Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Blanding's Turtle Story by Melissa Kim

My twin brother Matthew and I rescued frogs and turtles each summer in Castine Maine. "Stop the car," we'd screech if a small animal was hopping or crawling in the road. My mother would pull over dutifully while we carefully moved the small animal from the tar to the other side of the road. We learned quickly which turtles snapped, which frogs peed in our hands, and which snakes were harmless Garters. We mostly learned by experience, but occasionally we visited the library to learn more.

Melissa Kim has written a new board book called A Blanding's Turtle Story. I'm planning to give it to a friend whose young son is also a lover of small animals. Kim's storyline is simple and easy to follow. She answers the questions kids would typically have about a Blanding's Turtle. What does the turtle do all day? What places are safe for a turtle? When should a human move a turtle if found in the road or the woods? Jada Fitch's illustrations are beautiful. The colors are soft yellows and greens that beg a closer look to uncover details like polliwogs and sunlit spaces.

The lifecycle of the Blanding's Turtle is explained along with a cautionary tale for humans about caring for an animal and its environment. The message about humans is subtle, but provides a great place to start an environmental discussion early on with the generation who will need to care for our world as well. I highly recommend all three of Kim's Audubon books for the little one in your life or the parents of one.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Moo by Sharon Creech

I moved to Maine in 1982. I was a thirteen year old freshman in high school fresh out of a childhood in New York City. It sounds more exotic than it really was. The Maine I moved into wasn't so rustic. The town, Cape Elizabeth, is quite upwardly mobile––think Boston suburb. I remember distinctly the day my friends told me we were headed to the Fryeburg Fair. I had been to a few Maine county fairs over the summers I spent Downeast on the coast of Maine, so I knew what to expect. The 4H clubs mesmerized me. These kids who took such control of large livestock were amazing. They knew what they were doing. They were all pig whisperers and lamb crooners. These animals I knew nothing about in the real world were kept clean, safe and show-worthy by kids who looked to be no more than nine or ten years old. At sixteen or so, I felt too old to learn how but man did I want to join that club.

Wordsmith Sharon Creech has come out with the new middle grade novel, Moo. It is kind of a verse novel and kind of not. The sentences are short, the prose is tight, the meaning is big. The use of text is fantastic. There are lots of words that
drip off the page. The main character is a girl named Reena who has just moved from Boston to Maine with her younger brother Luke and their parents. Right from the get-go Creech moves us into the storyline where an unpredictable woman named Mrs. Falala (Fuh-la-la) enters the children's lives by demanding some respect. Their parents insist that they help this woman with her chores. The more they help, the deeper their relationship with her goes. Reena learns to communicate with Zora the Belted Galloway––a Oreo looking cow with black head and hind quarters and a wide strip of white through the middle. Luke teaches Mrs. Falala to draw. The two children also meet two other Maine kids who teach them how to show farm animals and how to appreciate the lay of the land instead of wonder what to do in a rural town. The beauty of Creech's writing is that it washes over you before you have a chance to process it. So sometimes, you have to go back and re-read the words because there is always more than one meaning to attend to.
On Siblings
And I felt lucky
that Luke was with me
that I wasn't wandering
this new town
                                                   On Learning
                                                   I can handle it, Zep. And even if I couldn't, I
                                                   wasn't going to admit it to him.
                                                   You'll have to work really hard to get Zora ready
                                                    and to learn what to do––
                                                    ––I can work hard––
                                                    ––and I'll help you.
                                                    My mouth flopped open like a thirsty dog.
When I finished this book, I opened it back up and read it to my children. They ooo'd and ahh'd at all the right places. We loved it like we loved Creech's The Boy on the Porch. It's a smart book, a book that shows she's done her research, and a book that speaks to the usually shushed voices of children and older adults. The book made me want to check out 4H for my own children and it made me want to find an older adult for them to get to know. it's so important this communing with animals and the older generations. We have so much to learn from both populations. This is a five star HOORAH for Sharon Creech.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Choosing a Hero

A hero is a noun meaning a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. The other night we had some people over for dinner. The wife said that when she was little she was able to state one or even two heroes in her life. I cocked my head and squinted my eyes, but I couldn't think of anyone. 

The thought did not leave my mind easily.

When I was single, my friend Lisa and I would go to bars and say, "if you HAD to go home with someone tonight, who would it be?" So I gave myself this ultimatum this week. If I HAD to choose a hero, who would it be?

I choose Tara Smith. She is quite possibly one of the most extraordinary teachers I have ever been lucky enough to call a friend. She is in a very special Voxer group with me so I get to learn more about her than many of you ever will. While I can't divulge too much because it isn't my story to tell, I want to share some reasons why Tara is my hero.

1. Personalized Learning She studies her students work each week so that she can figure out where each student needs to go in their studies. She isn't kidding. She doesn't just say, "Oh six of these kids need X, five need Y." She says, "Jared needs to think about how he writes X if he wants to be more persuasive. Bailey should be introduced to two books within the P genre because he needs to learn Z."  

2. Deep Concern She lies (lays?) in bed each night and thinks about some of her students, wondering if they will push through and grow up so they can be who they need to be in the world. She gets downright angry at the injustices of the world and is very happy to speak her mind regardless of the consequence. 

3. Tough History She gets that people come from difficult backgrounds and experiences, she did too. She doesn't let this define who she will be as a mother, a teacher, a wife, and a citizen of the world and she sure as hell isn't going to let you define yourself by your history either. She speaks the truth when she needs to so you can be your best self. When you hear what Tara thinks of your truth and of who you have declared yourself to be––you will cry and, you will believe her.

4. Education Rules She is a staunch proponent for the right to education. She is appalled by teachers who don't take their jobs seriously and knows that children have the right to know the truth about the world and figure things out for themselves as well. She taught Appomattox on the last day of school because (and I quote), "they have to know how it ends!"

On the day I emailed Tara to ask if she'd consider partnering with me in an online writing group, I was worried she was out of my league. When I heard her voice say yes and sound truly excited, I knew she was one of those rare birds who doesn't believe she is out of anyone's league. We're in this together she exudes with every word she writes and every breath she takes...and I believe her.

Tara Smith is my hero.
Follow her on social media and read her blog. You have much to learn and in exchange, you'll get to hear that she thinks you have much to teach her as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A LOT of Weight

As I walk into the room, you might want to avert your eyes. It's painful to watch, I imagine.

I've gained a lot of weight. A lot. Let's not quibble about numbers and what a lot means, okay? My weight is the bane of my existence. It is completely reflective of where I am in the moments of my life and that irritates me. I should just invent forehead banners for people: TOO MUCH STRESS or CHOSE FAMILY-CARE OVER SELF-CARE or NOT SURE HOW TO DEAL WITH FAMILY ISSUES.

I eat to make myself feel good but clearly I've overdone it. My stomach is resting on the tops of my thighs when I sit. It is not attractive and it feels terrible. My body is stressed from it as well. My creaking joints and achy muscles must carry around A LOT (no numbers please) of weight these days and I've got a lot to do.

I used to watch people who were really overweight and think, at what point is enough enough? I think I'm there. This is going to be my summer. My summer to learn how to be moderate. To jog two miles three times a day instead of setting race goals that scare me and stop me from doing any exercise. To eat healthy, well-balanced meals with an occasional oatmeal raisin cookie without thinking I don't deserve anything after gorging for a year. To treat me as I would my darling children whom I would never ridicule for eating their way through a year. I would suggest healthy eating, regular exercise, and a journal for getting it out instead of eating through it.

Happy Healthy Summer.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Turning 9

Do you ever think about the childhood your children are having? I do.

I wonder if they'll remember me as someone who yelled at them a lot. I kind of do.

I know that the majority of our life is spent doing happy things that make all of us have a better life.

Like last night, for instance. We'd had a late dinner of cold turkey breast, watermelon, and homemade bread. We were sitting in the kitchen arguing over what time they had to go to bed because


I had no idea that EVERYONE else in our town goes to bed at 8:30. I don't care.

When suddenly Annie got the idea that since it was her last day being 8, we should break out some sparklers which her father had purchased at the grocery store the day before. Though it wasn't on the list.

It's good to be 8. It's going to be great to be 9. I can already tell.

Happy birthday to my 9 year old Annie.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

From FB to ICL

Recently I wrote something on one of my private FB writing groups that caused an outcry of anger. Honestly I didn't mean it as a political statement and when so many people got angry I was genuinely surprised. My statement was something along the lines of "I don't come to this group to talk about gender or race, I come here to get ideas for writing." During the insanity of anger over this statement, I felt sick to my stomach. I was sad. I felt misunderstood. I am usually a fighter. I will argue with anyone. My weapon of choice is words and I use them pretty well. Lately though, I'm working to stand back and think before jumping in. In the end I never replied to anyone, then I deleted my original post and left the FB group.

Without the time suck of FB--I focused my time on the thing that really matters to me--my writing for children. I've signed up to take a course at the Institute of Children's Literature. I learned about the school many years ago and always wondered about it. I found out that Katie Davis bought the school with her husband and I'm a huge admirer of her work. Check out her new TEDx talk about procrastination. I originally signed up for this course because I wanted someone to give me deadlines around my children's book writing. I was willing to pay for that because I had stopped making appointments with myself to write. The first assignment in this course was fantastic. I started thinking about my career as a writer for children. I didn't realize that a course which is practical can help you feel like a writer. I've uncovered some ideas and thinking about my writing that I never knew I had.  The resources I received prior to the course are fantastic: from the "2016 Book Markets for Children's Writers" to the "From Inspiration to Publication". I have a kind of purpose I've never had before. I can't recommend this course enough. There are ten lessons and, though some people complete the course in a full year. I am planning to complete it over the summer. I was assigned an instructor who works with me one-on-one. It means I have a writing instructor, editor, and critic personally available.

What does this have to do with my opening paragraph? I stopped being impulsive especially around things that don't matter at all, like FaceBook, and I started being more participatory in the trajectory of my life. I always thought if I didn't jump in right then and there, I would disappear, but this isn't true. I am right here as I've always been, but now I'm doing the work I want to be doing instead of being distracted.

My plan?

  • Write everyday for two hours
  • Take FaceBook off my phone
  • Read three children's books a week
  • Subscribe to several children's magazines
  • Engage in my ICL course every day

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Teaching Life

My friend Tara took last weekend to clear her head. She spent time on her farm doing hard outdoor work. She said she needed it. For teachers this time of year is straight out exhausting. There's the weight of the closing year, the need for final grades, the wondering if we've done enough for the group of children we've come to love. I, for one, am completely exhausted. It's been a rough year for me. My new job as a gifted and talented teacher has few boundaries, but lots of public commentary.

I miss the classroom. I've been writing a lot and am loving it, but more and more I want to write children's books and for children's magazines. I took a detour into writing for adults and making more money than I've ever made, it was exhilarating. I told my Voxer writing group that I felt like I had to leave teaching, but then something changed yesterday. I met with my writing group of girls. They told me they wanted to tell me some things. They told me that they have loved being with me this year.
They said I gave them voice, I let them talk.
They said I gave them choice, I let them decide to work on memoir all year.
They said I made them work, but it felt like passion.

I fell back in love with teaching.

I guess I needed to clear my head. I wish I had a farm to do hard outdoor work. I needed it. For me, this year has been exhausting. But when I stand back and look at the children I've built relationships with, I know I'd do it all over again.