The One and Only Ivan

November 4, 2013 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews | By

I absolutely loved this book. In my opinion, it belongs next to Charlotte’s Web on your bookshelf. Read it. Give it to any middle graders in your life. They will thank you.

Here’s my video review. Penny helped.


Oh yes, I have a free story sheet for 3rd through 5th graders here if you’re interested. It’s free. That’s why there are so many post-its on my book.

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Encourage At Risk Behavior

September 23, 2013 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews | By

Recently I ate dinner with e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, who is brave. I say that not simply because she wrote Fat Angie, but because she came to San Francisco to meet a bunch of writers she didn’t know for dinner. Over the Bay Bridge. At six p.m.

Clearly, she’s not from The Bay Area.

But yet, Eunice set up a dinner – over the internet – with strangers, and drove up from LA – from the morning commute – to meet us. We brought the food. She ate it.

Not only is she brave. She’s trusting.

This dinner was one stop on Eunice’s “At Risk” summer. Rather than do a typical sign-the-title-page book tour, she is touring the country, actually meeting and interacting with her readers. She is taking some serious risks.

Although, I don’t think that’s what she had in mind by the term “at – risk.” I believe she meant working with kids who are “at – risk.” But her summer has put her in some high risk situations: driving rental cars in Bay Area traffic, meeting strangers in private homes, eating surprise food, and above-all-else, telling the truth about herself, to anyone who will listen. She puts herself at risk everyday.

To me, that’s the beauty in Eunice and her work. Her bravery encourages us.

That evening, Eunice did two things to make me braver. First of all: she spoke up. She simply sat at the table with us and told us about herself. Even though we’d never met. That was risky. Maybe we would have a different opinion or attitude. But she made herself vulnerable immediately, easily and with a laugh. Several laughs, actually.

Her honesty enabled me to speak up.

The second thing she did to make me brave was she listened. She paid attention to each and every person at the table. Listening is risky because you might not like what you hear. Or you might change. Or you might feel you have to respond. Eunice did respond. She asked questions after every story.

Eunice’s book, Fat Angie, may be a powerful force, but I believe its because Eunice is so gentle. She knows people so well because she can interact with us honestly. She can risk a conversation, risk her time, risk a change, risk a bad dinner, a different opinion, or a wrong turn. And laugh.

I hope you read Fat Angie. It’s about a girl who takes risks. She’s hurt, bullied and ostracized. But, ultimately, Angie’s efforts pay off. Angie is brave because she puts herself at-risk again, even though she’s been hurt in the past.

The book is a quick read because the characters enter your heart quickly, as if they simply sat down at your table and started asking you questions.

If you are a high school teacher, I’ve got a story sheet for your students on narrative structure (part of the common core). It’s free to download. Help yourself.

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Bronco Riding

September 9, 2013 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews, libraries | By

I’m subbing in a high school library for a few weeks. Before I started this job, when I mentioned it to parents, they would ask me, “Do high school kids even read?”

That question, naturally, made me a bit defensive entering this library. I’m writing YA, ferchrist’s sake. They better read.

Once I arrived at this library I did, indeed, discover that what the teenagers check out most is: computers. But that’s OK. They’re doing their homework.

But hey, I’ve only got a few weeks at this substitute librarian thing. I want to succeed at my future dream career as a YA writer/real librarian. I need these kids to read. So I did the best thing I could think of: what motivates each and every teen to read.

I put together a book display.

At least I picked a subject they might like: Uncommon Couples. That will motivate them to read. Right? Aside from the obvious chick lit, werewolf and vampire stuff, I included Marley & Me, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Double Helix, that sort of thing.

Then I hid behind the circulation desk and watched to see if any of them picked up a book.

I didn’t witness it, but later in the day, I saw Anatomy of a Boyfriend, by Daria Snydowsky, on the coffee table next to someone’s knitting.

Sweet victory.

But she didn’t check the book out.

Partial victory.

From my spot behind the circulation desk, I saw another girl reading the same book the next period. But she, too, left the library without stopping at the circulation desk.

I wasn’t sure whether this counted as a win for me and books or not.

Then, during lunch, a co-ed group of teenagers had gathered around the coffee table. They were taking turns reading aloud to each other. Boisterous laughter ensued. This is a librarian’s dream, right? A library full of teens, sitting together, warmly conversing, laughing, sharing literature aloud, during their free time.

It is a substitute librarian’s nightmare.

What the hell book was that? It was not The Double Helix.

They were reading Daria Snadowsky’s Anatomy of a Boyfriend. That book was really getting around. Nancy (not her real name), the other librarian, and I quickly looked up reviews for the novel, which I had added to the display without reading.

Rookie librarian.

“Oh, poop,” I said – not exactly what I said – as both of our screens filled with impassioned accounts of the book. I explained to Nancy how I innocently did a subject search for “dating” and found this cute cover. Then I naively stuck the book next to Anthony and Cleopatra, which no one had yet cracked.

Once lunch was over, Nancy retrieved the book from the coffee table. She opened it to a page – 151 ­– and read this aloud, “You’ve got a long night of bronco riding ahead of you, cowgirl.”

I frowned. “I’ve really enjoyed working with you, Nancy. I hope you like the new sub tomorrow.”

Needless to say, I took the book home and read it myself. You can see my GoodReads review here: link to review

I liked the book, so I put it back in the display. It faced a different direction, so I hate to say this, but it hasn’t been picked up since. However, I am pleased to report that some romance manga, Franny and Zooey, and Gone with the Wind have all been checked out.

And, I’m sure that Anatomy of a Boyfriend is available on any e-reader. You can check those out, as the kids know, at the library. Hey, maybe that’s why they’re checking out so many computers.

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A Christmas Voodoo Story

November 15, 2012 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews | By

The holidays seem created to cause conflict. Families gather. Beliefs differ, but cannot be concealed. Time, resources, and patience are limited. It’s enough to tempt anyone to make a small, wax figurine of a powerful family figure, just to have it go along with the holiday plans.

That’s precisely what six-year-old Toad does in Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians by Mary Nash. And, who can blame the boy for trying voodoo? Miss Eva was planning to make eggplant and rutabaga for dinner. His beloved Mrs. Coverlet, who had just left for a national baking competition, would never feed him such outlandish vegetables.

I read this book at the recommendation of Deborah Underwood, author of The Christmas Quiet Book. She re-reads the book – a treasured one from her childhood – each Christmas, maybe not for the voodoo per se.

Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians deals with belief in many forms. The youngest brother believes in just about everything: the power of the magic kit he bought from the horror comic and Santa. Malcolm, the oldest brother, is more skeptical, not even believing that Mrs. Coverlet’s recipe could win a contest.

This clash of beliefs is a situation set for conflict, as are most family holidays. But, in Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians, the kids end up helping each other. Underwood says:

I respond to the love they all have for each other. The kids’ willingness to endure Miss Eva for the sake of Mrs. Coverlet’s big chance, Malcolm and Molly’s determination to have a normal Christmas for their little brother, and even Miss Dextrose-Chesapeake’s outrage at Mrs. Coverlet’s plight and her willingness to intervene–these things truly exemplify the Christmas spirit for me.

Of course, the Toad’s way of helping resembles voodoo. He makes a wax figurine of Miss Eva and puts it to bed. He uses a wand to find a Christmas tree and casts spells each night so that it will snow on Christmas.

These actions concern Malcolm – Underwood most identifies with him – and his “troublesome conscience.” Malcolm takes care of everything. He burns the horror comic they weren’t allowed to read, buys gifts for his brother and sister, and undoes the voodoo doll. Then Malcolm speaks to the Reverend, their neighbor, about what it all means. Underwood points out:

I adored that Reverend Forthright was perfectly willing to accept all the strange happenings as Christmas magic, and that he told Malcolm to enjoy the mystery of it all rather than fret about it.

Not many books deal so directly with a variety of beliefs and the doubts that naturally accompany belief. Malcolm’s confession to Reverend Forthright leads to clarity. Reverend Forthright says:

“I believe in magic at Christmas…the amount of good will which is set loose every year at this time is quite unaccountable. Take your spruce! I don’t care how the Toad found it! What good were his spells and his wand if Mr. Bouncer hadn’t let you keep it, even helped you home with it!…Let the Toad think he conjured up Christmas single-handed. You and I know how many people contributed.”

Malcolm’s fears are calmed and he can enjoy his little brother at the end of the book. Dialogue and conflict about faith and life can help readers discern their own beliefs. Despite their significant differences, the characters in Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians ultimately help each other. Underwood reflects on the theme of the book:

I did and still do believe in Christmas magic, although possibly more in the Reverend Forthright sense than in the magic-kit-ordered-from-horror-comic sense.

There are no wax figures in Underwood’s newest book, The Christmas Quiet Book. But there are characters overcoming some differences, and sticking together during tense holiday times. Perhaps that is the real Christmas voodoo.

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A September 11 Story

September 11, 2012 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews | By

I am lucky. My daughters were nowhere near New York, Washington D.C. or Shanksville on September 11, 2001. They were in Nursery School in California. Outside their school that morning, a sign was posted which read:

 Today something terrible has happened to our country. Please help us keep this tragedy outside our gates. This place is a refuge for our children to play. They want to learn. They cannot understand the events going on. Keep their routine the same, even as we all grieve the tremendous loss our country is suffering.

At some point in the afternoon my four-year-old asked what her Dad and I were talking about. We had begun to chat in the front seat of the car, oblivious to her attention. I struggled with how to explain the attacks. Should I ignore her question? What would exposing her to such darkness do?

Rather than distract her, I said, “Our country was attacked.”

She asked a lot of excellent questions. I remember saying, at some point, the attacks happened “because we are a free country.” That, although true in many ways, was an altogether unhelpful answer for a four-year-old. I thought speaking in generalities might lessen her fear. And I didn’t want either of us to imagine that much pain.

That night, as I wondered if we would ever board an airplane again, I followed our usual routine. My daughters and I got into bed and read books. Goodnight Gorilla, by Caldecott-Award winning author-illustrator Peggy Rathmann, was our favorite book at that time.

Gorilla wanted freedom. He wanted out of his cage. He wanted his friends free too. What we loved was Gorilla’s ingenuity – he snagged the keys – his persistence and joyful disobedience in pursuit of his goal. Ultimately, as we were, Gorilla was looking for comfort. He kept crawling into bed. My girls loved the page where the lights were turned out and all eyes (including ours) suddenly went wide when the Zookeepers wife finally saw everyone who was in bed.

For us, that night appeared like any other.

But September 11 changed us all, even those of us several times zones away. I couldn’t always keep them inside the Nursery School gates.

On our TVs, we saw tragedy in the sun setting behind the silhouettes of the fallen towers. We saw true beauty in all the stories that began to come out about the rescue workers, Flight 93, and all the families. We understood freedom, sacrifice, responsibility, safety and love of our countrymen in a new way. I knew I hadn’t translated that into four-year-old.

In the intervening time, however, Peggy Rathmann has. She wrote and illustrated The Day the Babies Crawled Away. In this book, the babies want freedom. They want to discover the miraculous butterflies that traverse their picnic.

Parents are eating pie and chatting, obliviously. The babies leave, following the butterflies. They want to learn and play. The busy parents don’t see. They probably can’t imagine – or don’t want to imagine – the things that are about to happen to their kids.

But a young boy, wearing a firefighter’s helmet, notices. He can imagine. Maybe he even worries. He follows the babies while they chase bees, frogs, crawl out on ledges, and practically fly. At the very least, the babies might get stung. For those of us ready to understand, we know the babies want to fly, but don’t see the risk.

Thankfully, the boy catches the babies, scrambles down a cliff, feeds them mashed blackberries, then fashions a sling out of diapers to get them home up the cliff. His ingenuity, his bravery, his imagination, his care and attention saved the babies.

I asked Peggy Rathmann, in 2007, about The Day the Babies Crawled Away. She said,

 “I’d been mulling the general idea of a heroic but tender young person leading a band of babies to safety but I didn’t begin writing and drawing until shortly after September 11, 2001. The hero wears a firefighter’s helmet in honor of the search and rescue workers who died that day.”

The illustrations in the book are silhouettes. All of the light comes from the setting sun. We only see the characters in relation to each other and to space and time. Once the boy finally returns to sleep in his mother’s arms, his home – and others – is lit from inside.

The Day the Babies Crawled Away faces those fears I hesitate to imagine. Children wander off to learn and play. Their lives can be at stake when they don’t know it. I can easily chat away, obviously, especially if there’s pie.

And my daughters are now teenagers. Thankfully, they pay attention and tend to follow wayward toddlers.



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