Tag Archives: parents

Back to School

26 Jul

It’s almost back to school time here in my little piece of the midwest. It’s a time simultaneously dreaded and celebrated by teachers, students, and parents. The end of July marks the start of back-to-school sales, the last days of summer vacation, and the final hours of personal freedom. Although I’ve been retired for three short years now, my teacher’s soul still aches for the beginning of a new school year.

For me, July is a time when I really start to value the gift that is summer vacation. The minutes of extra sleep in the morning, the carefree hours of dilly-dally, the days and weeks of unfettered sojourn. One of the most precious gifts of summer vacation has always been the endless supply of library books and hours upon hours of relaxed reading enjoyment. I never understood people who didn’t love reading. As an educator, I studied this alien phenomena. Why did so many children hate reading? Why did they avoid reading? Why did they find it so laborious?  Kids are not born hating reading. As a matter of fact, I’ve never met a kid who didn’t enjoy sitting on someone’s lap and listening to a story. Even as they got older, toddlers and preschoolers still enjoy hearing a story from the criss-cross position on the floor, so it’s not just the human touch of the lap which makes reading enjoyable. Actually most kids don’t start disliking reading until school-age. Which begs the reason so many kids dread the beginning of another school year. Do they equate school with achievement in reading, writing, math, or failure, embarrassment, and boredom? I made reading success my mission. What could I do to foster a love of reading in every child I met? How could I make reading an enjoyable activity? How could I turn reluctant readers into successful readers?

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So, contrary to popular beliefs, I and countless other teachers across America spent July and August preparing for the next school year. Before the first #2 pencils hit the sales rack, I attended classes and workshops dedicated to helping me be a better teacher. Prior to the last days of vacation, I spent days researching new titles and finding just the right books for my students. In lieu of the last hours of personal freedom, I scoured thrift shops and discount stores for things to make our reading time special. Because for me, nothing was more important than helping students find their own joy and self-worth in a book. And although I won’t be joining you in another adventure this school year, I will always value and respect the passion and dedication of teachers everywhere.

Tradition holds the back to school time as a season in and of itself. The end of July marks the beginning of a clean slate for a new year, the hopefulness of new or renewed friendships, the promise of fresh ideas and discoveries, and the anticipation of a precious gift. Wishing all my young and young-at-heart friends the gift of a wonderful school year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015 Books Alive!

31 Dec

unnamedYay! I did it!

I promised myself this year that I would read as many new picture books as I could. I got my recommendations from friends and from my library, thank you Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County! Every week I would look at my library’s website and find the new releases and put them on hold for me to read. Today is the last day of 2015 and I have reviewed 360 picture books on my BOOKS ALIVE page! I actually read many more, but these are the one that made the cut for my page.

I quickly realized there were going to be more books than I could possibly read in one year, so I set a few parameters for myself.

First of all, I read almost exclusively fiction because this is what I write. Although I couldn’t pass up a few non-fictions recommended by friends, these are very few of the total number of books read.

Secondly, I only reviewed the ones I could honestly give 3, 4, or 5 stars to. If I didn’t want to reread a story or buy it for my grandchildren, I didn’t review it.

Thirdly, I steered away from commercial characters. Even though I love Winnie-the-Pooh, Curious George, and the Disney franchise, I had to limit my reading and this was one way to do it. I love a good series as much as the next person, but I was really looking for what I could learn from the stand alone picture book to inform my own writing.

Lastly, I stuck to traditionally published books because this is the route I would like to take myself and part of my quest included learning about what sells. So basically, if I couldn’t get my hands on it in my library system I didn’t read it. Although, I have put in purchase requests online for books that were getting a lot of media attention and which were not in my public library.

In total I reviewed… 360 picture books in Books Alive! This does not include the books I read and did not review. It also does not include the books I read that were not published in 2015. Sometimes I would find an author I liked and went back and read more of their work.

Top 10 Things I Learned About Writing Kid Lit from BOOKS ALIVE!

1. There are no hard and fast rules! Yes, publishers are buying and selling rhyming text… good rhyming text. Yes, publishers are buying and selling ‘quiet’ books.

2. Diversity matters! Even though the We Need Diverse Books movement started last year, I found that there was more diversity in children’s books than I first realized. These books were written and acquired several years before they were published and therefore were in the works before the movement started. I think this issue has been n the forefront of publishers’ minds for longer than we realized. These titles include gender diversity, racial diversity, cultural diversity and diversity in the authors and illustrators who produce these books. And, yes we still have a long way to go… so let’s get busy!

3. Animal characters still make up the core of picture books. I think children relate well to animal characters and as adults, authors are more apt to tell a ‘difficult’ story one step away from a child protagonist. Also, in going back to the diversity issue, any child can identify with an animal since there is no obvious human trait of gender, race, or culture that makes them different from the reader. Readers can then see themselves as friendly, helpful, brave, adventurous, frightened, etc instead of different from the kid in the book based on physical appearances.

4. Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. And not everyone can see past their own. Just because someone else did not like a particular book, does not mean that you will dislike it as well. Some of my favorite books are the ones that were overlooked by the media. Conversely, not all the hype about a book coincides with your own opinion. As a matter of fact, I try to generally be positive in my reviews of a book and stay away from those I don’t care for. There are some books out there that you may hate, but remember someone liked it enough to publish it. And you may read a book I have reviewed and think I was crazy to give it 5 stars… again that’s just my opinion. In the same way, agents, editors, and publishers have opinions. There are things they like and things they don’t care for. Just because your work gets a pass from one of these people, does not mean that your work is no good… it’s just not their cup of tea. Try someone else. Research who you submit to so that you can increase the likelihood that they will want your story.

5. Not all wordless picture books are written by the same author/illustrator. It must be difficult to get your idea across to an agent, editor, publisher, or illustrator if you want to tell a story through pictures exclusively or almost exclusively and you are not the artist. But I have seen it successfully accomplished time and time again. So take your vision and go with it!

6. There were no books (that I found) beginning with the letter X. That may or may not mean something to a writer out there, but I just thought it was interesting. I might consciously try to write something with an X as the first letter… Xavier’s Puppy? X-Ray Vision? X Marks the Spot? Hey, I kinda like that one… dibs on X Marks the Spot!

7. Speaking of titles. I can’t tell you how many books I read with the same or almost the exact same title as another picture book. After reading, I would go to Goodreads to record my books read (Which by the way, if you don’t add the date finished, Goodreads will not count it as a book read this year! Guess when I found this out? Last week, when people started posting how many books they read this year and went to look up mine and I had two, TWO. Aiye!). Anyway… while searching for the book by title I would often find more than one with a similar title. Usually this occurred within a few years of each other. But sometimes within the same year, but with different publishing houses. So just because there is already a book out there like yours don’t give up, it might be exactly what someone else is looking for.

8. Along the same lines, there are hundreds of books with similar themes… friendship, loneliness, fears, lost items, first day of school, bullies, etc. But those that are getting published are new, different, exciting! So what if there are a lot of monster books? Make sure yours is unique… a monster story that only you can tell! Sometimes I’d pick up ‘another bear book’ with dread, and then WOWZERS the author would knock my socks off with the clever jokes, the deep meaning, or the lovely illustrations. And I’d have to remember, THIS is what the publishers want!

9. Whenever I reviewed a story, I did my best to connect in some way with the author and/or illustrator. I liked their page on Facebook, I sent a friend request, connected on Twitter, looked up their blog. This personal connection gives you another layer of rapport. I found that kid lit people are extremely friendly! They enjoy hearing from fans, they appreciate good reviews of their work on Goodreads, Amazon, and blogs. Many become instant friends, others merely acquaintances. Each connection is another chance to learn from someone who has already made it in the business. Take advantage of personal relationships, these people are your allies in the writing field!

10. And speaking of making connections… meet as many pros as you can. I love nothing more than to find a great new book and have it signed by the author. Some of the books I reviewed here are a direct result of meeting the author and or illustrator at a workshop or signing event. SCBWI events, Books by the Banks in Cincinnati, and writing workshops are great places to meet the pros. Nothing beats personal connections. I have found them to be wonderful people. They are open, honest, kind, generous, and insightful! This includes the booksellers, librarians, and teachers in your area. Luckily for me, I do know a lot of teachers. For awhile I knew more teachers than an other profession. Now that I’m retired, we still get together for lunch or coffee. It’s important as a writer to remember your audience, parents, teachers, and kids are top on the list! When you check out as many books as I have in the last two years, the librarians get to know you. When you attend book signings, booksellers begin to recognize you. These people can steer you in the right direction when you’re looking for something specific and will be important contacts to have when you are published and ready to go out in public for the first time.

Bonus… give them something, make their life easier, make them remember you. The most important things I did for my readers had nothing to do with my writing journey. The notes I took for myself, were not recorded on my blog, those I keep in my journals. What I did for the readers was simply to give the a quick overview of the story, yes spoilers and all, so they could first see if this was one that met their needs. And then I gave them a few ideas they could use with their children to extend their reading. So whether a parent, grandparent, teacher, or daycare worker, needed a book and an activity to go with it, I tried to give them something they could use. Pinterest became my best friend this year! It takes time to find arts and crafts or easy recipes that are age appropriate without duplicating them too often. But I hope these little things make someone else’s life easier. Many times parents and teachers are too frazzled at the end of the day to think of one more thing. I hope they will come back to my blog once in a while and type in a key word to search for a just-right book and activity for the next day.

Now, off to rest for one whole day before 2016 begins with all its new resolutions! See you on the other side!

 

Too Much Glue

18 Aug

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Too Much Glue written by Jason Lefebvre and illustrated by Zac Retz (2013)

Matty is a creative genius when it comes to glue. He and his dad love to make glue creations at home, with mom’s approval of course. But at school, his teacher warns about using too much glue. In class Matty decides to make the biggest glue puddle ever and lay in it. He gets yarn, plastic bricks, goggly eyes, and colorful paper stuck to himself. The problem is that he can’t get up, he’s stuck to the worktable! The more his friends try to release him, the more decorations he gets stuck to himself. Neither the teacher nor the principal can unstick him. Finally, his dad comes in and saves the day. Dad pries him off the table and congratulates him on making a masterpiece. Dad takes him home and unpeels the glue from his body and re-glues it together in the kitchen. They take a magnet and stick it on the back of the Matty-shaped masterpiece and hang it on the refrigerator. Taking the principal’s suggestion seriously, Matty and his parents experiment with tape after dinner… oh no!

Jason Lefebvre has written his first picture book and glue masterpiece. Although I wonder if he has ever been an art teacher, I bet he was once a kid like Matty! His creativity and over-the-top antics make a hilarious picture book. It’s certainly a story that will ‘stick with you’… ba da dum!

Zac Retz captures the spirit of Matty and glue-lovers everywhere. The illustrations are so real, you might be afraid to touch the pages for fear of sticking everything together into one globby glue mess.

I love this story, but I would hide the glue bottles from anyone who has read it! What a crazy, hysterical, post-reading disaster this could be! Share at your own risk!(Did I emphasize this enough with unnecessary exclamation marks?)

Thank You, Santa

26 Dec

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This is one of my favorite after-Christmas storybooks!  It is almost 10 years old now, but just as relevant as it was when it was first published.  I used to read it every year in my classroom when we returned from our winter break.

A little background for you…Before the kids left in December, I sent home a note saying they were allowed to bring one item to school in January that they could share with the class.  And I talked about it with them ahead of time.  They understood that meant only one item, that said item must be something they received over the holidays, that we were going to talk about our items during the morning meeting (which meant morning meeting was going to go on, and on, and on that day… oh well, if you can’t beat them join them), and that it should not be the most expensive item they had received because we were going to share these items in the group.  This was actually a pretty popular homework assignment, and we hardly ever had anyone who forgot to bring something.  On occasion, some poor child did forget, but they still got a chance to talk to the group about their favorite gift.

So, now we’re all up to speed… On the first day back, the kids were exploding with excitement and I was prepared!  We sat in a circle, read the morning message from me welcoming them back for the new year and describing a special item I had received that year.  I would share my item, usually a book or scarf or new ornament for the tree.  Then I would tell them who gave it to me and why I liked it so much.  Then it was their turn.  Every child told us about a special gift they had brought to class. We would pass it around the circle and the child would talk about who gave it to them and why it was special.  There were lots of gifts from Santa, mom & dad, grandparents, etc.  Seriously, this took ALL morning!

After lunch, I read Thank You, Santa by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Kerry Argent.  This book was published in 1994 and is simply one of the best books I have read to introduce students to letter writing.  The illustrations are gorgeous and the kids are mesmerized by the story.  In this story Santa and a little girl, Samantha, exchange letters every month for a year, so there are a total of 12 letters written in two hands spanning two pages each.  Starting in January, Samantha writes a thank you letter to Santa for the gifts she received.  He is so thrilled to actually get a letter in January, that he writes her a letter in February.  They continue back and forth writing letters each month for the whole year.  Another wonderful element of the story is that Samantha lives in Australia so her seasons are the opposite of those in the northern hemisphere, giving us another layer to enjoy in this story.  Santa teaches her about the animals living near the north pole and she is worried about Santa’s littlest reindeer at the North Pole and the polar bear living in the zoo in Australia.  Many of the letters are part of gift packages that Santa and Samantha send to each other throughout the year as well.  Her last letter to Santa is her wish for snow for the polar bear at her zoo (in her December summer).  The final illustration shows us how Santa grants her Christmas wish.

Of course in the classroom, we talk a bit about the 12 months of the year.  But the biggest lesson I prepared is letter writing.  We spend another good portion of the day introducing letter writing – the reasons to write a letter and the five parts of a friendly letter.  Before the students go home for the day, they draw a picture of the gift they shared with the class and make a very quick word web surrounding the picture including the name of the person who gave them the gift and some important information about the gift.

All of the gifts go home at the end of the day with another note from me asking parents to send me the complete name and mailing address of the gift giver.  We spend the rest of the week writing our thank you notes and envelopes.  At the end of the week, I send these home to parents with instructions to read their child’s letters and to please add the stamp to the envelope.  Some children have informed me that their parents also sent a photo of them playing with the gifts to the gift givers.

I hope you get a chance to read and enjoy this fabulous book!

On a note of full disclosure…. in my last few years of teaching, I had a scripted reading program which left me no time during reading class to be creative.  However, and I’m sure some of you have already figured this out, I started using only our writing time and used this book to introduce the concept. The point is, if it is something you love, you make time to do it!  I used great books to introduce writing, science, social studies, and even math concepts.  You can too!

If you like this post, don’t forget to comment and please share it with your friends!

Me and Mom

8 Oct

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This is a picture of me with my mother taken last May on Mother’s Day.  Many people have said that I look a lot like her.  I never really saw that, but in recent years I can see more and more of the similarity.  Sometimes I look in the mirror and am startled to see my mother looking back at me!

Notice how we’re both squinting into the camera?  That’s a bad habit we both have when we’re smiling.  Since this picture was taken, my mother’s vision had begun to deteriorate.  Although she didn’t know it at the time, she’d been developing cataracts in both eyes.  She found out this summer when she went to renew her driver’s license.  So we spent the better part of the summer having them removed.  I’d like to say that I was a perfect daughter throughout the whole process, but I must admit it was more than a little frustrating.  First of all, what genius decided that eye drops for cataracts should come in little tiny bottles with even tinier written instructions???  For goodness sake, the woman can’t see!  And to make matters worse, there was not one but three different eye drops to take in differing amounts and for differing lengths of time.  There was a full page sheet of ovals for her to fill in each time she took one of these drops.  So I did what any good teacher would do, I made the necessary accommodations and labeled three large ziplock baggies with the name of the drop and when is should be taken.  Then I cut her sheet into strips so that she only had to deal with one week at a time, because of course the directions for each drop changed each of the four weeks that it was administered!  And then we repeated the whole process for the second surgery.   Throughout all this process, she can’t drive…. so who gets to do all the shopping, library runs, post office delivery, banking, etc…. you guessed it!

Ah well, the good news is that now mom has almost perfect vision in both eyes and her driver’s license.   I still have my sanity and my mother… life’s good!

So here’s to all you children out there who are doing your best to help their parents, friends, and neighbors…. Keep up the good work, they appreciate it!

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