Archive for September 20, 2010

Children’s Book Day: Marker Misery

Living where I do, in the hole of the donut (read: Albany area), I don’t get to meet many children’s book authors and illustrators. So Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside presented a rare opportunity to eyeball the competition. I mean to say: hang out with my colleagues!

During the two-hour signing session, I found myself sitting next to Rebecca Stead. Who is, like, a really big  deal. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to know it. She’s down-to-earth, totally unpretentious. So I kind of had to like her, even though she’s an award-winner and everything.

Whenever a kid came up to Rebecca to have a book signed, Rebecca smiled sweetly — with those straight white teeth of hers — and gestured to an array of six different-colored markers. She asked, “Which color would you like?”

This made me look pretty bad, what with my one lousy black Sharpie. I silently fumed. The audacity! I mean, did she have to wear the Newbery Medal around her neck? Really? So maybe I kicked the table a few times, right when Rebecca was signing. “Oh, gee, sorry, it looks like you ruined another book,” I’d apologize.

It felt good.

And yes, I’m lying about the Newbery Medal necklace.

Sometimes kids would slide over to me and ask for an autograph. I’d hold up my lone Sharpie, glare hatefully at Rebecca, and ask, “Which color?” I’d add in a whisper, “Say black.”

Anyway, despite the horror show of the whole marker situation, it was a decent day and a treat for me to make personal connections with some people I knew only through their books. By happenstance, my daughter, Maggie, is reading When You Reach Me right now. In fact, I read the first few chapters aloud to her, and was again reminded of Rebecca’s gift.

I think one of the most difficult things to do as a writer — something I struggle with all the time — is to create a loose, informal tone and yet still write well-crafted sentences — especially when writing in the first person. To write informally, I’ll tend to insert filler words like “just” and “kind of” and “like” or whatever. You know, the empty words people actually use. But if you aren’t careful, those sentences get flabby. Wordy. Soft around the edges. And I hate flabby sentences. So you have to work hard to find a balance between the casualness of a conversational tone and, say, the ruthlessness of the hard, clear, lean, direct writing which I value.

Rebecca’s book has been justly praised for its plotting — the remarkable puzzle-mystery she constructed — but for me, it’s the sentences. The humor. The tone. The way she writes, word by word, sentence by sentence.

Another fabulous celebrity I’ve meet is Charise Harper (she tweets!). We sat next to each other last year (I guess that’s how I meet people, they plop down next to me and if they aren’t stuffy with South London accents, we’re okay). Charise is one of those endlessly creative people — always making, drawing, folding, doing. A playful spirit and a little nutty in a good way. I think she’s a true, bone-deep artist.

She makes fun little videos, too:

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Overheard: “I can taste things without eating them. That’s my power!”

Okay, a few things:

* My daughter is an enthusiastic girl, prone to exclamations and grand pronouncements. Especially when it comes to food. Maggie loves to eat, and does so with the zeal of a rhinoceros. Last night I told her that Mom had a meeting after work, and then we had to run out for Open House Night at school, so I was ordering pizza for the boys.

“What am I going to eat?” she asked.

I said I’d order a chicken parm sub for her.

She replied:

“Really?! Today, this morning, I had the taste of chicken parm in mouth. I can taste things without eating them. That’s my power!”

* We are two days away from Talk Like a Pirate Day. With my new picture book out, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, it’s assumed that I’m one of those wildly extroverted guys who loves to talk like a pirate. So I’ve done a couple of radio shows, giving it my all, billowing and sputtering. These things are best filed under, “Live & Learn.”

Regrettably, due to an excess of rum and ill-advised gusto, I cut off my right hand and inserted a hook.

I hoped it would lend me street credibility, a quality that’s equally important to rappers and children’s book authors alike. But now I can only wear slip-on shoes. Arrrr.

A while back I nominated Kiss the Book for best logo image — and my support has not wavered. It’s actually a very good site, and you can find it on my handy, dandy sidebar. The good folks over there recently reviewed A Pirate’s Guide.

Here’s the booty quote:

“If you want your students to spend the next few hours speaking and acting like pirates – this is exactly the right book for you. What a fun way to start the school year – ending with a trip to the library to find the buried treasure!”Kiss the Book.

* Lastly, two reminders: If you are within range of Tarrytown, NY, this Sunday, September 19 (which is, coincidentally “Talk Like a Pirate Day”), you’ll find me and dozens of way better authors & illustrators at “Sunnyside.” Click here for more details.

But if you are close to Ashton, MA, you can hang out with me heartie, illustrator Greg Ruth — hoist the mainsail, swill some grog, the whole magilla. I heard they are going all out for what should be a great, grand, jolly time, transforming a bookstore, Elmer’s, into a Pirate Ship! I hope Greg takes pictures. Look at the cool poster he created:

A Week in a Life of 4th Grade Girl: Stop the Bus!

It’s been some week for my daughter — not that she’s noticed. But as her parents, Lisa and I have been shaking our heads, renewing our vigilance, and wondering what’s to come.

Over the course of five days, three different events have happened.

1) While visiting a friend after school, she was allowed to walk to the stores in town to go buy a muffin. Two 4th-grade girls, alone. This is not something we’ve ever allowed on our watch.

2) While visiting another 4th grade friend, who (we just learned!) has a page on Facebook, the two of them spent time on FB. Again, never-ever on our watch; we’re completely opposed. It caught us completely by surprise.

3) While sleeping over at a friends house, they watched “Twilight.” Maybe not that big a deal, but again, we were in no hurry at all to cross over into that world. Compounded with the other recent events, we could sense something slipping away.

The lesson: Don’t ever let Maggie leave the house! Better yet, we might have to keep her in box, buried deep in the closet.

Under the shoes.

Maggie is not yet ten years old. And I often think the same thing when observing other families: What’s the big hurry?

Yes, these eventualities will happen, all in good time. But I’m all for holding them off as long as possible. Obviously, we’ve got to monitor things more closely, and not assume that every family — no matter how wonderful — shares the same vision for our daughter.

That’s our job.

Slow Reading, Close Reading, Quality Reading

“Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.” — Thomas Newkirk.

I don’t think any writer would disagree: Reading is the foundation for writing. It’s how we learn. But how do we read? And why? And perhaps: How do we want our children to read?

I’ve mentioned it here before, I’m an awfully slow reader. And I’ve come to realize that I read differently than more casual readers, since “plot” is not often my primary focus, or perhaps because I “sub-vocalize,” a definite no-no in speed reading circles. (It’s telling that we often advise writers to read their work out loud, since that same activity is perceived as a negative in terms of reading “quickly and efficiently.”)

I’m not saying that my way is the right way. But when I reflect on it, I will confess that I didn’t really learn how to read until college. Maybe that was developmentally appropriate, maybe I needed to be that age before I could grapple with the dynamics of book.

Anyway, about a month ago a friend passed along this article from USA TODAY by Mary Beth Marklein,  “Professor pushes return to slow reading.”

Here’s the opening few paragraphs:

At a time when people spend much of their time skimming websites, text messages and e-mails, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire is making the case for slowing down as a way to gain more meaning and pleasure out of the written word.

Thomas Newkirk isn’t the first or most prominent proponent of the so-called “slow reading” movement, but he argues it’s becoming all the more important in a culture and educational system that often treats reading as fast food to be gobbled up as quickly as possible.

“You see schools where reading is turned into a race, you see kids on the stopwatch to see how many words they can read in a minute,” he said. “That tells students a story about what reading is. It tells students to be fast is to be good.”

The article goes on to mention that slow, or close reading has begun to pop up more in elementary schools. For me, it’s all food for thought. I guess there’s that old criticism, the reaction against teachers who “kill the book” by over-teaching it. As a former English Major, I can sympathize. But still, we have to ask: How much are readers getting out of the books they read? Is it better to read five books well than it is to race through 25 titles? When we talk about reading, at what point should the concept of quality enter the equation?

The article continues:

In a 2007 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the executive humanities editor at Harvard University Press describes a worldwide reading crisis and calls for a “revolution in reading.”

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words,” Lindsay Waters wrote.

What do you think? Malarky from the Ivory Towers — or are they onto something?

How might this apply to a fifth-grade classroom?

By complete coincidence, I recently found this book, Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose, while I was digging around in my local library for something else entirely. Actually, I’m thinking the book found me.

I brought it home and read it . . . slooowly, as always. I enjoyed it, reading the examples from different texts, really looking at what’s happening on the page, bringing more of myself to bear on the text — and so I’m totally on board with Ms. Prose’s drift.  Here’s a blurb from a Publishers Weekly starred review:

“The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading — carefully, deliberately, and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing . . . Prose’s guide to reading and writing belongs on every writer’s bookshelf alongside E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.” — PW.

Newkirk shares a similar point of view, though directs it at educators (please click here to read his article in full):

Open any newspaper and you are likely to find a story of some school whose students have read a million, two million—some big number of pages. As a payoff, the teachers wear pajamas for a day, or the principal shaves his head or agrees to eat worms, a reward to the delighted students. Then Pizza Hut or some other franchise that sponsored the event hands out coupons for nonnutritious food to the voracious readers.

It’s all great fun, a good story, a terrific photo op. But something bothers me about this picture—it’s as though reading has become a form of fast food to consume as quickly as possible, just one more cultural celebration of speed.

This association of good reading with speed permeates our schools, from the hugely popular Accelerated Reading Program, to “nonsense word fluency” tests in which young children have to decode “words” at a rate of more than one per second, to standardized tests in which reading is always “on the clock.” To be quick is to be smart; to be slow is to be stupid.

In the article, Mr. Newkirk provides some practical suggestions for the classroom. I particularly liked this one, since it’s what I’ve been doing for the whole of my adult reading life:

A page from my copy of The Gathering by Anne Enright.

Writes Mr. Newkirk:

Annotating a Page

In this activity, students probe the craft of a favorite writer. They pick a page they really like, photocopy it, and tape the photocopy to a larger piece of paper so they have wide margins in which they can make notations. Their job is to give the page a close reading and mark word choices, sentence patterns, images, dialogue—anything they find effective

For example, this sentence appears on the opening page of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996): “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” (p. 11). We can hear the way McCourt repeats the words worse, miserable, and Irish, creating an ascending scale of misery. It’s a great sentence that deserves attention.

A variation of this activity is a quote-and-comment assignment in which students copy out passages by hand that they find particularly meaningful and then comment on why they chose those passages. Copying a passage slows us down and creates an intimacy with the writer’s style—a feel for word choice and for how sentences are formed. At the end of a unit in which my students have done a great deal of reading, we celebrate by selecting passages we want to hold on to and reading them aloud to the class. It always interests me to see which passages the students select.

A Day to Reflect