watch too!  It's nice to find a book on the shelf that doesn't have to be special ordered, but is there because the seller cares about the quality of literature that sits on the store's shelves.
     My wife and children gave me a book bag for Christmas with the famous quote by Erasmus, "When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes."  It's so true!
     I image Heaven might have three book stores, The Boulder Book Store, The Tattered Cover ( and The Bookies (Denver's favorite independent book store, sitting side-by-side waiting for all of us that love books to walk through their pearly doors!  Perhaps we'll all spend eternity sorting and sifting through titles (read Franki SIbberson's recent entry on A Year Of Reading (

     But for now, whenever I'm in Boulder (hmmm... could this be why I encouraged my two children to attend the University of Colorado), I'll spend time in a bit of Heaven on Earth at the Boulder Bookstore. 
     *a great independent optometry office with amazing eyewear

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Today I Will...

What a quaint and thoughtful book that the Spinelli's have created with Today I Will: A Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself.  This book has a page for every day of the year which includes a quote from a children's book, a short "response" to the quote, and an affirmation related to the author's words.  It would make a lovely gift, but could also serve as mentor text for a writing study. 
     Quotes from authors such as Tomie dePaola, Madeline L'Engle, Beverly Cleary are highlighted.  With each quote, you're drawn into the text and want to read more about why the authors chose it... and then to see what they recommend you do as a result of reading it.  I love that the book is genuine, sincere, thoughtful... and intriguing.  As I read each quote, I wanted to search my shelves to see if I had the book from which it came.

     I could see giving this book as a graduation or Confirmation gift.  I could see using passages during a study of inferring.  I could also see readers lifting quotes from their own reading and using this text as a mentor for their own reading response.  I could see reading a page of this book as a daily ritual to start the day with my students.

     At NCTE in November, I was sitting next to the Spinelli's in the "lounge" of the hotel.  I wish I would have found this book before then, I'm sure I would have leaned over and said, "Thank You!"

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sparrow Girl

This story is based on Mao's Great Sparrow War in 1958 in which he "declared war" on sparrows because the birds ate their wheat.  They decided to try to eliminate the sparrow population.  I did a little research and the following excerpt is from a Shanghai newspaper with the headline "The Whole City is Attacking the Sparrows."  
     "On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began.  In large and small streets, red flags were waving.  On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People's Liberation Army shouting their war cries.  In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight.  The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows.  In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army.  Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch.  The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels.  In the parks, cemeteries and nurseries (of young plants) where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows.  The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques of shooting birds.  Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows.  By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed." (from The Chinese Sparrows of 1958. By Sha Yexin. August 31, 1997)
     In the picture book, Sparrow Girl, Ming-Li was quite upset because she liked sparrows.  When she talked to her older brother he said, "Our Leader's plans are always perfect.  They told us at school.  Now, go to sleep!"  The Chinese were declaring war against the sparrows, claiming they were their enemies.  But Ming-Li looked up and in her heart she couldn't imagine a sky empty of birds.  Although her country's leader called the birds enemies because they were eating the grain, she decided she didn't want to be a part of the annihilation.  Villagers scared birds away with firecrackers and gongs and guns, and the birds flew from the trees and fell to the ground "frightened to death."  Ming-Li decided she had to do something and vowed to save as many sparrows as she could... one at a time... and she saved seven sparrows in the barn she picked up from the ground, hoping one day they will again fly free.
     In fact, ultimately millions of people died because of this ecological mistake... because of the lack of sparrows the locust problem grew and contributed to a huge famine.

     I love the artwork by Yoko's simple and beautiful and captures the mood of the story.   Sara Pennybacker's Sparrow Girl would be perfect during a study of synthesis... your thinking certainly changes as you read it (add actual pictures and accounts of the event and you'd have fodder for a great discussion).  There are many short articles available describing the "Chinese Sparrow War of 1958" and how it affected the environment at the time... this book is a perfect cousin text to Chris Van Allsburg's Just a Dream.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Twelve Prayers of Christmas

This was our family's  Christmas book this year.  It's beautifully written, each page a beautiful piece of poetry telling the story of Christ's birth from the perspective of the shepherds, the Wise Men, Mary, Joseph, the animals... a great family read for the Christmas season.
     The illustrations are beautiful.  It was the perfect gift to add to our growing collection.  Destined to be a classic and a wonderful addition to our book baskets.  It's written by Candy Chand and illustrated by James Bernardin.
     My plan over the next few days is to read as many of the books I can... alone and with my children.  Always such a wonderful part of relaxing between now and Epiphany.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Baskets of Books

Each year we unpack all of our Christmas books and arrange them in baskets around the house... from board books to picture books.  Baskets of books are our favorite decorations.  And, each night during Christmas and into Epiphany we choose one or two to read together or alone.  
     We add a family book to the collection every year and sometimes we can't stop at just one.  I thought I'd share ten of of my favorites (some of my most favorite are out of print and I couldn't find a picture, so I'm leaving them off)... These books bring our family lots of great reading and each year we can't wait to read them again.  
     What are your favorites?  Here are some of ours...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Special Moment in Time

"We have the vocation of keeping alive Mr. Melcher's excitement in leading young people into an expanding imagination. Because of the very nature of the world as it is today our children receive in school a heavy load of scientific and analytic subjects, so it is in their reading for fun, for pleasure, that they must be guided into creativity. These are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe, that we can help our children avoid by providing them with 'explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.'"
      This quote is from Madeleine L'Engle's acceptance speech after winning the Newbery Award for A Wrinkle in Time... in August, 1963 (you can read the rest of her speech here:  Can you believe it, 1963!  Sounds familiar, doesn't it... Madeleine L'Engle could give the same speech today?

     My fifth grade daughter and my wife are reading A Wrinkle in Time together each night before bed (a gift from Jo Franklin, my daughter's first grade teacher who just retired and recently moved to Minnesota).  They are loving the read... the intimacy... the talk... the questioning... the wonders... I listened in from the stairs a few nights ago and it made me smile (and, by the way, they are not reading just because she has to record it on her blasted reading log...).

     Mrs. Franklin was my daughter's favorite teacher (and now her friend for life).  Jo understood that children are all unique individuals and never tried to force her students to be "muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin."  She was a teacher who stood strong in her philosophical underpinnings, who understood that learning was a process, and who continued to learn more about the profession to which she dedicated her career even during her last year in the classroom.  Her classroom was quiet, calm, gentle, smart, thoughtful, and process-oriented.  She didn't do "canned" curriculum, but focused instead on thinking, depth, and learning for learning's sake.  She was an advocate for the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC) and served as a lab classroom host for many years.
     I wish Jo could sit on the stairs and listen... she'd be so happy!  I wish my daughter had benefited from more teachers like Mrs. Franklin.  There was something special about her.  And, Jo's gift of A Wrinkle in Time (a book she lovingly read to her own daughters) has continued to spread her brilliance into the nightly ritual of reading in our home...
     Thanks Jo!  

Monday, December 21, 2009

24 Years Ago Today

What are your songs?  My wife and I have three:  "For Baby, For Bobby" by John Denver; "Living in the Name of Love" by The Whites, and "When I Fall in Love" Linda Ronstadt or Doris Day version.
     Twenty-four years ago today, I married the most beautiful girl I've ever known.  We met in college, I can still tell you what she was wearing when I noticed her less than a day in to her freshman year (plaid shirt with a white collar, blue pants, and clogs)... 
     But it was on December 21, 1985 that she knocked me out of my tuxedo shoes!  She came into the narthex of the Holy Shepherd Lutheran Church (we decided to see each other before the service) dressed in ivory satin brocade, a single strand of pearls, flowers in her hair, and a long flowing veil.  Our family and friends parted, gave us our space, and we kissed... it was a moment I still close my eyes and remember.  I was in awe!
     24 years later... still am!  She's still the most beautiful girl I've ever known... and I can't wait to celebrate the next twenty-four years.  Today we celebrate!  Our wedding was at 7:30 p.m. (the upswing per my mother-in-law) and it was beautiful.  The lyrics of For Baby, For Bobby still mean the same as they did when they were sung at our wedding by our friend Jan... I still hear the chime of bells each morning, noon, and night!

I’ll walk in the rain by your side
I’ll cling to the warmth of your TINY hand
I’ll do anything to keep you satisfied
I’ll love you more than anybody can

And the wind will whisper your name to me
Little birds will sing along in time
Leaves will bow down when you walk by
And morning bells will chime

I’ll be there when you’re feelin’ down
To kiss away the tears if you cry
I’ll share with you all the happiness I’ve found
A reflection of the love in your eyes

And I’ll sing you the songs of the rainbow
A whisper of the joy that is mine
And leaves will bow down when you walk by
And morning bells will chime

I’ll walk in the rain by your side
I’ll cling to the warmth of your tiny hand
I’ll do anything to help you understand
And I’ll love you more than anybody can

And the wind will whisper your name to me
Little birds will sing along in time
Leaves will bow down when you walk by
And morning bells will chime

Sunday, December 20, 2009

AARP? Secrets? Abigail Thomas?

I know a secret... my wife bought me this book for Christmas!  Thinking About Memoir is a sweet little book we found while perusing our local bookstore.
     I am so excited to read this book by one of my favorite writers, Abigail Thomas.  I loved A Three Dog Life (excerpts of which I've often used with adults when talking to them about responding to reading).  It's a brilliantly written book written about her relationship with her husband after he was severely injured after being hit by a car when out walking their dog.  Have you read it?
     I love her writing style.  She's so honest.  If fact, she says "Be honest, dig deep, or don't bother."  I almost feel like I know her.  She "sees" story in everything... coffee with a friend, learning to do Pilates, rescuing a dog, eating ice cream.  And, through her work, Abigail teaches us to do the same... and gives us specific examples of "practice" in this book (many I think we can use with students).
     Although I worry a bit that my wife's buying me a book that was introduced in AARP magazine, I can't wait to open it up on Christmas Eve and finish reading.  I love how Abigail nudges us all to be writers... and to be writing.  I learn so much about her every time I read her work.  In this book, she illuminates her daily life, which will hopefully help me learn to illuminate mine!
     My students look at Ralph Fletcher and Cynthia Rylant as the writers from whom they learn the most... I can't wait to share my learning from Abigail Thomas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Smart Science Series

I just discovered this series of Basher books!  Rocks and Minerals is the fifth in the series of science books. The illustrations, although a bit cartoonish, are engaging.  
     In Rocks and Minerals, the information is written in first person perspective. I love the way the factual information about science topics is presented... great nonfiction mentor text.  This book explores rocks, gems, minerals, crystals, fossils, etc.  The text develops science concepts through understandable and creatively written text.
     I love this series and so do my students.  Although some of the concepts are difficult to comprehend, budding scientists will spend time wisely working their way through the text... asking lots of questions, drawing inferences, and synthesizing learning. 


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thank You!

I have a third grade boy, we'll call him Brian, who says, "Thank you, Mr. Allen" every day before he leaves.  He's the kind of learner that makes it so easy to say, "You're welcome!"  He leaves the classroom each day with a smile on his face!
     I had two of his siblings and they both did the same thing... every day.  Could it be good parenting?  Of course.  But, hearing a sincere "thank you" reminds me of the gift I'm given each day... the gift of working with terrific learners.  And, the look in Brian's eyes tells me it's coming from his heart.  He means it.
     Recently, I was rereading bits and pieces of Life in a Crowded Place by Ralph Peterson—have you read it lately?  It’s a great “old” read.  He says, “Making a learning community—coming together, keeping together, and learning together—is not easy.  It is far easier to dominate and require obedience.  But if the prospect of encouraging the social nature of learning lets our students experience genuine learning and helps them to uncover ideas that make a sound in their hearts, isn’t that a compelling argument for trying?” 
     And hearing a "thank you" makes the end of each day realize that community is so important.

     And, I humbly want to say, "No... thank you!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Inferring... A Synthesis

We just finished a strategy study of how wise readers (and mathematicians and writers) Draw Inferences.  As part of the culmination of our study, my third graders brainstormed the following list of "What We Know About Inferring."
     Each statement on their list is followed by clarifying statements other students made in response.  I love these discussions and hearing student's thinking about this strategy after several weeks of study and how it applies to their own learning.  If our goal is to get students to use thinking strategies independently, talk lays such an important foundation at the beginning of a study and at the end.  It's so important to compare their initial definitions to their thinking after intense study.  It's about being metacognitive.  Enjoy...

What We Know About Inferring 
If a book leaves you hanging, you can infer what is going to happen next. (J.)  “You come to a part you don’t understand and you can’t figure it out, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you infer because you’re not sure.” (L./J.) 

I know that you need schema, text clues, and predictions to equal an inference. (B.) “If you didn’t it wouldn’t make any sense, you’d just be guessing because you don’t have enough information to go on in order to infer.” (P.)

If you don’t understand a sentence in a book, you can infer to find out what you don’t understand. (L.)  “If you go past it without knowing what a word is or something you ask yourself ‘What did I just read?’” (B.) 

I know that your head and heart are in inferring for feeling, for getting a sense of the text. (J.)  “The text doesn’t know what you’re feeling. (J.)  You have to catch yourself inferring… so that those feelings will emerge.  You just can’t hold it in!” (B./L./Mr. A.) 

There are three puzzle pieces to inferring:  background knowledge/background experience, text clues, and predictions. (R.) “These three parts have to happen – they are tools to help you understand, remember, make it memorable, and extend meaning.  Emotions, thoughts, and ideas are three more parts that you have to have to infer.” (P./I.) 

I know that inferring is important: you use background knowledge, text clues, and predictions to infer what is going to happen. (I.)  “You need to have all these things happening to infer.  You have these things happening and you have to lead yourself through them to lead yourself ‘up to inferring.’” (K./T.) 

You can’t leave one step out, you have to use them all because otherwise it’s not inferring. (L.)  “The secret to inferring is: not all writers tell you everything, not because they ran out of paper, but because they want you, the reader, to figure it out for yourself.” (Unknown) 

You don’t use inferring just in reading, you use it in math and writing too. (P.)  “It’s a strategy you use everywhere, anytime.” (I.) 

If you have a question, it can be confirmed or disconfirmed. (R.)  “If it’s confirmed it means that you inferred well… if it’s disconfirmed, you may have to go back and try it again and look for other clues.” (P.) 

Inferring means to understand.  If you don’t understand a word, you infer what it might mean. (P.)   “Inferring is about personal meaning.  To understand the meaning you have to infer so that you can read on otherwise you won’t be able to understand the rest of the story.” (Mr. A./R.) 

You need to know what inferring is to be a better reader, writer, and mathematician. (K.)  “If you just use one strategy all the time you won’t get better at the other strategies that you know.  Inferring helps you understand meaning and to get better as a reader; it adds another strategy to your brain.” (P.) 

I know that confirmed means that “I got it” and disconfirmed means “Try it again because I didn’t really get it.” (T.)  “If you don’t you wouldn’t know if your inference is in the ballpark.  If you don’t notice you won’t go back to see what you missed.” (R./I.). 

I know that with picture clues you can figure out what a picture is trying to tell you. (M.) “Sometimes the text doesn’t give you enough.  Sometimes the pictures give you what you need.” (L.) 

Inferring helps you understand the meaning. (E.)  “I know that when a book doesn’t give you enough information, you have to give yourself information, you have to be metacognitive about your inferring about what you’re doing.  It’s just going through you if you don’t pay attention.” (P.)  

You have to ponder when you’re inferring. (J.) “If you didn’t ponder, you’d have too much in your head and wouldn’t be paying attention.  When they slow down, it helps wise readers to make decisions.” (P./L.) 

You have to have a book that you understand or it will be really challenging. (T.)  “If you have a book that is too hard, you can’t infer because you’re not picking up text clues.” (I.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

'Tis the Season... for Giving...

Franki and Mary Lee wrote about giving back on their blog this week.  You can read their post at: 
     Franki and Mary Lee got me thinking about our own giving during the Christmas season.  Besides sponsoring a child for Compassion International throughout the year, we do something special in December.  Each year, my own children choose gifts from Alternative Gifts International to give to their godparents.  My wife and I give a gift to the adults in our lives from this organization.  Our church sponsors a gift market each year (  It's usually the youth and their families that sponsor a booth in our fellowship hall on "shopping day."  
     Alternative Gifts International is a non-profit organization that inspires support for humanitarian and environmental causes.  They offer donors the option to designate charitable gifts through carefully selected agencies in the name of their relatives, friends, and associates.  It's a great way to give a gift in someone's name.
     You can choose from a catalog of projects around the world (  For example, you can choose "Educating and Mobilizing Disabled Children" in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or "Learning to Read & Sew for Success" in India, or "Gardening & Critter Care for Happy Families" in Bolivia.  The website has a catalog of choices; there's a rich assortment of projects, prices, and possibilities.
     With each gift, you can choose a special card to accompany your gift.  Here are a few examples:

One touch of the nature makes
the whole world kin.
--William Shakespeare 

How wonderful it is
that nobody has to wait
a single moment before
starting to improve the world.
--Anne Frank 

Today, we bring 'simple gifts'
to a troubled world,
Seeking hope for peace in a new day.

Goods news from heaven the angels bring,
Glad tidings to the earth they sing:
To us this day a child is given,
To crown us with the joy of heaven.

     This is the season to remember those who may need our help and support... Thanks to Franki and Mary Lee for the reminder!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Great Sports Book

This book is full of the kinds of sports stories that inspire readers who love sports.  Len Berman (veteran sportscaster extraordinaire) has chosen some of his favorite groundbreaking sports stories.  He begins with Michael Phelps's victory in 2008 in Beijing.  He writes about such athletes as Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King, the U.S. Women's soccer team, Nadia Comaneci (and a certain golfer who's been in the news of late).
     This is a wonderful collection.  It is a nice mix of historical sport's moments.  It's an engaging book for young fans.  The book also includes an audio CD of ten actual moments in sports history.  I'm always on the lookout for books to add to my collection of sports books.
     I especially like how Len Berman shares his favorite moments in sports in the book and challenges the reader to identify the moments in history that would make his or her list (persuasive writing launch, perhaps?).  It's visually attractive and fun to read.  I've added this book to my "must have" list and I can't wait to get this book into the hands of young readers.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Birthday... Freda!

ne day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter - who was a child at the time - asked me, "Daddy, why are you writing so fast?" And I replied, "Because I want to see how the story turns out!"
. . . Louis L'Amour

If my mom, Freda, was alive we would have celebrated her 93rd birthday today.  Mom was an avid reader.  Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey were particular favorites of hers; she had an affinity for a good western!  She loved a good story.  She read a lot... magazines, cookbooks, novels, newspapers.  In her later years, each week our town librarian would leave a grocery bag of books on her front porch.  Mom would call the library (the "liberry" she called it) and say, "I'm ready for a new stack... you know what I like..."  And, the librarian would do a book drop.  Mom couldn't wait to see how the next story turned out!  Of course, mom would also call the librarian to give her opinion of her selections!
     Mom was born on December 11, 1916 in Denver... and on the rare times she visited, I loved driving her around "town" and listening to her stories about Denver.  She grew up on Kalamath Street, not far from where the University of Colorado at Denver is today.  We'd drive up and down the streets and she'd tell grand stories about the surrounding neighborhoods.  Oh, I wish I had written her stories down!  She was a gifted story teller and had an amazing memory; her stories were every bit as rich as the ones she read each week.  "Oh, that's where we used to hide and we'd shoot the street cars with our slingshots to see if we could break a window, we were so naughty... See that corner there, there was a Chinese restaurant there where your father and I used to go eat... There's a stuffed rattlesnake in there that my father killed in the foundry (pointing to the Buckhorn Exchange talking about The American Ironworks)... We used to go peek in the windows of that church and watch people speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor; scared us to death... I used to work in that building helping make taxidermy forms for the Jonas family; they were the nicest people... I used to fill catalog orders in that building (Montgomery Ward) and had to wear roller skates..."  Today I have bits and pieces floating in my head, but what I'd give for more!

     I heard Eugene Cerman (who happened to land on the moon on December 11, 1972) speak at the PEBC's luncheon last year and he said, "I remember starting up the ladder and looking over my shoulder.  I saw my footprints there on the surface of the moon and realized that they'd be there for eternity.  And they were mine!  I knew I might be the last person to step on the moon for a long, long time."  He also tells the story of looking at Earth from the moon and realizing that its beauty was too beautiful to grasp!
     Sometimes things are too beautiful to grasp, so we just have to hold them as memories the best way we know how.  That's what I do on December 11th, I pull one those memories out of my heart or mind and remember mom.  Perhaps by writing down what I remember about her, my own children will know how her story turned out!  It was a grand story.

     Happy Birthday, Freda!  

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Conferring Conversations

 Mark Overmeyer and I have done a Voice Thread conversation comparing reading and writing conferences.

     Mark is the author of What Student Writing Teaches Us:  Formative Assessment in Writer's Workshop and When Writing Workshop Isn't Working.
     You can find the thread at: or on the Stenhouse blog at:

     You can join in the conversation by asking specific questions and commenting on the Voice Thread.  Enjoy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Joanne O'Sullivan

My wife is taking a children's literature class and it's been fun perusing my collection with her... the first week it was folk tales, last week it was personal narrative, this week we're looking through nonfiction.  We've read some good ones!

     I love Joanne O'Sullivan's books 101 Things You Gotta Do Before 12! and 101 Places You Gotta See Before You're 12!  As I was rereading them tonight, I was creating the list of things that I've never done that I was supposed to have done a very long time ago!  Who knew?
     The beauty of both of these books is that they can be used as mentor text for writing.  If you're asking children to write expository text... you might just want to check out a few pages out of either of these books.  Short pieces of text, written with voice, around a single topic:  perfect!
     Joanne O'Sullivan has written many other nonfiction books:  101 Ways You Can Help Save the Planet Before You're 12!, Calling All Dogs: Grrreat Names for Your Perfect Pooch, Calling All Cats: Purrrfect Names for Your Fabulous Feline, and I Don't Care If We're Not There Yet: The Backseat Boredom Buster.  I think her books are terrific examples of well-written expository text... children love being able to sit down to read about new things, in short snippets, and to think about what to do with the information they're learning!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Giving Thanks

It's been a week or so since Thanksgiving, but I've been thinking...
     In my latest book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop, I wrote a lot about my father.  In fact, the idea of seeing conferring as the keystone, the strength of reader's workshop, was based on the fact that my father was a stonemason and bricklayer.  Dad died on November 21, 1988, three days before Thanksgiving... his funeral was on the 23rd, a Wednesday.  It was no small task, planning a funeral in two days, but we did it (Mom wanted the funeral before Thanksgiving)!  And, despite the sadness of dad's death, it was one of Thanksgivings that will go down as one of my family's favorites.  Dad would have loved it!
     Wednesday was one of those beautiful Novembers in southern Colorado.  Warm.  Sunny.  Blue skies.  Fluffy white clouds.   So many memories of that day still float through my mind... I remember looking across the lawn at the funeral home as we were getting into the limousine and seeing Ruthe Smith, our next door neighbor lady staring at the hearse, dumbfounded and sad, waiting to wave goodbye to her dearly departed friend (I jumped out and went over and gave her a huge hug and I still remember her whispering "I'll miss him..." in my ear).  I remember my niece, Trudy, singing You're Something Special to Me so beautifully, so clear... and I still can't listen to Just a Closer Walk With Thee without tearing up.  I remember watching my mom, Freda, sitting there not wanting to say goodbye to the love of her life (her ol' Crab Patch).  I remember my older brother, Dan, having to say goodbye to his pal (his first funeral); Dad and Dan were kindred spirits.

     And, I remember Thanksgiving that year.
     After the funeral, we decided we should perhaps plan Thanksgiving.  So all the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, got busy cooking.  Everything was going well until we realized that no one had thought to thaw the turkey (can't imagine why). The turkey we were going to cook was the grand champion at the state fair (yep, that's what they are raised for) the previous year and weighed 42 pounds!  Yes, 42 pounds.  That's a HUGE turkey.  Its size created HUGE turkey roasting difficulties.
     Problem 1)  Frozen. Problem solved... (much to the chagrin of some of us), it was quickly thawed in a sterilized bathtub!  Where else would it fit?  Quick thaw methods aren't necessarily safe according to everything I've read.
     Problem 2)  Too big.  Who has an oven that fits a 42 pound turkey?  So, my brothers went to work.  They decided to "pit roast" the turkey.  Haven't heard of it?  Neither had I.  Here's the drill... you cook the turkey in an underground pit (which reminded me a bit of the cemetery).  First dig a pit deep and wide enough for the turkey and 6 to 8 inches of hot coals (burn enough wood to make a hot coal bed, 6 to 8 inches deep). Cover the hot coals with a sheet of tin. Place your wrapped turkey on the tin.  Then cover the hole with another sheet of tin. Bury the top sheet with dirt (to keep the heat in).  Supposedly, you can come back in 10 to 12 hours and you have perfectly roasted meat. An underground oven of sorts.  And supposedly if you do it at night, the next morning it's ready!  So that's what they did... it was a marvel of engineering.
     Problem 3)  Didn't work.  When we uncovered the "pit"... the fire had gone out and the partially cooked turkey had "rested" in the pit overnight.
     Problem 4)  What to do?   What else... you're on a farm, grab a saw!  Saw the partially cooked bird in half with a "sterilized" handsaw.  Postpone dinner for a few hours.  Cook half in your sister's oven, cook half in your mother's oven... Viola`... two 21 pound turkeys!
     Suddenly my brothers, who's engineering prowess had failed, were basking in the fact that the bird was indeed golden, delicious, and thoroughly cooked!
     When we sat down to dinner I whispered to my wife, "I'm not eating any turkey."
     She replied, "Me either!"  We both decided to be the designated drivers... when our family was stricken with food poisoning from quick-thawed, partially cooked, viciously sawed, and oven-roasted turkey.     
     BUT God was watching over us that Thanksgiving.  No one got sick.  The meal was delicious (less turkey on my plate).  The laughter was raucous.  The tears flowed.  The stories of dad's amazing life filled the air... 
     And we celebrated one of our favorite Thanksgivings.  Out of sadness, came joy!  Dad would have loved it... but I think, he too, would have passed on the turkey! 


Friday, December 4, 2009

Homegrown House

Who doesn't like a free book?  Thanks to Simon and Schuster, there were many lucky recipients who walked through their booth on the last day of NCTE to take a book... or two... or three... depending upon how many times you stood in line.  I went through three times (it was either that or go to the airport far too early).
     One of the books I picked up was homegrown house by Janet Wong (based on my friend Troy's recommendation).  It was a great recommendation... I love the book and the beautiful illustrations.  I love the back and forth story of the grandmother who's only lived in two houses her whole life and the girl in the book who is already moving to her fourth.  There's a sense of humor and realism floating through the pages.  When I picked it up to read it there was a sudden sense of comfort that developed as I thumbed through the pages... very Patricia MacLachlan-like.  I love the line, "...there will be nothing more to do.  Nothing except to settle into this house, to learn to live it right, to make it feel, as Grandmom says, Homegrown."
     This was another wonderful book to add to my collection.  And, the price was perfect! 

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Storm in the Barn

Another book I picked up at NCTE is The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan.  In 1937 Kansas, 11-year-old Jack Clark comes face to face with the horrors of the Dust Bowl.  His small town is faced with extraordinary choices related to the outcomes of the Dust Bowl... including this eery look at "dust dementia" and the choices related to survival when the entire landscape was changing.  The illustrations in this graphic novel draw the reader into a time that fewer and fewer Americans remember experiencing.  Jack "sees" the effects of the Dust Bowl--in strange and frightening ways.
     I was immediately pulled into this book.. the barns, the rabbit drives, the wind, the mystery, the uncontrollable dust permeating the very souls of the people experiencing it.  I picked this book up at the Candlewick Press booth (why am I never disappointed by a book from this publisher?) and was blown away (pardon the pun).  Perhaps because both my father and my sister (who is now 81) shared their Dust Bowl experiences with me.
     I can see boys in 5th or 6th grade loving this book and perhaps even investigating more and more about this important aspect of American life in the 1930s.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton

On Friday, 11/20, Philly was alive with the sounds of Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamiliton.  They were speakers at the Friday General Session.  Although her daughter spoke for a longer period of time than Ms. Andrews, it was a treat to hear from them both... I sat there, a bit in awe.  After all, this was the voice of the woman who for so many years has filled our lives with song and laughter... and there she was "" talking to us about her love of reading and how she shared that love with her family.
     Ms. Andrews explained to us that she despises being called a called a celebrity author, because she was an author long before she was a celebrity and that writing has always been an important part of her life.  She said that when she was being tutored as a child actor, her teacher would reward her for doing other work by giving her time to write.  She said it was her father, a teacher, who taught her, "the beauty and power of language."  She also noted that, "My life in the arts has always been about evoking images" and that writing allows her to "celebrate a sense of words, wonder, and wisdom."  She credits her father for teaching her that we must "notice the miracles that happen under our noses every day."
     Her daughter, Emma, is an author of her own books as well as co-author of several books with her mother.  She has a book called Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids to Read for Pleasure and Empowerment.  While she is an "arts" teacher and not a teacher of reading, she says that we must, "restore or create a primal connection to reading."  She noted that reading, especially poetry, brings, "a vision of beauty, meaning, and joy in the world" and that everyone "deserves the open destiny of life" that reading can bring.
     I don't know what I expected when I heard that both Ms. Andrews and her daughter would be speaking, but I left the session pleasantly surprised... by their passion, by their love of language and literature, by their commitment to writing, by their loving and caring relationship, and by their belief that "words illuminate life."  
     I loved the story of how her own children asked her to repay a debt to them by writing them a story.  She asked them, "What should my forfeit be?" And they said a story.  That's how Mandy was born.  It was a great way to start a conference!  Like brown paper packages, tied up with string...