Tag Archive for Ralph Fletcher

RE-POST: An Interview with Thomas Newkirk, Author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

NOTE: I’ve been blogging at this site since May, 2008, which is like 120 in Blogger’s Years. My strong suspicion is that a lot of the oldies-but-goodies have not been seen by my current readership, so I decided to give this one a new airing. I still often think of Mr. Newkirk’s great book and insights. This was originally posted on March 6, 2011.

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow ReadingI posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book,Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.

What’s New in Books: Free Catalog Download

I can’t wait until I’m an old man sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, complaining about how the world’s gone plum crazy. That’s my default position: I’m naturally a cranky old man, even from when I was in diapers, my body just hasn’t caught up with my world view. Yet. The problem is that my essential attitude, “we’re all going to hell in a hand basket,” is so much more forgivable in an octogenarian with a bag of soggy Ritz crackers on his lap.

Anyway, the world is changing fast. Mac Kids — whoever or whatever they are, or that is (it’s so hard to keep track of publishers these days) — has come out with its Spring 2012 catalog in downloadable form. As I understand it, there’s no print version. It’s kind of sad, in some ways, since I hold a long affection for the object, but in other ways, very cool and democratic. Because you (yes, even mere you) can click right here and have access to the whole thing on your desktop.

There’s a bunch of cats available, but the one I’m referring to looks like this . . .

(I wonder, as an aside, if this new delivery system will be a case of reaching more people but less powerfully? I guess that’s the publishing question, measuring the trade off.)

Once you download the catalog, you’ll find that my hotly-awaited YA debut, BEFORE YOU GO, gets the two-page treatment, including a nifty little Q & A with the author. See pages 38-39. You’ll also get a first peak at new books by Philip C. Stead, Amy Schwartz, Lewis Buzbee, Rachel Vail, S.A. Bodeen, Kate Banks, Phillip Hoose, George Ella Lyon, Ralph Fletcher, Alexandra Day, and many more. Seriously, it’ll make your head spin. So many books, so much talent and creativity. It’s an honor to be a small part of it.

Here’s the Q & A:

What was your inspiration for the story? What scene came to you first?

I imagined a fatal car crash on a lonely road. I have sharp memories of driving around with my friends at that age, a little bit of Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” that feeling, the boredom and the rebellion. So the book starts with a quick, dramatic scene, then skips back six weeks into the past. Readers then meet the four teenage characters that were in the accident. The interesting thing is, that was my exact experience as a writer. I was like, Who are these kids? What’s their story? I had to write the book to find out.

People keep saying teen boys don’t read. True, in your opinion? Who is the perfect reader this novel?

A year before I began the book, the owner of a local bookstore made an offhand comment to me, “You should write a teen relationship story told from a boy’s point of view. Everything in YA these days centers on girls — there’s nothing realistic for boys,” she complained. So, yeah, after kicking it around for a while, I took up that challenge. I hope this is a story that will appeal to both boy and girl readers.

There’s a slight melancholy aspect to Jude. He suffered a loss in the past.

Yes, Jude is grappling with ghosts from some years before. A sister who drowned. In a way, this book’s arc is about our witnessing Jude open up again after he initially presented himself as somewhat shutdown, closed. Jude was half-asleep, and this is the summer of his awakening. For me, I’m the youngest of four brothers and two sisters. I’ve seen two of my brothers pass away, and I gave the eulogy for my father. When our family gathers now, it feels to me like a ship that’s listing to the side; we never sit in the water quite right; we’ll never be whole again. I think that’s how Jude feels, too.

In the story, Jude is a runner. Are you?

I slog, achy and complaining, Jude flies. I built up the running them during the first revision, it was there in the beginning and naturally grew into a larger metaphor, I guess. Jude’s father runs; so does Jude. But sometimes in life you’ve just got to spread your feet and take root. For Jude, that might mean going to the end of the earth — the ocean’s edge — and making a standing, and choosing life.

Lastly, I want to offer my open-armed welcome to all the debut authors and illustrators included here: Gina Rosati, Anna Banks, Emmy Laybourne, Mar’ce Merrell, Christine Tricarico, Ken Geist, Lynne Kelly, Jennifer Bosworth, Sarah Wylie, Leigh Bardugo, and anyone else I might have missed. What a thrill, what a great moment for you and your proud family. Congratulations. Enjoy it. Have fun. And don’t hesitate to shoot me an email if you have any questions, or comments, or whatever. But no, in advance, I have no idea how to read one of these small-print contracts. I just sign the damn things, cross my fingers, and hope they don’t take away my house. (Still missing that first born, a bit. He was kind of cute. But, Live & Learn — that’s what I say!)

I mean:

Good luck!

The Stack of Books on My Night Table: Summer Reading

Many of us have a big stack of books that we hope to read. Sometimes there’s a plan, often it’s a spur of the moment grab. Here’s some of the titles I currently hope to get to — soon, someday, maybe never.

STORY by Robert McKee — a book on the craft of writing, the dynamics of story.

PAUL IS UNDEAD by Alan Goldsher — the Beatles as flesh-eating zombies, naturally.

LEGENDARY SESSIONS: BOB DYLAN, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED by Colin Irwin — the great artists always make me want to know more; and alas, with so many of today’s celebrities, we just want to know less. Much, much less. Charlie Sheen, I’m looking at you (and I don’t want to).

CRUDDY by Lynda Barry — found this in a used bookstore. Lynda Barry is completely awesome, I revere her. A true artist.

THE UNNAMED by Joshua Ferris — I enjoyed his previous book, Then We Came to the End.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf — a classic that has slipped through the cracks. Okay, not cracks. The gaping holes in my education.

HOW TO WRITE YOUR LIFE STORY by Ralph Fletcher — I loved Boy Writers, and really respect this man and all that he works to achieve.

BEST NEW ZOMBIE TALES, VOL. 1 — a collection of stories, old and new, about zombies. I’m kind of maybe looking for inspiration here, ideas. No, I’m not writing a zombie book, exactly.

FREEDOM: A NOVEL by Jonathan Franzen — feels like a mandatory read, a divisive book that people seem to either love or hate. No idea in which camp I’ll be.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee — I just finished A Death in the Family and it blew me away. One of the best things I’ve read. Ever.

SLOB by Ellen Potter — this book just keeps coming up on lists, over and over again. At a certain point, I take that as a sign: Somebody’s trying to tell me something.

SUMMERTIME by J.M. Coetze — it’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Coetze, and this book fell into my hands. We’ll see.

WAR DANCES by Sherman Alexie — curious about this one, the rag-tag format, the voice, the awards.

POINT OMEGA by Don DeLillo — a great writer and a book I didn’t know about until I had it in my hands. I love, love, love a short book!

THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING by Carson McCullers — another used bookshop buy, a classic I haven’t read yet.

LIFE by Keith Richards — should be a lot of fun, waiting for the right moment. I asked for this for my birthday and . . . got it!

What birthday? The one that happened back on February 1st.

James Preller Interviews . . . Thomas Newkirk, author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow Reading. I posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

Readers, note: Please check out my other blog, FATHERS READ, for more on the subject of boys literacy. I’ll be away on school visits for most of the week.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book, Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.

JUSTIN FISHER: Recommended for the Read-Aloud Classroom

Though I published my first book in 1986, it wasn’t until recently that I experienced book reviews. Despite a crazy assortment of books, plus forty titles in the Jigsaw Jones series, the books were never, to my knowledge, reviewed.

That’s the paperback world. I began to think my name was James “Critically Ignored” Preller. The consoling factor was the books were being read by their intended audience, with titles like Hiccups for Elephant and Wake Me In Spring selling more than one million copies (thanks to the might of Scholastic Book Clubs). Beats a review any day. And yet, and yet. There’s something about the validation that comes from a positive, industry-sanctioned review. I think I longed for somebody to say, “Okay, he’s in the club!”

Things changed when I entered the hardcover world in 2008 with Six Innings. Suddenly my work was deemed review-worthy. The coach tapped me on the shoulder; I grabbed my helmet and raced in from the sidelines: I was a playa!  I’ll admit it: the world of reviews represents a confusing, seemingly arbitrary process. While I’m grateful to each reviewer who spends time with one of my books, I’m still afraid to read most of them. Some reviews are perfunctory at best, even when they say decent things about a book. Other reviews are canny and insightful. The whole process feels like a crapshoot. Who are these reviewers, anyway? These strangers who can fill my head with praise or cut me off at the knees (example: for the generally well-received Mighty Casey, a book-lover for Kirkus Reviews snarked: “As a writer of verse, Preller, author of Six Innings, makes an excellent prose novelist.”)

Freaking ouch. I’ll never rhyme again!

And then there are rare reviews that are just incredible, because of the source. That’s how I feel about this latest blog review by Franki Sibberson for Justin Fisher Declares War!

I first learned of Franki when I became a fan of her blog, A Year of Reading, which I discovered on the blogroll over at Literate Lives. I figured that Franki was just another fabulous Ohio-based teacher who loved books (they seem to grow like mushrooms out there). Later I noticed Franki’s name referenced in Ralph Fletcher’s most excellent book, Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices.

I did a little research and soon learned that Franki was an accomplished author herself, co-authoring Beyond Leveled Books (with Karen Szymusiak and Lisa Koch), Still Learning to Read (Karen Szymusiak), Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop (again with Karen Szymusiak), and more.

Clearly, Franki knows and cares about teaching reading in the elementary school. She’s invested and dedicated. As a former school teacher told me over lunch earlier this week, “teaching is an act of hope.” My guess is that Franki would nod her head at that comment.

So I’m honored by Franki’s review of Justin Fisher Declares War! A book that has not gotten much attention to date.

Click here to read the review in full — and then be sure to bookmark Franki’s site, because it’s an inspiration and an education. Here’s an excerpt from the review (I confess that it amounts to more than half of Franki’s review, because I didn’t have the heart to cut any good parts):

I am a huge James Preller fan but this may be my favorite from his list. Most of my teaching life has been in grades 3, 4, and 5. I feel very at home in 4th and 5th grade classrooms. I love the age and James Preller must also love this age. He really understands them and the struggles they deal with. Over the years, I have learned what a huge transition this age is for kids. They go from being little kids, to being big kids and it is sometimes a little confusing.

In this book, we learn that since 3rd grade, Justin Fisher has been the class clown. He is always up to something. He has good friends but in 5th grade, that seems to be changing. His friends and classmates have had enough and are starting to keep their distance. For me, this book is about figuring things out. Things that are cute and funny when you are 8, are no longer cute and funny when you are 11. This is a hard lesson for kids and finding their place in the world gets trickier. But Justin finds his way, thanks to an amazing young teacher (one that clearly deserves a spot on 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Lit!).

If I were in the classroom this year, this would probably be my first read aloud. The first read aloud has always been key and the choice is always a hard one but there are so man reasons that JUSTIN FISHER DECLARES WAR would make a great first read aloud.

<< snip >>

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Franki recently listed some recent raves for middle grade fiction — and I know I’ll be checking them out soon (if not reading every one, at least buying a few for my fourth-grade daughter, Maggie):

Out of My Mind by Susan Draper

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (already on my night table)

As Simple as It Seems by Sarah Weeks

Obviously, Franki really likes books with blue covers (goldfish and water optional).

And you know what else? She’s a huge James Preller fan!