Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interactive Reading

Apple Print from
When we read with toddlers, it’s always an interactive experience. Trucks by Debbie Powell offers all sorts of possibilities for playful reading activities.

With its onomatopoeic sounds (“Brrm Brrm… Puff Puff… Crash Bang”), the text invites children to join in to make the juicy noises of the large vehicles as you read it aloud together. Take the book along as a guide on a visit to a construction site to see the trucks in person, and your child can identify each one by the sounds it makes.

And for a fun art project, your child can make apple prints that emulate the look of Debbie Powell’s artwork, which has the appearance of woodblock prints. Just cut an apple in half, set it in nontoxic paint, and press the apple half on paper or fabric to make a fun design. Lemon halves also work well.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Accumulating Wisdom

David Levithan
The narrator of Every Day by David Levithan, neither male nor female, simply called “A,” has literally lived the idea of “walking two moons in someone else’s moccasins.” Well, maybe not two moons, but 24 hours. And in those 24-hour snippets of someone else’s life—5,994 of them, by the time we meet A—the narrator has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what makes us human.

A is also in the unique position of altering the host’s life. A essentially tries to live the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm.” A tries, for that day, to live the host’s life as the host himself or herself would. A keeps an e-mail account that serves as a journal, and seems to have acceptance around this experience of 24-hour immersions in someone else’s life—until Rhiannon comes along. For the first time, A wants to make the effort—and it requires a great deal of effort, since A changes bodies every midnight—to form a lasting relationship with someone.

A’s musings range from wondering about the nature of dreams—as when A dreams of Rhiannon: “I wonder: If I started dreaming when I was in Justin’s body, did he continue the dream?”—to thoughts of what would happen if A’s host died while A occupied it (would A have died, too?). But the narrator also thinks about what the experiences of thousands of days have taught A about the human condition.

On day 6000, when A goes to church as Roger Wilson, A shares a powerful insight that begins with religion but extends to the experience of what it means to be mortal: “Religions have much, much more in common than they like to admit…. Everybody wants to belong to something bigger than themselves, and everybody wants company in doing that…. They want to touch the enormity….” A suggests that no matter what religion or gender or race or geographic background, “we all have about 98 percent in common with each other” and we humans like to focus on “the 2 percent that’s different, and most of the conflict in the world comes from that.” For A, “The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common.”

A makes us, as readers, the beneficiaries of the wisdom A has accumulated, day by day. We get to walk in other people’s moccasins together. We come away from Levithan's extraordinary novel asking ourselves what makes life meaningful, and how to be more active participants in our own lives. A reminds us that love "isn't the question... but it's not the answer either.... Love can't conquer anything. It can't do anything on its own. It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf."

Friday, September 14, 2012


Charles Dickens
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz felt like such a departure for the Newbery Medalist. When I got to interview her recently, I asked her how she arrived at this Gothic tale of puppetry, magic, mystery and obsession.

“Whenever I finish a book, I’m sure I’ll never write another,” Schlitz said. “So, I thought, ‘I should write from my obsessions. What do I love?’ The answer was Charles Dickens, and marionettes.” The author followed her obsessions, and she also created characters with obsessions of their own. Cassandra the witch can’t live with her fire opal, and can’t seem to live without it. Magician and puppeteer Grisini’s relationship with money and magic is much the same.

Schlitz’s obsession with Dickens comes through in more overt ways—the orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall (under Grisini’s guardianship), the London setting and the establishment of several characters’ plot lines that lead to a climactic intersection. But there are also more subtle connections to the Victorian writer. Schlitz visited Dickens’s house. She could picture him in his red waistcoat dashing up and down the stairs. “It’s an old staircase, so they have a decline in the middle of the tread,” she recalled. “People thought him vulgar because he wore a red waistcoat.”

Stairs factor into Splendors and Glooms when Grisini falls down the staircase of his boarding house, when Clara Wintermute’s father ascends the stairs of Grisini’s boarding house in search of his kidnapped daughter and meets Lizzie Rose, and the stairs in Cassandra’s house also play a key role for conversations overheard and narrow escapes. The scenes on the stairs often serve as transitions in the novel, resulting in a change of heart or luck (both good and bad, depending on which character you are) or a moment of insight.

The sense of obsession permeates the novel: Cassandra at her mirror, surrounded by images of former owners of the fire opal engulfed in flames, Mrs. Wintermute so consumed by grief at her other children’s death from cholera that she neglects Clara, and Grisini’s obsession with power gained through magic and money. And of course, the puppets. Cassandra, a puppet to her fire opal, Clara a puppet to her parents in a home filled with death masks and devoid of laughter, and Parsefall’s obsession with the marionettes, practicing and practicing in his desire to be as facile with the puppets as Grisini is.

Most importantly, Laura Amy Schlitz’s obsessions led to this compulsively readable novel. Which only goes to prove that following one’s obsession, or--perhaps more accurately--passion can lead to positive ends.

Friday, September 7, 2012


Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen, is a story about abundance. It’s about one person, Annabelle, a child living in a dreary city, who tries to cheer up a jeering peer by making him a sweater. That leads to another sweater and another sweater, all rainbow-colored, each brightening the gray, wintry city and lightening the mood of her neighbors.

It is a story of believing that one bright sweater given to someone else brings warmth, cheer and connection. In Jon Klassen’s illustrations, yarn connects one sweater wearer to the next—to people and dogs and even trees, whose trunks are now hugged by the heroine’s knitted yarn. Annabelle, in essence, knits together her community. An archduke tries to buy Annabelle’s limitless spool of yarn, but she won’t sell it. So he steals it. But her yarn comes back to her.

Marianne Challis
Last week, my voice teacher, Marianne Challis, died. It was sudden. She was 58. I worked with her for more than a decade. A truly great teacher, she taught us so much more than how to sing; she taught her students how to live, by her example. She was a gifted singer and performer, and she wanted that for her students, too. She believed in abundance. She shared not only her knowledge of the voice and the body and how they worked together to create sound, she also shared her wisdom around her life experiences. At her service, her dear friend and director, Scott Barnes, said something that we could take with us: “Right now, we are raw and in shock, but as the days go by, we’ll remember the joy she brought us.”

Extra Yarn came to mind. It’s about creating and giving something to someone else with no expectation of a reward, and how the world gets a little brighter because of it. It’s about taking an action when it seems like no action will make a difference. It’s about believing that we won’t run out of yarn if we make one more sweater. As we go into fall and the days grow a little shorter and a little colder, we can warm our world with that belief in abundance and a small act of kindness.